Sunday, April 11, 2010
Holy Hilarity Meditation on John 20, 19-31
In 1948 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, sent out an urgent call to the Chicago monastery of Poor Clare nuns. Clare of Assisi founded what were then called the Poor Ladies, with the help of her friend Francis, back in the 13th century, part of a great church renewal. They are an order of cloistered, contemplative nuns. That means that, once they take their vows, it is their firm intention never to leave their monastery again, but to live their whole lives there, lives of service through prayer and contemplation. In 1948, apparently, the Archbishop felt that Roswell, New Mexico urgently needed the presence of such a group of women. And so seven Poor Clares, who had all thought they would live and die within the Chicago enclosure, boarded a train for Roswell, to found a new monastery there. One of the women, Sister Mary Frances, would eventually write a book describing their adventure.
Fast forward to 1973. I am a bored seventh grader who is roaming the house, in the days before computers and iPods and text-messaging and DVD’s. I am disgruntled, and in need of something—anything!—to read. My mother picks up Sister Mary Frances’ book and places it in my hand. And I can’t put it down. I am absolutely gripped by this story. And I didn’t even know the parts about the spaceship and the aliens—she never mentions that stuff. What was it that so enthralled me about this book? Was it the romance of the cloister—living as a bride of Christ? Was it the promise of life close to the earth, reading about the nuns growing and canning all their own vegetables (no small feat in the desert climate of New Mexico)? Or was it this: The book is called “A Right to be Merry.” That title comes from a quote of Saint Francis. He was under fire because of his unusual rule of silence. Most monasteries, then and now, had a certain period of the day in which silence was mandatory. Francis’s and Clare’s monasteries had this feature as well. But the reason they was under fire was this: their rule of silence allowed laughter. When asked about it, Francis said, “My poor ladies have as great a right to be merry as any in the world!”
A life lived with the confidence that the love of God gives us a right to be merry sounded good to me when I was twelve years old, and it still sounds good to me today! And so, today, we join with churches all over the world in proclaiming today, the Sunday after Easter, Holy Hilarity Sunday! Also known as Holy Humor Sunday, or Bright Sunday. The tradition began in the third and fourth centuries, in response to the writings of the church fathers—Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostum, Augustine of Hippo—all of whom agreed that God had played a tremendous joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. God had a cosmically wonderful sense of humor.
But just think what an uphill battle it is in some folks’ minds—the idea that church can be a place for joy and laughter, the idea that God’s marvelous actions in and through and beyond history give us something worthy of the greatest belly laughs. There is a story about a pastor who spotted Groucho Marx in a hotel lobby- a man who was clearly a pastor, decked out in his clerical collar. He rushed over to Groucho, grabbed his hand to shake it, and said, “Thank you, Groucho, for bringing so much joy into the world!”
“Thank you,” Groucho replied, “for taking so much joy out of it.”
That is what we’re up against. And, frankly, the most recent headlines to do with all things church are no laughing matter. The church of Jesus Christ is a divine institution that has been given into human hands, and… sometimes, we don’t do the greatest job with it. Sometimes, the proper posture of the church is on our knees, begging the people’s forgiveness.
I want to suggest something that may sound somewhat radical—or, at the very least, somewhat strange. The first step towards being a properly repentant church may just be learning to take ourselves a little less seriously. Lightening up. People who can’t laugh at themselves are often the very same people who don’t know how or when to say “I’m sorry.”
Let’s take today’s gospel lesson as a case in point. When our lesson begins, it is the same day as it was last Sunday—it is Easter, that first resurrection day! The disciples—the friends and followers of Jesus—have just heard the astonishing news from Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter and that annoying Teacher’s pet—I mean, the disciple whom Jesus loved. They’ve heard that the Lord is alive! So naturally, they are holed up in a room with the doors locked tighter than a drum. So, apparently their logic is, The Lord is alive! Let’s go hide.
And, one can only imagine Jesus, standing outside that very locked door—Jesus, who was not held at bay by the stone in front of the tomb, a massive stone which probably weighed about as much as that Ford F-150 in the parking lot. Jesus, whose body apparently is not entirely subject to the same rules and regulations as ours now that he is risen. Jesus, who—whoops! Is inside. Standing right there, in front of them.
Saying, Peace. Salaam. Shalom. Which, I take to mean, rather than “Peace be with you,” something more like, Now that I’m here, peace is with you. So, you can all stop hyperventilating. It’s going to be ok. And then Jesus gives this very fallible group of people—remember all the hiding, the running, the abandoning? Remember Maundy Thursday, when our Tenebrae enacted something very much like rats fleeing a sinking ship with each passing reading, with each dimmed candle? Surely there is no greater evidence that God, and Jesus, are the funniest beings in the universe than this: To this group is given the job of forgiveness. To this group, which has a lot of explaining to do, whose members have probably been having nightmares of remorse all weekend long, is given the amazing responsibility of bringing forgiveness to a world that is wracked with anguish and guilt. Our God is a funny One.
There’s something else funny about this story: Thomas gets this adjective forever affixed to his name, an adjective which actually gives a parent or two pause when choosing names for their newborns. Doubting. Doubting Thomas. And that is so, so unfair. That is unfair because all Thomas wants is what all the other friends of Jesus have already gotten: a front row seat at the resurrection.
To dwell on Thomas as a “doubter” is, I think, to miss something sweet and subtle going on in his part of the story—something that is actually aimed at us. The point is this: for those of us who come later—who come to faith slowly, or painfully, or with many twists and turns, or with questions that still remain unanswered— in Thomas we have a friend, an ally, a patron. In Thomas, we have someone who says “I’m sorry” with astonishing flair: “My Lord and my God.” In Thomas we have someone who, like us, gets to say “Oops,” and have our ears turn red when it turns out Christ is standing right next to us, wounds gaping.
And that happens so, so often. Every day, in fact, we have opportunity after opportunity to see Jesus Christ risen from the dead. This is not a metaphor. He is quite clear with us. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) Every day we have countless opportunities to look Jesus in the eye, and to blush at the fact that we didn’t recognize him right away, and to say, My Lord and my God.
So let us be merry! Let us be glad and rejoice! For we follow a risen Lord of whom it has been said,
"This was no gloomy Messiah. We know that children were attracted to Jesus, and flocked to be near him. In any age, children are never attracted to melancholy or stern grumps. It was clear that Jesus was the antidepressant of the early Christians." (Malcolm Muggeridge)
So let us give thanks for that Lord who was the antidepressant of the early Christians. (Maybe we can figure out how to put that on our sign out front.) Let us be thankful that we are in the season of Easter, when the whole of creation conspires to urge us to joy and merriment, and that we have as great a right to be merry as any in the world. Let us be thankful for Jesus, who says to us, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” [John 16:22]. And, “Let us then be thankful that, when the Gates of Heaven swing open, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter.” (Malcolm Muggeridge) Thanks be to God. Amen!