St Bride's: Sermons

For Christians and Jews humour and religion often go together

Discussing the recent controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's remarks about the Prophet Muhammad in an academic lecture and the extreme sensitivity of the Muslim world to any comments or criticism of their religion, I remarked to some friends that Muslims don't seem to have much of a sense of humour when it comes to their own faith, whereas for Christians and Jews humour and religion often go together.

Richard Whately a nineteenth century Archbishop of Dublin, once said that religion, like happiness, is no laughing matter. In fact, I believe that humour offers us a marvellous glimpse of the Divine reality, which we should cherish and cultivate. Dante called his great work 'The Divine Comedy' because its action depicts the ascent of the soul from shadow to starlight, from fear to the joy of divine love and grace. If that can be a universal experience, surely our places of worship ought also to be places of laughter and joy.

Some people may want to agree with Richard Whately that religion is no laughing matter. It is a very serious affair dealing with the profoundest issues of life and death. But surely it is precisely because it is a serious business that it needs a hefty dose of humour.

godspell.jpgThe religious musical 'Godspell' opens with a number of people on stage each holding a placard representing one of the world's great philosophers, Socrates, Nietzsche, Kant and so on. They all spout away at their philosophies until the sound merges into a single babble. Then, form the back of the auditorium, comes a spangled Harlequin, blowing on a child's musical instrument singing: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." Then in comes Jesus, as a clown. Consciously contrasted with the philosophers, the ones who are pompous, blown-up with their own importance, who take the wrong kind of thing with the wrong kind of seriousness. Jesus had a great deal to say about not taking oneself too seriously, and he spent much time trying to show people how silly they looked when they did.

If only God is to be taken with unreserved seriousness, we need the humility to laugh at both the pretensions of religion and our own petty vanities.

Some years ago Harry Williams, monk and writer, described laughter as a universal way of catching a glimpse of the heavenly city of God. "Laughter", he said, "is the best and clearest reflection we ever get in this world of God's love for His creation." There is, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, a time to laugh, not in a shallow or cynical way, but because the divine comedy gives us the assurance that all shall be well, that out of death and despair come victory and new life. That is cause enough for rejoicing and for all the loving laughter we can muster. For, as Julian of Norwich said, "It will be right merry in heaven".

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