Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” — Lk. 24:1b, 5-19a
When Michael was 7, he and Victor enjoyed browsing David Macaulay’s book “Castles.” Michael was so taken with the book that, much to my despair, he experimented with various medieval customs; eating with his knife and substituting the edge of the tablecloth for his napkin. Michael’s early medieval period passed quickly; recently however, he and his brother have renewed interest in at least one custom of the time – the disputatio.
There are days when I’d rather be taking on “Whether a multiplicity of angels can co-exist in the same place?” against St. Thomas Aquinas, than tackling the questions being disputed at my dinner table. “Does God have a sense of humor?” queries the younger. “He created you, didn’t he?” responds his older brother, mindful of the rules of the game, which require supporting evidence. “Mom…” Chris’ pleas drag me into the fray.
Prayers to St. Thomas arising, I pointed to this passage in Luke’s Gospel. Surely Jesus’ sense of humor was at play here? He let Cleopas and his companion go on at length about the happenings in Jerusalem before revealing the punch line – He is the person everyone has been talking about – and vanishing before their eyes.
The Word made flesh in Scripture isn’t averse to humor either in the form of puns and double meanings. The Old Testament is replete with plays on words, all but lost to us in the layers of translation.
Robert Alter’s new translations of the psalms, written with a scholar’s eye and poet’s ear, bring out more of the original flavor of the psalms, including their humor.
In his commentary on Psalm 149, Alter gives the literal translation of a double-edged sword – a sword of mouths. When this psalm appears in the Psalter, I now hear traces of the pun in verse six layered on top of the English: praise on their lips and “swords of mouths” in their hands.
About a century ago, in his guide to English usage, Henry Fowler distinguished humor from its less appealing companion, sarcasm, by its intent to throw light on human nature. True humor isn’t spanisive, or dismissive, but is a surprise and delight to all who encounter it. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the puns in the psalms, a gentle application of humor can pop us out of our ruts so we can see and hear things from a different point of view.
In her poem, “Abba Jacob and the Theologian,” Marilyn Nelson follows another pair of disciples to the table, one so worried about the details she has similarly missed God’s presence there:
…the theologian interrupts her first
spoonful of lentils
to lean forward again
and cut off the flow of God.
Reverend Father, she asks,
what is the highest spiritual virtue?
Abba Jacob looks to heaven
“Humor,” he says.
“Not seriously, of course.”
Theologian Karl Barth tells us that Christians should be neither wretched nor dour. Those, he says, who have heard the Easter message can no longer keep a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of those without hope. “Only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the victor.” Both Barth and Nelson’s wise hermit remind us that humor is but one face of the virtues of hope and humility.
In the end, we settled the dispute – both Mike and his brother are evidence of the spanine’s sense of humor. If Chris and all the rest of us were made with a sense of humor to delight and teach us, and given we are created as image and likeness of God, then God too must have a sense of humor. Seriously.
Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your consideration. Amen. — Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., in “Hearts on Fire, Praying with the Jesuits”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.