Risus paschalis

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Every year I try to watch Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of Christ, on Good Friday, or the Saturday (Silent Saturday), before Easter Sunday. The movie depicts the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus in brutal scenes, and at times, we want to look away, but those graphic images serve to remind us of the horrible ordeal Jesus experienced before there was ever the joy of an Easter Sunday.
I’d almost forgotten, as Lori and I watched the film again this past Saturday afternoon, that scene where Satan howls with a blood-curdling laugh as he celebrates, moments after Christ “gave up His spirit.”
Satan danced in the slime of his evil, assuming that he had won the Final Battle for his cause.
Believers know he didn’t, for we believe the miracle of all miracles: Christ, much to the surprise of Satan as well as Jesus’ own disciples, rose from the grave on Sunday.
So, a tradition emerged in early Christianity called “Risus paschalis” – “the Easter laugh.”
Some early church theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, floated the idea that God had played a practical joke on Satan by raising Jesus from the dead.
The idea caught on, and the Monday after Easter became known as “Bright Monday,” or “White Monday,” or “Day of Joy and Laughter.”
Risus paschalis.
Priests would gather and tell jokes on this Monday, laughing with God at the fool Satan showed himself to be.
Laughter is a much-needed medicine in the world in which we live.
I love to laugh and sometimes grow impatient with people who refuse to engage, even if for a little while, in the lighter side of life. I find myself mocking, if only to myself, “ol’ So-and-So,” who invariably lands on the darker side of the world.
But now, wait, isn’t the world a bad place? After all, Jesus himself warned his disciples, “I send you forth as sheep among wolves.”
Yes, it is true: the world isn’t always, “people friendly.”
As for the followers of Jesus Christ, they can expect opposition, rejection, persecution, and even death.
So, how can God laugh? And, why should we?
True, there seems to be very little to smile about, today. The Sri Lankan government is blaming a radical Islamist group for killing almost 300 and wounding over 500 Christian worshippers in churches there this past Easter Sunday. That’s just one of this week’s news starters. Our world is no laughing matter: innocent children are murdered; lives are destroyed for no reason; people are marginalized, bullied daily; and governments oppress the people they are supposed to protect. Those in control, whether a tyrant in a small family or a despot in charge of an entire nation, laugh at the pain they inflict because they relish the raw power that enables them to do so.
Yet, there it is, in Psalm 2:4 “He Who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord makes fun of them.”
How can God laugh at suffering and evil?
He doesn’t.
God’s laugh is not a snicker at our pain and turmoil but a laugh at the ones who think they can thwart God’s plan. It’s a laugh of assurance and comfort to us, in our grief and misery, reminding us that the story is not over. It’s a laugh at the darkness because it will one day dawn into light; a laugh at pain because it will be transformed into relief; a laugh at sorrow because it will turn to joy.
The resurrection is our assurance that evil won’t finally win out, although it seems to be in victory mode at the moment. Because of the resurrection, we now know “the rest of the story,” a story with a fabulous ending.
So, in that sense, it’s an inside joke on Satan. Not everybody gets it.
“Let me tell you a funny one: you know Ernie down at the feed store…”
“Wait, I don’t know Ernie down at the feed store.”
“You mean you don’t know Ernie down at the feed store?”
 “No, like I said, I don’t know Ernie down at the feed store.”
“Well, if you don’t know Ernie down at the feed store, it won’t be funny.”
And likewise, if you don’t know the Resurrected One…
There’s no humor in this story.
It’s a hopeless world with no reason for laughter.
But for those who know Him…
Risus paschalis.
Editor’s note: You can contact David Whitlock, Ph.D., at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org. His website is www.davidwhitlock.org.