Comedy: a drama in which the central motif is the triumph over adversity, leading to a successful conclusion.
In the literary sense, Easter is comedy: a drama in which the central motif is the triumph over adversity, leading to a successful conclusion.
However, since the earliest days of the Church, Easter has been understood as more than a comedy … it has also been regarded as a joke. A supreme joke. The best joke in all the world and the last and best laugh ever.
For us, these two millennia later, it is not easy to get the joke because we know the ending. There is no surprise.
So travel with me back in time, to the beginning of what we now call the Common Era, to the time of the Roman Empire to a land called Palestine: there was a gruesome, if inconsequential incident of capital punishment.
The Roman Empire executed a peasant with an attitude … a peasant who refused to pledge allegiance to the Empire, refused to regard Caesar as a god.
From Rome’s perspective, his death was inconsequential and matter of fact. There are really no records to speak of—other than the hand-me down stories told by his little band of followers—other than these, there is record that, in killing Jesus of Nazareth, Rome had wrestled down a mighty insurrection.
The Jesus movement was not mighty. It was not large … it was tiny.
And, it was no insurrection, no uprising, insurgency or rebellion. It was nothing like that.
Jesus and his tiny band of fishermen followers were no armed terrorists plotting a takeover. They planned no kid-knapping’s or taking of hostages … no assassination of heads of state.
They carried no weapons… laid out no strategy … no plot to overthrow the powers that were.
What is more: they had no manifesto … except maybe this: to love one another.
No, from the perspective of the Roman Empire, the death of Jesus was inconsequential. A small cog in the vast and mighty machinery of the Roman Empire, executed a peasant who had a weakness for love. But as far as Rome goes, the execution was not worth recording or reporting.
So here is the joke … In fact, here is the first of two Easter jokes:
The first Easter joke is on death. Death, far mightier even than the mighty Roman Empire … Death, which always gets the last word and the last laugh. Death is made a laughing stock by Easter. In the Easter story it is Life that gets the last word and the last laugh. In the Easter story, the joke is on Death, and Death is silenced. Death is rendered impotent. In Jesus, Death meets its match and then some.
That is the first joke … the joke on Death.
And there is a second joke. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this second joke is to remark upon what happened—or did not happen—on Friday. This past Friday. Good Friday.
What did not happened was this: the vast and mighty machinery of the New York Stock Exchange stock market failed to rally itself into business. On Good Friday, the stock market remained closed in deference to a Palestinian peasant, an itinerant preacher who lived over 2000 years ago, among whose most memorable teachings is this: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. The New York Stock Exchange is frozen, suspended in time, exactly as it was at 4pm last Thursday.
This extraordinary annual three-day closure of the mighty and massive machinery of the stock market, in deference to Jesus of Nazareth, is mind-blowing.
And, here is what I imagine happens up in heaven on every single Good Friday.
I imagine that on the morning of Good Friday, Jesus’ family and friends all gather together … and at 9:29am precisely, Eastern Standard Time, they grow silent and listen. Heads cocked, ears straining to hear, they listen for the opening bell.
When the clock reaches 9:31am and the opening bell has not sounded, I imagine the friends and followers of Jesus erupting into peals of uncontrollable laughter … a laughter of absolute and utter incredulity at the power and reach of Jesus and his teachings.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri tells of the night of Good Friday in the year 1300 of the Common Era. You know how it starts: In the middle of the journey of our life, Dante comes to himself, in a dark wood, where the straight-way is lost. He meets the spirit of Virgil who promises to guide him on a journey to Heaven. But the journey begins in the harrowing bowels of Hell.
The journey through Hell is slow, gruesome, and torturous. Dante makes his way, seeing sights so agonizing and ghastly that they are forever burned into his eyes. But he journeys on, up and up and up.
Finally, departing Hell, he plods onward and upward through Purgatory. Up and up, up and up and up. Then, just as Dante draws near to the celestial sphere, draws near to Paradise itself, he hears a sound. A sound he has never before heard. Cocking his head, straining his ears, Dante listens, smiles, and finally proclaims: it sounds "like the laughter of the universe."
Eugene O’Neill, great American playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a play called Lazarus Laughed. The play tells the story of Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from death. As Lazarus is the first person to return from the realm of the dead, people want to hear from him, to hear his story. What was it like?
In his post-death life, Lazarus does have things to say. Among other things, he tells them that there is no death. But more than what he says, it is what he does that convinces people. Lazarus laughs. He laughs at everything, even death. The more Lazarus laughs, the younger and stronger he becomes. His home in Bethany is called, House of Laughter.
In the book of Ecclesiastes the author writes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build up,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
Easter Sunday is a time to laugh. It is a time to laugh at Death. And to laugh at the Empire.
Because in the end, the joke is on them. In the end, God wins.