I’ll confess that most of what I know about Dante’s “Divine Comedy” came from Dan Brown’s novel, “Inferno,” which may not be the most accurate source of information. But I knew enough to know that most of our cultural assumptions about hell are more directly influenced by Dante than by the gospel. This week I learned (not from Dan Brown) that when Dante ascends from hell and purgatory toward heaven, he hears a sound he described as “riso del universo,” — “the laughter of the universe.”
I also didn’t know about a tradition of celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter as “Bright Sunday.” Some folks call “Holy Humor Sunday.” I learned that from Magrey deVega, a more reliable source than Dan Brown.
The custom was rooted in early church theologians (Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) who said that God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. In 15th Century, this Sunday was celebrated as “Risus Paschalis” (“Easter laugh”). Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, told jokes, sang and danced.
Unfortunately, “Risus Paschalis” was banned by Pope Clement X in the 17th century. Perhaps people were having too much fun. The Pope was a party pooper.
The Laughter of God
it reminded me of Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Lazarus Laughed.” O’Neill imagines a dinner party in Lazarus’ home after Jesus raised him from the dead. (John 11:1-44) A dinner guest who saw the event reports:
“Jesus smiled sadly but with tenderness, as one who from a distance of years of sorrow remembers happiness. Then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus’ feet and both of them smiled and Jesus blessed him and called him “My Brother” and went away; and Lazarus looking after Him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God! Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk! And though I was half-dead with fright I found myself laughing, too!”
When Lazarus is asked to describe what he experienced, he says:
“I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my heart…And my heart reborn to love of life cried ‘Yes!’ and I laughed in the laughter of God!”
The text for all this might be Psalm 2. The psalmist says that when God sees the arrogance of nations, kings and people, “God sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.”
When It’s No Laughing Matter
The sad truth is that the suffering in our world and in our own lives is no laughing matter, if by laughter you mean the cheap, cynical, silly and often hurtful stuff our culture calls humor. But if we believe the deeper truth of Easter, we can hear, even in the dark places of suffering and death, the sound of laughter which will ultimately reverberate throughout the entire universe. And we, with Lazarus, can laugh the laughter of God because Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!
Grace and peace,