Humor and Joy in the New Evangelization, The Anchor, September 28, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
September 28, 2012

Two weeks ago, Fordham University brought together three very funny Catholics for a conversation on humor and joy in the spiritual life: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is wittiest priest I’ve ever known; Stephen Colbert, the hilarious host of the Comedy Channel’s “The Colbert Report,” last of 11 kids in a Catholic family, married father of three and CCD teacher in his New Jersey parish; and Father James Martin, the jocular Jesuit author of many books including, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

They were joined by 3,000 enthusiastic Fordham students, who had camped out all night in order to obtain tickets for the event. When word of the “Catholic Comedy Night” first came out, there was talk that the night would be broadcast nationally, but those plans were eventually scrapped in favor of a media blackout, in response it seems to a request from Colbert so that he could get out of the character he plays on his program and speak comfortably and candidly in witness to his faith. Several attendees, however, began to tweet live the litany of one-liners and the New York Times and Associated Press both broke the embargo and ran very positive articles. Cardinal Dolan and Father Martin also released the texts of their prepared remarks. All Catholics should be happy that at least some of what was discussed is able to be shared, because the speakers focused on something very important in the Christian life and crucial for the New Evangelization: humor and joy.

In his introductory talk, Father Martin described how in the Book of Genesis, God Himself showed His own sense of humor in the miraculous conception of a son when Sarah was 99. Abraham and Sarah both laughed at the prospect and nine months later named their son Isaac, which means, “He laughs.” In the beginning of revelation, Father Martin continued, “there was a laugh.”

He went on to describe Jesus’ humor. Much of it, he noted, is lost in cultural translation, but Jesus’ dialogue with Nathaniel, His giving John and James the nickname “Sons of Thunder” after they tried to call down fire to destroy an inhospitable Samaritan town, His parables about building houses on sand, about fathers’ giving sons stones to eat, and about people with logs in their eyes, all would have been, Father Martin said, “laugh-out-loud funny to His listeners.”

We also fail to appreciate Jesus’ humor, he continued, because we’re over-familiar with the Gospel texts and, just as jokes often lose their punch if we already know or can anticipate the punch line, so we know the Gospel images too well to sense their comical irony.

But perhaps the most powerful reason we fail to see Jesus’ jests, he added, is because the Gospels themselves can sometimes seem, as biblical scholars say, Passion Accounts with very long introductions. There’s such a focus on Jesus’ being rejected by His own, by His prophecies of His own death, by His sufferings out of love for us, that too much of Jesus’ joyful interactions with Mary and Joseph, with the Apostles, with Martha, Mary and Lazarus and others would seem impertinent. The Man of sorrows, rather than the Man of life-giving joy, is often privileged in Christian art, imagination and evangelization.

Cardinal Dolan in his remarks, however, picked up on the last point and provocatively said that the reason why Christians need to be joyful is not despite but precisely because of the cross. The deepest theological explanation for Christian joy and laughter is, paradoxically, the cross. With great rhetorical flourish on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, he elaborated:

“When Jesus suffered and died on the cross on that hill called Calvary, on that Friday strangely called ‘Good,’ literally, the ‘lights went out’ as even the sun hid in shame. Literally, the earth sobbed with convulsions of sorrow as an earthquake occurred. Jesus, pure goodness, seemed bullied to death by undiluted evil; love, jackbooted by hate; mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; life itself, crushed by death. It seemed we could never smile again. But, then came the Sunday called Easter!. Guess Who had the last word? God! He who laughs last, laughs best, and we believers have never stopped smiling since that Resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Good Friday did not have the last word … Easter did! That’s why I can laugh.”

He went on to say that St. Paul in his letter to the Romans reminds us that if God didn’t even spare His only Son, then “nothing can separate us from the love of God” and “everything works out for the good for those who love God.” That knowledge, emphasized the cardinal, should help us all to have hope, not despair, faith instead of doubt, love rather than spite, light in place of darkness and life in preference to death. “Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives, but they will not prevail. Easter will. That’s why a crabby, griping, whining believer is an oxymoron!”

Father Martin pointed out that so many of the saints have emulated Jesus’ sense of humor and lived with the joy flowing from the knowledge of Easter’s punch line to the sadness of Good Friday. He mentioned the many saints who have become famous for their humor: St. Lawrence Martyr, St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri, and Blessed John XXIII. “The saints,” he said, “knew that there were some good reasons for humor. Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power. Humor and laughter are essential in the spiritual life.”

As we prepare for the Year of Faith and seek to fulfill Christ’s mission to re-evangelize those who have found the Gospel boring, lifeless and unattractive, it is important for all Catholics to ponder the mystery of Christian joy. Christ came so that His joy might be in us and our joy might be complete.

The Angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary at the Annunciation was “rejoice!”

St. Paul constantly urged the first Christians through his letters to this same type of joy, calling us to “rejoice always” in “hope,” “in the truth,” “in obedience,” “in suffering,” “over repentance,” “when weak,” “to be poured out like a libation” and that “the Lord is near.”

Many Christians, however, don’t heed this command to Christian joy, perhaps because they haven’t pondered and built their lives deeply enough on God, on the personal consequences of the Lord’s definitive triumph over death and on the reality that the King of Kings is our loving, providential Father. Instead so many Christians behave, as Father Martin said in an interview, as the “humorless ‘frozen chosen.’”

At the end of the night, Father Martin said that Cardinal Dolan leaned over to him and confided, reflecting on the night and on the theme, “This is the New Evangelization.” The Gospel really is “Good News,” news that is meant to lead us to smile, to laugh and to experience a joy that lasts forever.