It’s a custom that may seem shockingly out of place in this time of pandemic. Bright Sunday or Holy Humor Sunday is usually celebrated by Christian congregations on the Sunday after Easter. Traditionally, Bright Sunday celebrates Easter joy, and the custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. Early theologians called it “Risus paschalis” or the Easter laugh.  In the week following Easter, some early traditions and cultures around the world celebrate Easter parties, picnics, humorous stories, and some light-hearted fun. You might think of it as an intentional way to extend resurrection joy—a bit like the 12 days of Christmas, but without the partridge in a pear tree and the long lines to return gifts .
This year, Easter feels much more muted, but our need for laughter in these times does not go away. When I worked in Hospice care, the nurses, CNAs, and our support staff would make time to laugh just to survive the daily, unrelenting presence of death. We occasionally engaged in dark humor too—a kind of poking fun at death—telling stories to each other of when the pronounced deceased would suddenly come back to life as if to say, “fooled you!” or the family who gave a full-on birthday party for their beloved mom who was buried on her birthday, or the way some cranky people would remain their quirky, contrite selves even and especially when they had little time to live.
It was a necessity, this laughter, in the face of death. Contrary to some kinds of off-putting humor, this laughter wasn’t mocking or self-righteous, but a gentle humor that recognized the absurdities of living and dying, a kind of recognition shared between human beings that connected us together in a way that staid seriousness never did. Even through tears, people would share stories of their loved ones that brought smiles to their faces and a rollicking kind of cheer that celebrated the ties that humans make with each other.
Of course, daily life for many is difficult, frustrating and entirely too sad for words. And yet, there are glimpses along the way of hope beckoning. Our story from scripture today is about just that. The disciples are walking along a path, with faces downcast, while they discuss with each other everything that had happened. It is just three days after Jesus’ death and they are still in shock from the crucifixion, still in shock from the news of Mary and the women describing the disappearance of a body and rumors about a vision of angels, no less. They had just witnessed a bloody ordeal and watched their hopes of a Messiah dashed brutally and physically on a cross. While they are walking along, they encounter a stranger who appears not yet to know about the things that have taken place in Jerusalem and in their lives, and yet, when they sit down to eat with this stranger, they encounter the risen Christ. One can imagine the laughter shared over a meal, the kinds of reminisces about Jesus in which they delighted in telling, and the true surprise when they discover the presence of Jesus himself revealed in their shared conversation and in their burning hearts.
A surprise of recognition that brings delight is worth lingering over. Consider these examples: a picture provokes a remembrance so vivid that you smile at the memory of it. Or the serendipitous surprise of a friend or companion touching on a subject or a song or a movie that holds special meaning for you. Or maybe it is the recognition of something in nature—a bird, a flower, even a blade of grass—that brings to you a recognition that we are connected to each other and to the holy Divine in a comprehensive and self-transcending way. Or perhaps it is a strange incident that defies explanation but gives you reassurance that you are not alone and that things will eventually turn out okay.
We laugh for a variety of reasons but scientists tell us that the act of laughter is a social behavior that has less to do with jokes and more to do with communication. Laughter is how we show that we like people and that we understand them. Berkeley psychologist Prof Bob Levenson has found that couples who share laughter and a sense of humor in their troubles or over touchy subjects report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships and stay together longer. Laughter helps us to heal, helps us to connect, and is just plain good for us.
But what if you can’t laugh? What if your life feels heavy and full of heartbreak? Telling someone to just lighten up would be not only rude, but cruel. Remember those sad disciples? They did not immediately break out into smiles when they encountered the stranger on the road. They were heartbroken and grief-stricken. Yet, they were willing to entertain the stranger in their lives—in this case, a real person. But perhaps, entertaining the stranger is a symbol for entertaining the strangeness of hope and beauty and possibility when everything feels suffocating, hopeless, ugly, and impossible. The disciples strongly urge the stranger to sit with them, to tell them stories, and to share his understanding with them, downcast as they are. By their invitation, those disciples create an opening for Christ to make his presence known to them. They make it possible to discover delight in the midst of heartache and heaviness.
In these days of scary illness and our fears of an uncontrollable virus, social media gives plenty of examples of people who are discovering delight, despite this world pandemic. Just a search on “Covid-19 parodies” will bring you plenty of creative, heart-warming, and yes, funny songs about the pandemic, which may bring a smile to your face and delight to your eyes. People are poking fun of living in close quarters with children, spouses, and themselves without a break and maintaining their sanity in the process. Quarantine games and humor are also quite popular these days. It’s not that we don’t realize the seriousness of a deadly virus, it is that we are saying that the virus will not have the final say—which is quite like an Easter moment—Easter laughter giving the devil hell instead of the other way ‘round.
Scientists have also proven that laughter is contagious. We laugh when we see others laughing and this has to do with our mirror neurons and the way our brains work. So what if we don’t feel particularly funny? One way to introduce more laughter into our lives is to watch people smiling or laughing—particularly in situations where people are trying to suppress their laughter. Remember when you tried not to laugh in class but that made you laugh even more? Remember trying to suppress the giggles as a child? You would laugh all the harder. Give yourself permission to watch that funny nature video or that clip of the bride giggling in the midst of her vows, or the comedian that relishes in self-deprecating humor. You may find yourself laughing too and being surprised, like the disciples, at your warming heart.
Before we close, I’d like you to think of your first Christmas tree. For some of us, it was like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, or a tree that barely fit our apartment, or a tree sparsely decorated with whatever you had on hand. I have a colleague whose Christmas tree was attacked by her cat repeatedly—so much that it looked like the letter “S” at the end of the season– and the memory of that tree is a delight to many of us who saw photos of what was left of the tree on social media. If it seems strange to be thinking about Christmas trees in Easter, perhaps we might remember that folks, even now, are hanging holiday lights in their windows to chase away the sadness of this pandemic.
So in this spirit, I will close with a story:
The late humor columnist Mike Royko relates a story told him by his “friend,” Slats Grobnik, a character of his own creation. Slats was selling Christmas trees. A poor couple showed up, late in the season, in search of a tree. There wasn’t much left on the lot, and certainly nothing in their price range.
Finally, they came up with a Scotch pine that looked okay on one side but was bare on the other. Nearby was a similar tree that was much the same. They asked Slats if he’d sell them both trees a small price. Realizing he wasn’t likely to sell either sad-looking tree for any price, Slats agreed.
A few days later, Slats was walking down the street and saw a beautiful tree in the couple’s apartment window. It was thick, full and well-rounded. He knocked on the door and asked them where it had come from.
They told him how they had placed the two trees close together where the branches were thin, and had interwoven the good branches. Then, they had wired the trunks together.
“So that’s the secret,” Slats said. “You take two trees that aren’t perfect, that have flaws, that might even be homely, that maybe nobody else would want. If you put them together just right, you can come up with something really beautiful.”
Sisters and brothers, I think that this is the secret to Easter laughter and the special something that transpired between those disheartened disciples and the stranger long ago on that Emmaus Road. When we put ourselves, our flawed and troubled selves, together and we combine our gifts, modest though they may be, in novel ways, the result can be something really beautiful and cherished by others, even in the midst of turbulent, uncertain, and deadly times. God smiles whenever we dare to weave our branches together.
We remember that we need each other—our shared joys and sorrows, our imperfections and blessings, and our friendship for each other and our openness to the stranger and what the “stranger” in our lives brings. What we create in these moments is an opening and an opportunity for grace to surprise us and for our spirits to take rest and delight in each other.
Blessings, friends, on your week. May you discover delight even and especially now.
 Mike Royko, One More Time (University of Chicago Press, 1999), 85-87.