Living and Laughing
by Fr. Jack McArdle
George Burns, the comedian, lived to be a hundred, and it was wonderful that he was given such a gift, because he lived and laughed his way out to the very end. Towards the end of his life he said that, every morning when he woke up, the first thing he did was check the death column in the paper, and, if his name wasn't there, he got up! On his ninetieth birthday he said that the great thing about being ninety is that you know everything, and the big disadvantage is that you cannot remember any of it. On his hundredth birthday he said "When I was a young man, I used get a standing ovation, and now, at 100, I get an ovation for standing!" A year before his hundredth birthday he announced that, on that day he was going to hire Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and give a whooping big party for all his friends…"That is, if Caesar's Palace is still there!"
Laughter is a wonderful tonic, and it is not possible to laugh and have a nervous breakdown at the same time! A kid asked in school one time if God had a sense of humour, and I replied "Does he what? You'd want to come and see some of the people he created! He has got to have an extraordinary sense of humour!" It is a mistake to take life, or ourselves, too seriously. We'll be dead long enough.
I believe that Jesus had a wonderful roguish sense of humour. When the woman at the well was holding forth about where people should worship, and what was right, and what was wrong, he whispered out of the corner of his "Go home and get your husband!" Now the woman had a problem because she was now with husband number seven, and Jesus knew only too well. However, it was one way of stopping her gallop!
Peter held no surprises for Jesus. Bold and brash, but with a heart of gold, Jesus loved Peter, and he poked light fun out of him whenever he got a chance. When Peter boldly volunteered to step over the side of the boat and walk on water, Jesus, concealing a smile, just said "Come on". Jesus was ready for the inevitable, and, of course, when Peter lost his nerve and began to sink, Jesus was right there, with his hand stretched out to hold him up.
Before Good Friday, Peter had boasted that, no matter what any of the others did, he would be there for Jesus through thick and thin. Of course, once the pressure came, Peter caved in. After his resurrection, Jesus called Peter aside, and whispered a question "Well, Peter, what do you think now? Do you still love me more than these?". He wasn't poking fun at Peter, he was just light-heartedly reminding him of what he had said before, and he hoped Peter may have learned a lesson from it.
The scene involving the woman that was about to be stoned to death is a very powerful story in every way. It clearly illustrates, yet again, where Jesus stood when it came to judgement and condemnation. It also has its humorous side. Jesus knelt down on the ground, and began to write with his finger in the sand. We are not told what he was writing, but it may have made some of the onlookers very uncomfortable. He let them sweat it out for a while, and then, probably restraining a smile, he turned to them, and calmly suggested that the one among them who was without sin should throw the first stone. The silence was deafening. The movement was gradual, was very definite. One by one, they began to move and walk away. Not one of them remained. Jesus must have enjoyed that, because, at least, the truth had prevailed. He was extremely clever, and he must have had a certain sense of black humour to walk them into such a trap of their own making.
It is easy to imagine Jesus smiling, and nowadays one finds the occasional picture that depicts that. Anyone who knows anything about children, knows only too well that children just go to just anyone in the crowd. They detect the warmth, and they respond to the smile. They gathered around him, and he put them sitting on his knee. Not every child will allow a complete stranger do that. It had to be the smile that was infectious and inviting. It had to be the laugh, and a sense of roguish humour, because it is normal and natural to play with children. You tickle them, make faces at them, peep through your fingers at them, and make funny sounds with your voice. I honestly believe that Jesus could and did do all these things.
For many people, Religion is very serious business! We dress up in our Sunday best, and wear our most pious faces. I often speak of 'the transforming power of holy water'. The people get out of their cars at the church on Sunday morning. They shout across at neighbours, enquire about a sick one, or if there's anyone going to the football match today. Once they put their finger in the holy water font, something happens to them. Their faces become drained of life. All smiles are gone; the frowns return. The eyes are cast down, and they make their way very cautiously towards some corner where they will be least conspicuous. At the sign of peace someone holds out a hand that feels more like a dead fish, and we all look forward again. (One of my colleagues had a bright idea one Sunday morning, and, just as a change, he suggested that people should turn to the person behind them with a sign of peace. Imagine the surprise when each person turned around to find that the person behind was looking back at the person behind, and all were looking out the back door! That was one occasion when laughter was acceptable in church!).
