In the 17th Century, a tradition began in certain churches: the Risus Paschalis (stick with me – this message won’t be all about esoteric church history – I promise!). Risus Paschalis means Easter Laughter, and the tradition is that every Easter sermon has to include a joke so that the Church at Easter would reverberate with her people’s joy. That’s a lot of pressure on the preacher! Often the jokes I think are hilarious fall flat, while spontaneous, off-the-cuff remarks receive unanticipated guffaws. And as I journey further into middle age, and my appreciation of dad jokes increase, I am not winning any awards with the denizens of comedy (at least according to my children).
We may think of a life with God as a very serious endeavor, by laughter plays its part. Sarah laughs when, at a very old age, she learns that she and Abraham will be blessed with a child. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” And Jesus preached in Luke, “blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
But the real root of the Risus Paschalis is the notion among theologians that, when Jesus defeated death on Easter, he laughed in the face of the devil. Satan thought he tricked God by killing his beloved Son, but the joke was actually on him, and hell was vanquished on this great Easter day. St. John Chrysostom said it best,
“[Jesus] destroyed Hades when he descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said, You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar because it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
In other words, Jesus looked death in the eye and said, to paraphrase Nelson Muntz of the Simpsons, “HA HA!”
This Easter, in the midst of our great and grand celebrations, as we are awed once again at the stone being rolled away, and as we contemplate how the Resurrection changes our own lives and the life of the universe, tell a joke. Make someone laugh. Revel in a rude noise. Seek exuberant joy. So much of what we know is ensnared by fear and brokenness. But the Risen Christ lifts up what is broken, and declares, “I’m not broken. The forces that try to break God’s people and God’s creation, they are broken. We are whole.” Or, to quote the Simpsons once again, “I know you are but what am I?”
May your Easter Laughter be uproarious, and reverberate with the joy of Christ.