The Divine Comedy of Life

To the backdrop of the flickering paschal candle, the din of bells, the redolence of incense and the smiles of joy on the congregation’s faces, a Franciscan friar (TOR) solemnly yet jubilantly addresses his Easter people. About halfway through his homily, he cracks an appropriate joke and asserts that he, a very competitive player, can gladly proclaim on this hallowed eve the ultimate victory of Christ. “We have won,” he shouts. “And we will win, and for somebody who loves to win, this makes me happy.”

The sympathetic chuckle of the congregation reminds me of the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter commonly used in the Baroque period of Church history. At this time, the homily was permitted to contain a humorous story, so the church resounded with joyful laughter.

But what is this laughter all about, I wonder? Is it superficial, blasé comedy? Is it naive optimism in the face of tragedy, or is it bedewed in rich spiritual symbolism relevant to us today? Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — offers us some choice food for digestion.

In a meditation Ratzinger wrote on the symbolism of Easter in his 1986 book Behold the Pierced One, he relates the Easter laughter all the way back to the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. In fact, he indicates there are various interpretations of the name Isaac, which contains the root “laughter.” But laughter at what? When Isaac discovers that he himself will no longer be sacrificed but the trapped ram in the bush, does he not have grounds to rejoice?

Ratzinger questions, “Did he not have cause to laugh when the sad and gruesome drama — the ascent of the mountain, his father binding him — suddenly had an almost comic conclusion, yet one that brought liberty and redemption?” He continues with the pivotal point, the one which continues to reverberate in my mind and soul during these Easter days: “This was a moment [when Isaac was spared at the last possible second] in which it was shown that the history of the world is not tragedy, the inescapable tragedy of opposing forces, but ‘divine comedy.’ The man who thought he had breathed his last was able to laugh.”

At last, the real meaning of the Easter laughter is that life is ultimately a divine comedy! Yet, despite this laughter, the past few years have undeniably been marked with a plethora of physical and cosmic suffering: My wife has been in and out of the hospital, and there have been various issues at work, in the United States and abroad. Just peruse the past year: the Haiti earthquake, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland which held up international travel for weeks, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf waters, the bitter winter, the drought in China, the unrest in the Middle East, not to mention the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and generated nuclear panic. Can life really be a divine comedy?

It seems almost ironic that the Easter laughter appears to be the only answer to the manifold “tragedies” of life. Many times in life we too feel like Isaac, about to be conquered by evil, about to be slain. Yet, like Isaac, we also will laugh. Once we reach the summit, we can look back down at all the apparent tragedy and see that what appeared tragic was ultimately not so. It was all part of God’s divine comedy, one that is prefigured in the Easter liturgy and laughter of today. It seems that Isaiah needs to remind this generation as well: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

As the liturgy of the Easter vigil begins in darkness and ushers in light, so too we are encouraged to illuminate the darkness of our minds in this Easter season. We are assured, as Isaac was many years ago, that God will rescue us, and then we will laugh. It is with this confidence and with this hope we turn to Jesus, the paschal Lamb, singing “Alleluia!” We turn to him, the risen and victorious Lord, as we boldly cry out with St. Faustina, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Mark Kalpakgian writes from Gaming, Austria.