In many ways I find the subject of today’s post among the most difficult to talk about as, to me, it is akin to asking whether Jesus looked people in the eye when he spoke to them (or whether he looked down at his feet instead). Neither is mentioned in the Bible, yet both seem equally self-evident to me. I have yet to meet a loving, kind, compassionate person whom I haven’t also seen and heard laughing. So why is it that I am even writing about this topic?
The most immediate reason is a message I received from my bestie ML a couple of days ago, in which he shares a frustration that I too have had for years: the tendency of some to make a science out of distinguishing between joy and “mere fun,” branding one as a deplorable, shallow waste of time while extolling the other as a good, clean, Christian virtue. The point here isn’t that no distinctions ought to be made between varieties of enjoyment (the joy of mutual love, of a joke shared among friends, of delighting in success not being consubstantial with sadism or schadenfreude), but that such an enterprise bears the great risk of draining the joy out of Christian life through a process of abstract analysis and categorization that leaves one dour and cold.
In fact, the above thoughts were triggered by one of Pope Francis’ homilies from last week, where he says:
“A Christian is a man and a woman of joy. Jesus teaches us this, the Church teaches us this, in a special way in this liturgical time. What is this joy? Is it having fun? No: it is not the same. Fun is good, eh? Having fun is good. But joy is more, it is something else. […] Fun, if we want to have fun all the time, in the end becomes shallow, superficial, and also leads us to that state where we lack Christian wisdom. […] Joy is another thing. Joy is a gift from God. It fills us from within. It is like an anointing of the Spirit. [… On the other hand, s]ometimes melancholy Christian faces have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.”Clearly Francis distinguishes between fun that becomes shallow and joy that “fills us from within,” but he also warns against the lifelessness that follows from an absence of joy and that this is not Christian.
Having read and re-read Francis’ sermon many times over the last days, I am coming to the conclusion that the distinction ought not to be between fun and joy but between fun that leads to or subsists in joy and fun that does not and that leads to resentment, frustration and disappointment. In fact, Francis himself says that “Having fun is good[, b]ut joy is more” and I believe that this leads to a reading not of dichotomy but of set relationships, where fun and joy overlap. I’d like to go a step further though and argue that if joy is sought on the back of avoiding fun then only the latter is likely to be be achieved. Fun is a context in which relationships are built and avoiding it or looking down on it will eventually cut a person off from their neighbors - precisely the neighbors Jesus asks me to love like myself.
If I just look at my best friends, I can say with confidence that the moments that have lead to the birth of friendship have been ones of fun and joy - of delighting in each other, of recognizing oneself in the other, of having fun being together. This is not all that friendship is and moments of difficulty and suffering certainly test and strengthen it, but ultimately, as John Paul II said: “We are an Easter people.” Being an “Easter people” means both understanding the fundamental value that suffering has and realizing that its embracing is not for its own sake but as a means that leads to the joy of the resurrection.
But where does the question about whether Jesus laughed fit into this picture? It comes precisely from concerns about fun: should it be discredited or seen as a potential contributor to love and joy. At least up until the middle ages, many viewed laughter with deep-seated suspicion, but there were also those, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote the “Morias Enkomion” (“In Praise of Folly”) to his friend, St. Thomas More, who were its proponents. I don’t mean to mount an extensive defense of Jesus’ having laughed here - it is not something I believe is necessary and if you are convinced he never laughed, then Billy Graham would tell you: “I feel sorry for [you], because a balanced sense of humor can save us from taking ourselves too seriously, and help us see through the pride and pretense of our sinful world.” If, however, you’d like to see such a defense of laughter, others have done so very well already and I’d just pick out two: first, there are the very interesting scriptural pointers by the Protestant Rev. Kuiper and second, the great defense of humour by the Jesuit Fr. Martin, both of which I very much recommend.
To conclude on a fun note, let me leave you with a couple of examples of humor and laughter from the bible and the sayings of the saints (who are always a great weather vane for orthopraxy):
- St. Sarah (yes, “Old Testament” figures are held up as saints in the Catholic Church), who is the patron saint of laughter, laughed when God told her she’d get pregnant in her nineties: “God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me.” (Genesis 21:6). Not only did Sarah laugh, but her son was named Isaac, which means “He laughed.”
- Jesus, during the “Sermon on the Plain” says: “Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:21).
- Jesus often employs humor (which does not preclude him making important points at the same time) - e.g., as in the “eye of the needle” image: “[I]t is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24).
- I have previously argued that the opening line of the Johannine prologue has the structure of a joke.
- When St. Thomas More is about to be executed for disobeying Henry VIII, he pulls his beard off the chopping block and tells the executioner: “This hath not offended the king.”
- In instructions to fellow nuns, St. Teresa of Ávila said: “What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others.”
- When asked by a journalist “How many people work in the Vatican?,” Blessed Pope John XXIII replied: “About half.”