The Comedy and Tragedy of the Cross

Can it be possible that there is some joy promised in the Cross?

Bartolomeo Cesi (1556-1629), “The Crucifixion of Christ”
Bartolomeo Cesi (1556-1629), “The Crucifixion of Christ” (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

My father was an actor, and I myself was involved in theater. Besides school plays and performances, I had the privilege to perform in a couple of professional shows at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey when I was in 5th and 6th grade. So, the classic theatrical symbol of the happy and sad mask were quite familiar to me: comedy and tragedy, the two basic types of plays.

In my mind, a tragedy was something that made you cry, and a comedy was something that made you laugh — thus the laughing and crying masks. It was only later that I learned there was a little more to those categories. 

The hallmark characteristic of a tragedy is death. Examples include Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. In each of these plays, there is death, and lots of it. According to another ancient formula of tragedy, it is a tragic flaw in the protagonist’s character that leads to his downfall. One way or another, there is an unhappy ending. The resolution to the action does not leave the audience rejoicing; it results in a dissolution of the bonds that tie mankind. There is injustice, and the audience grieves with the characters.

Comedies, on the other hand, have a happy ending. Comedy is not primarily just about laughter, but an ending that gives joy to the viewer. The classic ending? Marriage. Examples here include The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The realization or promise of justice, unity, love, family or some other beautiful event resolves the conflict of the drama, and nothing is a greater symbol of those qualities than marriage and its promise: new life. 

As for the drama of the Passion and Death of Jesus, the aspect of tragedy is overwhelming and obvious. It is clear to anyone that the crucifixion is a tragic event since somebody is dying. Not only is there death, but there is torture and shame. Deep grief seems to be the only possible response. Our hearts break for Jesus as well as for his mother who must witness this horrific scene.

Our Protagonist, though, has no tragic flaw. Instead, the tragic flaw is ours. The Cross is a mirror for us: this is what we, in our sinful nature, do to a perfect man. Our pride runs headlong into the sorrow of this moment.

The ultimate victim of this event, though, is Satan. By dying, Christ destroyed our death. Humans are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Evil destroys itself when it appears to triumph over Goodness Itself. 

This sounds like good news. The defeat of evil sounds comic in nature. Is there a comedic element in the Cross? I feel as if I am committing an indecency in even asking the question, but remember that comedy doesn’t just mean laughter. We are talking about a happy ending. Can it be possible that there is some joy promised in the Cross?

In what seems like an even greater indecency, St. Augustine calls the Cross a marriage bed, and the blood and water that flows from Christ’s side is spiritual seminal fluid. Fulton Sheen tells us what is happening at the death of the Savior: nuptials! Jesus unites himself with the Church. The Cross is a wedding ceremony.

The Cross is absolutely tragic, and yet it is absolutely comedic as well. It ends in death, and that death is a high marriage between Heaven and Earth. Comedy and tragedy are united at the Cross. That is why we exalt the Cross. That is why we call it Good Friday. In the end, comedy wins. Death is drowned in its own pit, but the wedding feast of the Lamb is yet to come. 

Every Mass is a real, in person, concrete re-presentation of this sacrifice. Every Mass is the death that gives life, the gift of Self that unites the Bridegroom to his Bride. When we unite ourselves to Christ, when we are crucified with Christ and no longer live to ourselves, Christ comes alive in us.

This is the whole comedy of Christianity: that the sadness of tragedy can still be sadness but never despair; sadness because everything has meaning and nothing is pointless, but no despair because we know the resolution is joyful.

The happy and sad masks of the theater fail to portray the mystery and the beauty of the Passion. The masks are not the only failures; Nothing can do justice to the Event and its sadness and hidden joy. Only the Event Itself suffices.