It’s the day after Easter Sunday and the Orthodox priest calls the people together for one simple reason: to tell jokes. Little known to most Protestants, this is a centuries-old tradition that still endures today in some parishes. Everyone can take a turn. It’s easy for many of us to dismiss this tradition as something that’s foolish or cute, but this laughing service occupies an important space within Orthodoxy.
Imagine yourself in this service:
In the months before this service, our Eastern brothers and sisters spend weeks in sober repentance and fasting, putting on the spiritual clothing of Christ’s passion, the dark colors of his suffering and death.
On the Easter weekend itself, the darkness grows as believers rehearse the actions of Christ, the servant, washing the disciples’ feet and sharing one last meal with them on Thursday. We re-enact his arrest, trial, beatings, and crucifixion on Friday, putting out the light of the Christ candle, then smashing it to pieces against the altar at the end of the service.
The candle cannot become unbroken again, so the life of God himself has been irrevocably taken by the adversary.
And the void is now poised to swallow one last time. We will all be next.
On Saturday we have nowhere else to turn so we keep vigil, praying long into the night. Fortunately, others are doing it too. As we gather, we identify with the words of the psalmist, whose “soul waits for the Lord/more than watchmen wait for the morning/more than watchmen wait for the morning.” God’s people repeat themselves this night, year after year—because sorrow has a way of causing us to lose track of ourselves. To stave off the potential of spiritual dementia, we recall the story of Jesus—repeating it because we know it, and knowing it because we’re living it. It reminds us who we are.
An Audible Hope
As we keep vigil this Holy Saturday, we are overcome with the strange sense that we are remembering something that is destined to happen because it has already happened. Christians call this hope. Hope, at its essence, is a remembrance of future things, last things. And Christians have the assurance of future hope because we have the assurance that what we hope for has already happened in Jesus.
So, already in the middle of this dark Saturday vigil, we are beginning to smile because of this hope. On this night, when the eyes of hope are opened, we can see Christ taking the keys of death and Hades. And we get caught up in the spirit of it, joining Christ’s band of thieves. Like all good burglars, our hands have to clutch at something. So during the service, we reach in our pockets or purses—whatever we can find—to lay hold of anything that will clank or jangle, chime or tinkle, as if we are shaking the stolen keys in the devil’s face. The child in our heart wants to go, “Na na na na boo boo!” as we join Jesus in releasing the captives.
And with this delightful play-making, the light begins to grow again, both physically and spiritually. By the time midnight comes, we are laughing—yes, out loud.
A good friend of mine from a small village in Greece called Drama told me once that this Saturday vigil is the highlight of the year for him. He grew up participating in Orthodox worship at least once a year for Easter. As he described his experience, the entire town spends all day preparing a feast that makes American Thanksgiving look like a frozen dinner served on tinfoil trays. Then they gather in the center of the village every year for a ceremony. While everyone is at the ceremony, the meat continues roasting so that, when the service is over, they can party. It is the anticipation of this party, this laughter, that brings them all together.
In the ancient church, baptismal candidates would stay up all night getting ready for the big moment when they’d be baptized at first light. Before going under the water, they’d raise their hands in defiance as they renounced the devil and spat in his face. Then, as they identified with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in baptism, joy abounded.
And so it still abounds to us, even today. The new life of Easter brings a smile to our face, laughter to our chest and glee to our eyes. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Happiness sets before us a full table with enough room for all who would join the banquet.
It’s all too much to take in, really. That’s why I think our Orthodox brothers and sisters follow it up the next day with joking around. It’s as if the new life-situation has finally sunk in and we need to mark it somehow, to show that we really get what all that pain, suffering and death was all about.
The Ecstasy of Laughter
Easter laughter is really an act of present defiance in light of future hope. In his book Theology of Play, Jürgen Moltmann equates it with the work of liberation. It is the laughter of the slaves who know their deliverance is coming—if not in this life, certainly in the next. That’s why the deepest laughter is Easter laughter. It sets you free even as it seizes you. Your gut hurts and you start crying. When you laugh deeply, when you are overcome with Easter laughter, it is not a time for shallow breathing. You have to gulp the air to keep up with the joy of it. Easter laughter oxygenates the soul through and through.
The wonder of Easter laughter preceded the first Easter. In Psalm 126, we read a foreshadowing of it. When the captives returned to Zion their “mouths were filled with laughter” and their “tongues with songs of joy.” They were “like men who dreamed.” They could hardly believe it. Their deliverance had come.
Their laughter echoed through the centuries such that, generation after generation, the delivered people kept singing the same song as they made their annual pilgrimage to the temple. It was a song of ascent, a song of rising laughter. It still is.
When we sing our Easter laughter today—or tell jokes like the Orthodox on Easter Monday— we join with those in history who knew the depths of hopeless sorrow and futility, only to discover that God comes as a deliverer. God has the last laugh.
If eschatology is the theological science of last things, it is also the regenerative artistry of present laughter.
Cover image by Azamat Kinzhitaev