To understand humor in the Christian spiritual tradition, it may be helpful to return to the very beginning of that tradition.
Did Jesus Laugh?
While the Gospels show Jesus as clever, especially in his telling of the parables, few places in the New Testament present him as humorous. Some scholars suggest that this reflects the predominant Jewish culture, which prized seriousness about God, a topic not to be taken lightly. Yet if the Evangelists were intent on painting an appealing portrait of Jesus, why omit his sense of humor?
Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar at Vanderbilt University, and author of a new book on the Jewish roots of Jesus, The Misunderstood Jew, notes that one difficulty with the topic is that what was considered humorous by people in first-century Palestine might not strike us as funny. For them, the setup was funnier. The parables were amusing in their exaggeration or hyperbole, she said recently. The idea that a mustard seed would have sprouted into a big bush that birds would build their nests in would be humorous.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., professor of New Testament at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, agreed. Humor is very culture-bound, he said. The Gospels have a lot of stories about controversy and honor-shame situations. I suspect that the early readers found these stories hilarious, whereas we, in a very different social setting, miss the point entirely.
There is no way of knowing how much of Jesus’ humor was expunged from or left out of the Gospels. But Professor Levine noted that Jesus laughs frequently in some noncanonical Gospels. The church fathers, moreover, intent on combating heresy, would likely not have seen the genre of humor as appropriate.
When asked about humor in the contemporary church, Professor Levine said: It’s undervalued and needs to be recovered. We need to be open to the joys of the proclamation. The good news should put a smile on our face!
In his book Man at Play, published in 1972, Hugo Rahner, S.J., carefully traced the notion of playfulness throughout Greek, Roman and early Christian thought. Rahner noted that while Aristotle encouraged a healthy balance between humor and seriousness, some early Christian writers favored a far more serious approach to life, as they were concerned with facing the dangers of the world and the evils of Satan. St. Paul warned in the Letter to the Ephesians to avoid smartness in talk. St. Clement of Alexandria inveighed against humorous and unbecoming words. And St. Ambrose said, Joking should be avoided even in small talk. St. Augustine, on the other hand, recommended occasional joking, and St. Thomas Aquinas recommended play, opining that there is a virtue in playfulness, since it leads to relaxation.
Father Rahner recognized the need for lightheartedness in the church. In the last chapter of his book, he wrote, Not everything in our civilization is in the hands of the devil, and thundering from the pulpit is not always in place.
Just a few years earlier, Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian, tackled the topic in his book The Humor of Christ (1964). His analysis of the paucity of humor in the New Testament took a different tack. First, contemporary Christians are overly familiar with the stories and may overlook their inherent humor. He recounted how his four-year-old son heard the Gospel image of the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye and the log in your own and laughed uproariously.
Trueblood also noted the emphasis the Gospels place on the Passion, with the crucifixion narratives almost overwhelming the Resurrection. Finally, writes Trueblood, there may be a failure of imagination about Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that Jesus wept does not mean he never laughed. He must have laughed, suggests Trueblood, as do most people who tell clever and amusing tales.
Another tantalizing explanation for the dearth of humor and playfulness in the church is advanced by Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Ehrenreich posits that leaders, particularly in European cultures, were frightened by enthusiasm and collective joy, which they saw as primitive or hedonistic. When the lower classes assembled to enjoy themselves and strengthen their camaraderie and friendship, they often made fun of the ruling class as a way of asserting their own authority and threatening prevailing social structures.
Ehrenreich suggests that the church fathers may have set aside the parts of Jesus’ message that embraced what she calls a sweet and spontaneous form of socialism for something more serious. Spontaneity threatens the status quo. Because of the subversive nature of humor, many in authority deemed it unacceptable.
Laughing with the Saints
The undervaluing of Christian humor is particularly surprising in light of Gospel stories in which Jesus evinces playfulness. He is castigated for not being as serious as John. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, says Jesus. And you say, Look a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19). Jesus also approves of a quick-witted man. When told that the Messiah is from Nazareth, Nathaniel blurts out, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? His mordant joke about the city delights Jesus, who exclaims, Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! Jesus then calls him to join the apostles (John 1:47).