Coming out of the church the reverse process occurs. Once those fingers touch that holy water, life returns to that face, the frowns are gone, and the smile returns. Once outside the door they become human(!) again, and resume enquiring about sick folks, and about someone who died during the night. Even when they get into their cars, people can be seen to lower a window and have an animated conversation with someone in the car beside them.
God has blessed me with the grace of having a great love for the Eucharist, and a deep appreciation of the privilege of celebrating Eucharist. Thank God, he also has blessed me with a sense of humour, and there is no way that I can leave that behind me in the sacristy when I go out on the altar! I assure them that I will pay strict attention to what I'm saying this morning, because I've just heard of a bishop who dreamt he was preaching a sermon, and he woke, and he was! The first morning I appeared for Mass as parish priest, I knew that my every move and turn were being watched very closely. When I saw people leaving the church at Communion time, I calmly went over to the mike and said a prayer 'for the Faithful Departed'". They were afraid to move the next Sunday! I found that a sense of humour was much more effective than a scolding.
I believe that a lot of our 'seriousness' in the area of Religion comes from the kind of personal God we worship. If God is to be feared, then you have very little to laugh about, because he'll have the last laugh. If it becomes a question of accumulating graces and indulgences, then it becomes hard work, and there's so much to be done, and maybe so little time left, that we have to make the most of every minute. It is really sad to think that I might not be happy with God, and my thoughts about him are not happy ones. When Jesus speaks of joy, he says "My joy will be in you". We are told that "Jesus was filled with the joy of the Spirit". He was ecstatic with joy. He speaks about his joy 'pressed down and flowing over'.
I honestly think it is seriously wrong to take Religion too seriously (if you get my point!). Of course, Religion is important, because it has to do with God, and our relationship with him. But do you think that God, unlike the priest on the altar, is upset at that child that is crying, or the other climbing over the bench? God looks at the heart, and he wants our hearts to be happy. He wants us to be as relaxed and as normal in his House as we are in our own. I often joke about some of our more serious parishioners, and the problems they might face when they enter the joys and delights of heaven! Because of lack of practice, they may have a problem with the joyful singing, and all the harps, and the clapping of hands!
I occasionally have an experience that gives me great joy. I arrive for a Novena in a parish. In some parishes, some people don't look at me for the first few nights! Their heads are bowed, and they are in deep reflection. Maybe, about the fifth night, we'll begin to get the smiles, and, hopefully, before the Novena ends, we will have had a few good laughs. Apart from all religious aspects, I would consider that a success in itself. "If you are saved, you're supposed to look saved! And if you're happy, tell your face, and then we'll all know it!" If the witness value of Christianity doesn't include a smile, then we're in serious trouble.
Christianity is about attracting, rather than about promoting. You are the message, and it is you who will attract, rather than anything you preach. If I go into your house, and I tell you I have measles, when I actually have chicken-pox, which are you going to catch?! The gospel is Good News that has often been turned into Good Advice. There should be dancing in the streets where the gospel is proclaimed. One Sunday morning, with a dead-pan face, I told the people about what happened the previous night. There was a bus passing the church as the people came out from Saturday evening Mass, and someone remarked "Ah, there must be a funeral". "Now there was no sign of a hearse or a coffin, so it must have been the looks on the faces of the people coming out that gave the idea that it had to be a funeral". I think they got the point! 'Lighten up a little' is a phrase one sometimes hears. What I'm saying in this chapter is LIGHTEN UP A LOT!
Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Relax those muscles, ungrit those teeth, unclench those fists. Life is for living, and it is also for giving. Brighten up someone else's life, someone else's home. There's so much good to be done that we haven't time for moaning. If heaven begins now, then let's begin the celebrations now. Our vocation is not about getting to heaven. Jesus has taken care of that. Our vocation has everything to do with getting heaven down here. Where there is despair, let me bring your hope; where there is sadness, let me bring your joy. It's much more difficult to get heaven into people than it is to get people into heaven! Go for it—and enjoy it.
E-mail this article to a friend
Insights That Inspired Me copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.