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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Father James Martin wrote the book "My Life with the Saints," and he wants to remind the faithful at the beginning of Lent that joy is one of the upsides of being religious. And he feels that more people need to remember that even God has a sense of humor, he thinks.

JAMES MARTIN: When it comes to religion, joy has a lousy reputation. Admit it: When you hear someone described as religious, you normally don't think about a person who's a regular on Comedy Central. What usually comes to mind is some old prune who is terrified that somewhere in the world somebody might be having a good time.

The idea that holiness can include humor seems to have escaped us. Maybe that's not surprising, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Old Testament, God isn't exactly a barrel of laughs, although there are some amusing passages in the Hebrew scriptures.

SIEGEL: You laughed. No I didn't, says Sarah. Oh yes you did, says God.

Their baby is named Isaac ,or Yitzhak, which derives from the Hebrew word meaning he laughs. And though we hear about Jesus of Nazareth weeping in the New Testament, there's nothing about him laughing. Still, it's hard to imagine Jesus without a sense of humor.

Some of the parables he told, like the mustard seed growing into a tree, and the speck of dust in your neighbor's eye and the log in your own would have been considered amusing by people in ancient Palestine. And most people who tell funny stories like to laugh. Besides, Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding reception, which surely provoked some high spirits.

Most of the saints weren't the gloomy people we imagine them to be. Otherwise, they wouldn't have attracted so many followers. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lawrence, taunted his executioners who were roasting him alive. Turn me over, he said, I'm done on this side.

O L: From somber, sullen, serious saints deliver us, O Lord. The saints knew that closeness to God leads to joy and even laughter.

Lent is a somber time. For the next few weeks, Christians will get ready to commemorate the death of Jesus, but they will also prepare to celebrate Easter Sunday, the most surprising day in the whole Christian calendar, the day that proves that joy triumphs over despair.

So today on Ash Wednesday, instead of going around with a mopey look on your face, have a laugh for God's sake.

SIEGEL: Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest and the author of the book "My Life with the Saints."

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