“Church is no laughing matter,” some may say. “Indeed, church is serious business.” And many of us might agree that the state of the world right now is no laughing matter. Too much violence. Too many troubles. Too much injustice. The season of Lent can’t last long enough for our introspection even to make a dent in this ole’ world’s difficulties much less to make us aware of the part we play in them.
And yet, this Sunday, March 15, is the fourth Sunday in Lent, called in some traditions “Laetare Sunday” or Laughter Sunday. Laetare means “rejoice.” To some, this may sound peculiar. Why is there a “Rejoicing Sunday” in the midst of Lenten introspection, fasting, and austerity? The exact midpoint of Lent is the Thursday of the third week of Lent; thus, the fourth Sunday of Lent was viewed throughout much of Christian history as a day of celebration. Linked to an ancient mid-March Roman festivals called the hilaria (related to the word “hilarious”), Christians viewed Laetare Sunday as a day when the somber disciplines of Lent were lessened. Laetare is also known in some places as Refreshment Sunday or Holy Humor Day and liturgies include moments for recalling the joy of the Lord in the midst of Lenten penitential pilgrimages. Some churches that observe Holy Humor Sunday even begin the worship service by telling jokes to invoke and perhaps provoke laughter.
Now I, for one, have never been much for jokes. I forget the punchline when I tell jokes, and I often don’t “get” the punchline when others tell jokes. Perhaps that is my problem with Holy Hilarity Sunday. I have not yet gotten in the marrow of my bones the sheer hilarity of God’s liberating creativity that is working even when we don’t “get” it to create a world of radical carnival. And that may just be what we can laugh about even in the midst of Lenten times that seem to stretch beyond Lent’s official 40 days. God breaks in, breaks open, and breaks forth into the world in unexpected, even peculiar, ways that can, if we are paying attention, make us giggle like children or guffaw out loud as we proclaim: “You’re kidding!” Or “that’s too funny!” Or “how hilarious!”
God’s Gospel story turns the world on its head and can turn our lives upside down. Our response? When we allow the peculiar promises of the Gospel to get inside of our bones, perhaps the best response is to laugh, to release, if but for a moment, our lament into God’s cosmic and ironic rendering of a world redeemed. But wait. The world’s a mess. How can we laugh?
A response emerged—or erupted—at church one Sunday during the “moment with children.” Three-year old Michael is not an introvert. His mouth was moving as fast as his feet as he ran to the front of the sanctuary with the other children. The leader sat on the floor with Michael and the others and began to talk about birthday parties. “What do you like about birthday parties?” she asked. “Cake,” Michael said as his hand shot into the air. “Balloons,” Rhonda said. The children all had answers—and one said the magic answer: “Presents!” That was the leader’s signal to ask the second question—the one that she was headed for to make her point. “And what do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?”
Now—I cannot read the minds of folks in church, but I suspect that every adult in worship that day had an answer to this question scurry to the tips of their tongues. And then, just when I was ready to smile at the nice work the leader had done to teach the children about gratitude, Michael prophesied. He witnessed. He proclaimed. Well—he blurted out the answer that rose up out of his young heart. “What do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?” “Oohhh!” Michael said.
And we all laughed, that “caught-off-guard” laughter of those made wiser by a child’s prophetic insight. “What is the second thing you say?” the leader then asked. But now the children were in sync with each other and with the dancing of God’s spirit in our midst. “What is the second thing you say?” “Wow!” Rhonda exclaimed and giggled.
Church continued on its usual course that day, but my heart and mind had been invited down another road by the children’s wise exclamations. What if—what if this is where we begin to fashion communities that transform lives—that offer justice and hope and healing. What do I mean? Michael’s response to the imagined birthday present was not the polite response of one schooled in gift-receiving etiquette. Rhonda’s response was not based on whether or not the birthday wrappings contained the long-desired or asked for expected gift. Their responses bubbled up out of the possibilities of gift-giving and receiving and their authentic expectation of delight.
And we laughed. Perhaps that is the point of the Gospel after all. God’s response to the world’s pain and brokenness is not at all what we expect. Jesus is not what people expect. Jesus’ responses to the world’s suffering and cruelty are not what people expect. But here and there, now and then, we get it. Something happens to release us from the too often oppressive limits of expected religious etiquette, and we laugh, not at the world and its hurting people but with each other because we care about and trust each other. We laugh that caught-off-guard kind of laugh that surprises us and sets us free to join God in God’s peculiar, if not, hilarious plan to redeem the world.