Some residues of humor may still be traceable in the way the Evangelists wrote and edited the Gospels. But as Professor Levine notes, we may be so familiar with these stories that we miss the humor. She points to the story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12), who sits in the window ledge of a room where St. Paul is still talking near midnight. Eutychus dozes, falls out the window, drops to the ground and is presumed dead, until Paul examines him, discovers he is alive and continues talking until dawn.
Many Christian saints and blesseds have celebrated humor and laughter, which run like common threads through their lives, disproving the stereotype of the dour saint. In his biography God’s Fool, the French novelist Julien Green speaks of the joy of St. Francis of Assisi that spilled over into the hearts of thousands of men and women.
Stories about the humor of saints reach back to the Roman martyrs. In the third century, St. Lawrence, who was burned to death on a gridiron, is said to have called out to his executioners: Turn me over. I’m done on this side! Some saints were known specifically for their sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, called The Humorous Saint, hung at his door a little sign: The House of Christian Mirth. Christian joy is a gift from God flowing from a good conscience, Neri said.
St. Teresa of ávila specifically warned her sisters against a deadly serious religiosity. A sad nun is a bad nun, she said. I am more afraid of one unhappy sister than a crowd of evil spirits.... What would happen if we hid what little sense of humor we had? Let each of us humbly use this to cheer others. A more contemporary example is Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose most famous sally came when a journalist innocently asked, Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican? John replied, About half of them.
Why Do Christians Need Humor?
The saints understood the serious uses of joy. Here are 10 reasons for joy, humor and laughter in the church today.
1. Humor evangelizes. Joy, humor and laughter manifest one’s faith. This essentially positive outlook shows belief in the Resurrection, in the power of life over death and in the power of love over hatred. Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos, a 19th-century Redemptorist priest, spoke of holy hilarity as a tool for spreading the Gospel. In its imitation of Christ, joy draws others to him.
When I was a Jesuit novice, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, visited our novitiate. When asked about the best way to increase vocations, he said unhesitatingly, Live your own vocation joyfully. Joy attracts others to Christ.
2. Humor is a tool for humility. Humor can help one grasp one’s essential poverty of spirit. Self-deprecatory jokes deflate our egos and remind us not to take ourselves with deadly seriousness. Pope John XXIII once received a letter from a little boy named Bruno. Dear Pope, wrote Bruno, I am undecided. I don’t know if I want to be a policeman or a pope. What do you think? Dear Bruno, replied Pope John, If you want my opinion, learn to be a policeman, for that cannot be improvised. Anyone can be pope. The proof is that I have become one. If you are ever in Rome, please stop by and I will be glad to talk this over with you.
Using humor as a tool for humility is a common motif in the lives of the saints. In the 1960’s, when the Red Brigade caused sporadic acts of violence in Rome, some people would carry pictures of Padre Pio for protection. One day Padre Pio was going into Rome and one of his friends asked, Aren’t you worried about the Red Brigade? No, he said, I have a picture of Padre Pio.
3. Humor clarifies. A witty remark can get to the point faster than a long homily. St. Francis of Assisi once said: Preach the gospel. Use words when necessary. A clever epigram, but also a profound truth.
St. Anthony Avellino was a 17th-century canon lawyer who entered the Theatine order. One day a pious priest asked him, Father Avellino, how long should one stay at the bedside of a sick person? Rather than offer a lengthy explanation, Avellino said, Always be brief. There are two advantages: if they like you, they’ll want you back. If you’re boring, their displeasure will be short.
4. Humor speaks truth to power. Wit is a time-honored way to challenge the pompous, the puffed-up or the powerful. Jesus used humor in this fashion, exposing and defusing the arrogance of religious authorities. Humor can serve as a weapon in the battle against the arrogance and pride that sometimes infects the church. It is also a gentle weapon that can be wielded by the powerless.
