April 20, 2020
Professors and authors in the field of Homiletics seem to be divided in their opinions whether preachers should tell jokes within a homily. In my own experience when I do tell a funny story, I’m fairly convinced that it might be the only thing most listeners will remember from the homily.
In his book, Images of Hope, Pope Benedict XVI refers to a practice that originated in his native Bavaria and made its way throughout Germany in the 15th century. It’s called “Easter Laughing” – Risus Paschalis in Latin. The Easter homily and homilies throughout the Easter Season had to contain a story that made people laugh. The church resounded with joyful laughter as a symbol of the joy Christians know in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It was reasoned that Isaac – an Old Testament image of Christ – came down from the sacrifice on Mount Moriah with laughter on his face – the laughter of redemption because his life was spared. That act of redemption pointed to the perfect redemption accomplished by the Paschal Mystery which should put a big smile on the faces of the faithful.
It was also considered that they were laughing at Satan. The Resurrection was seen to be a “trick” that God played on Satan. Because of Christ’s death on the cross and his three days in the tomb, Satan was rejoicing in his apparent victory. However, his victory party was short lived. On Easter the tables are turned and Jesus rose victorious. The Resurrection was God tricking Satan. The faithful mocked Satan with their Easter Laughing.
Unfortunately, funny stories or jokes within sermons came to a halt in the 17th century by a decree of Pope Clement X. It seems that the stories of many preachers were a tad bawdy – perhaps more than a tad – which offended the faithful and became an abuse of the Word of God.
Too bad this custom had to be placed under a papal ban. I think it would be wonderful to experience a church full of people – when that can happen again – and filled with uproarious laughter. I think such laughter would be a rightful expression of the joy that is ours in the knowledge that through the Paschal Mystery, sin, sorrow, suffering and death have lost their power to overcome us. As Saint Peter told us in the second reading for the Sunday of Divine Mercy, “You rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy (I Pt 1: 8).” Risus Paschalis – maybe it’s time to dust off the old custom and once more give it a try – with appropriate stories, of course.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer