In a Grim and Humorless Age, Jesus Christ Gives Joy to His Friends

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!” —St. Teresa of Avila

Painted c. 1620
Painted c. 1620 (photo: Abraham Janssens and Jan Wildens)

Comedy is no longer a laughing matter.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles now carries a warning label. Trader Joe’s branding and store art is called racist, colonialist and capitalist. The satirical site Babylon Bee was briefly suspended on Twitter, marked as “spam.”

When did we lose our funny bone?

Our “woke” culture is relentlessly dour in its quest to rid society of offense. But what annoys one person can be silly to another, making offense subjective. Offense used to be a serious term, but the constant state of offense in “woke” culture is exhausting and censorious. This negativity is wearing, and people can only take so much. As St. Teresa of Avila famously said, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us!”

The great Teresa was not superficial, nor was she joyless. She saw a connection between the humbleness of true religiosity and humor.

Humor comes from humility, an understanding of one’s own limitations. It acknowledges one’s failures, misunderstandings and mistakes. One can see this in slapstick, exemplified by the cliché of slipping on a banana peel. In a serious context, it’s painful. But in a comedic setting, it’s funny. At its best, slapstick is not painful viewing, but surprising and imaginative. One can look at the oeuvre of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Mr. Bean.

It is argued and verified in Ven. Fulton Sheen: “The divine sense of humor belongs to poets and saints because they have been richly endowed with the sense of the invisible, and can look out upon the same phenomena that other mortals take seriously and see in them something of the divine.” God’s humor comes from his perspective. He sees greatness in the ordinary.

But he also sees the whole story, from beginning to end — and the entire cast of characters, from the anonymous spear-carrier in the chorus to the star. In the audience, our limited knowledge and capacity can’t keep track of so much. We find it confusing and unfocused. But even the attempt to catch a runaway story is amusing; there is a breathless Marx Brothers element that we can’t resist.

That scope and pace give the Bible “Animal Crackers” energy. But let’s drill down to a type of humor we’re familiar with — mistaken identity. It is a leitmotif that runs through the Bible, operettas, ancient and modern comedy. It illustrates God’s perfect perspective versus the human viewpoint. When Joseph saves his brothers in Egypt, initially they do not recognize him (Genesis 42:8). In the end, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers (Genesis 45:1-15). And the future King David is found tending the sheep (1 Samuel 16:11). It is as if God is mistaken, choosing the young shepherd instead of the oldest, but David shows that his election was correct.

In the New Testament, St. Mary Magdalene beheld the risen Lord, but she mistook him for a gardener (John 20:15). It is a classic case of mistaken identity in the midst of the glory of Easter Sunday. And then, Jesus is not recognized by his apostles on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:15-16). He explains Scripture to them (Luke 24:27), which is a clue, but he is finally recognized in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-31). This is serious humor, since it doesn’t lead to hijinks and hilarity. But it does prove God’s type of humor: an ironic sense, because he sees with a vision beyond ours.

Notice that God’s irony isn’t negative, like ours usually is. Irony usually means sarcastically denying what tradition says is good. For example, in the popular musical “Wicked,” it is the Wizard of Oz and Glinda the Good who are truly villainous, while the Wicked Witch of the West is good. But God’s irony is life-giving.

There is laughter that shows God’s Big Picture — his perspective. When God tells the elderly Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” (Genesis 17:17). Again, when Abraham unknowingly entertains angels at Mamre, Sarah laughs (Genesis 18:12-14), but is too afraid to admit it. Finally, when Sarah bears Isaac, she declares (Genesis 21:6-7), “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me… Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Abraham and Sarah’s laughter in disbelief at parenthood in their advanced years joyfully concludes with a son named “He Who Laughs.” Isaac is the son of God’s promise, a type of Christ, embodying laughter and joy.

The current culture is about making us anxious about laughter. Is that joke funny or offensive? Should I have laughed? But Our Lord warns against a dour religiosity. At the Sermon on the Mount, he commands (Matthew 6:16), “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men.” Grim piety is merely performative; it is about seeking human praise rather than God’s.

His irony is neither cruel nor mean-spirited. The Gospels show humans laughing in a derisive way, but God’s humor is not our humor. Our Lord is laughed at, and there is a harshness to it. Jairus’ grieving family laughs at Jesus (Luke 8:53). The Pharisees scoff at him when he preaches against greed (Luke 16:14). Finally, in his Passion, Our Lord is treated with mockery and contempt (Luke 23:11). There is ridicule at the Crucifixion (Luke 23:35-37). None of these examples are “funny.” It is a heartless, joyless sense of “humor” — a witless show of force that gives a sadistic release.

But the divine sense of humor shows mercy and compassion. Our Lord didn’t laugh at St. Mary Magdalene when she mistook him for a gardener. In his risen glory, she did not recognize him. But instead of reacting with anger or sadness, he guides her to proclaim the Resurrection. She is emboldened to be “Apostle to the Apostles.” While God knows the punchline, he also knows human limitations.

In the Bible, God shows he knows all the jokes; he created them. But by giving us the Bible, he also shows he wants to let us in on them. In the Bible, he gives us that God’s eye view that sees the Big Picture.

And in Jesus, the divine sense of humor shows Our Lord is not only fully Man, but a healthy one, the Divine Physician. In our spiritual ills, and godless humorlessness, Jesus Christ brings healing. He shows how to live a truly happy, holy life in the Spirit. As Our Lord said at the Last Supper (John 15:11), “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”