A friend’s mother was once in the hospital at the same time as the local bishop. After his operation the bishop went from room to room visiting the patients. When he met my friend’s mother, who was recovering from a difficult surgery, he patted her on the head and said, Dear, I know exactly how you feel. And she said, Really? When was your hysterectomy?
5. Humor shows Christian fortitude. St. Lawrence’s humor was both a pointed challenge to his executioners and a bold profession of faith. Likewise in the 16th century, when St. Thomas More stepped up to the chopping block and said to his executioner, I pray you, help me on the way up, and I will take care of myself on the way down. This brand of humor says, I do not fear death.
6. Humor deepens one’s relationship with God. If prayer can be seen as a personal relationship, then, like any relationship, it requires time, honesty, patience, the ability to listen and moments of silence. And like any relationship, it is leavened by humor. Nonetheless, some Catholics find it difficult to accept the idea that God might want to be playful with them.
While traveling to one of her convents, Teresa of ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud. Lord, you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen? And the response in prayer that she heard was, That is how I treat my friends. Teresa said, And that is why you have so few of them! This is a playful way of addressing God that assumes God’s own playfulness.
Humor invites Christians to consider God’s playfulness. As the Book of Isaiah says, The Lord takes delight in you. Christians may not be used to the image of God delighting in them, or to thinking of the unexpected as a sign of God’s playfulness. But if one thinks of God as parent, it is easy to see how much a parent enjoys being playful with a child. Imagining God’s delight may mean considering God not simply loving you, but as the theologian James Alison says, liking you. Or, as Anthony deMello, S.J., wrote: Look at God looking at you. And smiling.
7. Humor welcomes. Hospitality is an important virtue in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, the act of welcoming Jesus into one’s home signaled acceptance. And if a town did not welcome the disciples, Jesus told them to wipe the dust of that town off their feet (Mark 6:11). Jesus himself welcomed outsiders into the community, by healing them and by casting out demons. He manifested God’s hospitality.
Humor is a subtle way of showing hospitality. Perhaps the easiest way to make someone comfortable is to prompt laughter. Only when people feel at home can they laugh.
A few years ago I worked in Nairobi, Kenya. At the end of my first year there I signed up for an eight-day retreat at the Jesuit retreat house. On the final day the staff hosted a celebratory dinner, at which participants were asked to speak about their retreat. Looking around, I realized that the few other men on retreat had already left; present were dozens of African sisters. Feeling uncomfortable, I worried that I would say the wrong thing. So I blurted out, I see that I’m the only man here. From across the room an African sister called out, And blessed are you among women! Everyone laughed, and I instantly felt at home and could talk honestly about my retreat. Laughter had welcomed me.
8. Humor heals. Physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists believe that humor helps the healing process in the physical body. If we take seriously the Pauline image of the body of Christ, we might ask if the same holds true for the Christian community. In the midst of some of the worst times in the church, the people of God could use some laughter. This is not to say that one laughs over the considerable pain in the church. Rather, humor gives us a much-needed break and can help heal.
9. Humor fosters good work relations. In her recently published biography, Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how Abraham Lincoln gathered together a contentious group of men around him in his cabinet. Often they disagreed with one another, quarreled and even worked against one another. One way Lincoln lightened the atmosphere or made a point without offending anyone was to tell a good joke or a little country story. Laughter, say neuroscientists, also releases endorphins, which help people relax and, perhaps, listen better. Humor makes for easier social relations, something important in the church.
Shortly before the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII picked up a preparatory document, took one look at all the people that the document condemned and found it too harsh. Rather than arguing with the men who wrote it or discussing his theological objections, the pope simply picked up a ruler, measured a page and said: Look. There are 30 centimeters of condemnations here!
10. Humor is fun. There may be no better reason for humor than fun. Funa word not often heard in church circlesis a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, when every tear will be wiped away.
Joy is a vital part of the Christian spiritual life. Humor and laughter are divine gifts that help us enjoy creation. They are also neglected virtues we need to recover for the health of the church. The saints understood this, and I would wager that the man whose first miracle was to turn water into wine also understood the need for some high spirits in life.