That Stephen Colbert tells jokes is not news — he is a late-night TV comedian. That Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York loves a good laugh is even less news — he is, after all, Timothy Dolan.
That they told jokes together, and reflected upon humour in the life of Catholic disciples, was news. They did so before 3,000 enthusiastic students at Fordham, the Jesuit university in the Bronx. The Sept. 14 encounter was not recorded or broadcast because Stephen Colbert never appears on stage outside of his eponymous character, who is both a satirical wit and a self-aggrandizing buffoon. But for this occasion, Colbert appeared as himself, and commented upon the role of humour in the life of faith. By all accounts, the two brought the house down in a dramatic refutation of what Billy Joel sang almost 40 years ago, namely that he would rather “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”
Good humour is a means of telling the truth, sharing a common bond and taking delight in the moment. Truth, communion, joy — all marks of the Catholic faith lived faithfully and fully.
Cardinal Dolan, drawing upon the liturgical feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, made a theological point about how the Christian life is a comedy. Not slapstick or a farce, but a comedy in the classical Greek sense of a drama that ends well, as opposed to a tragedy. A divine comedy to be exact, as Dante taught us.
“When Jesus suffered and died on the cross on that hill called Calvary… the earth sobbed with convulsions of sorrow as an earthquake occurred,” Dolan said.
“Jesus, pure goodness, seemed bullied to death by undiluted evil; love, jackbooted by hate; mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; life itself, crushed by death. It seemed we could never smile again… But, then came the Sunday called Easter! Guess who had the last word? God! Hope, not despair; faith, not doubt; love, not spite; light, not an eclipse of the sun; life, not the abyss of death. So, Good Friday did not have the last word… Easter did! That’s why I can laugh.”
We laugh because the world is redeemed. It reminded me of a classic Joseph Ratzinger homily along the same lines. Actually, it wasn’t a homily but a radio reflection that Cardinal Ratzinger did years ago for a Bavarian broadcaster. Like Dolan, Ratzinger also linked Easter and laughter but, the master biblical preacher that he is, linked it to the figure of Isaac, whose name in Hebrew means “he will laugh.”
“Jesus is both the lamb and Isaac,” Ratzinger explained. “He is the lamb who allowed Himself to be caught, bound and slain. He is also Isaac, who looked into heaven; indeed, where Isaac saw only signs and symbols, Jesus actually entered heaven, and since that time the barrier between God and man is broken down. Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy in his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy — this laughter of redemption. If you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh” (cf. Jn 16:20).
Then Ratzinger employed his encyclopedic knowledge and deep love of the liturgy to extend the point as only he could have done:
“In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with a joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed?”
The laughter of redemption, the freedom of the redeemed! The freedom to laugh belongs to those who know that it is all a comedy. All that makes us weep has been overcome. Every Christian should be named Isaac, for he will laugh.
Cardinal Dolan occasionally introduces laughter into his preaching, but it is not, strictly speaking, liturgical laughter. And Colbert does not offer the risus paschalis. Yet all authentic laughter — as opposed to the cruelty of the snicker or the sneer — is a taste of that laughter of Isaac, freed from his binding on Mount Moriah and returned to life from the brink of death. It is a foretaste too of the heavenly liturgy, where one expects that the Easter laughter resounds.
(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)