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 is a regular on Comedy Central. What usually comes to mind is someone 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. In the Book of Genesis when God tells the very old Sarah that she is about to have a baby with her husband Abraham, Sarah laughs. You laughed, said God. No I didn't, says Sarah. Oh yes you did laugh, says God. Their baby is named Isaac, or Yitzhak, which derives from the Hebrew word for "God 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's first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding reception, which surely provoked some high spirits.
Most of the saints were also not the gloomy people that 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." St. Francis of Assisi was an exuberant fellow who delighted in animals, nature, his fellow human beings, and in God. And St. Teresa of Ávila even prayed, "From somber, sullen, serious saints, deliver us, 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 prepare to commemorate the death of Jesus. But they will also prepare to celebrate Easter Sunday, the most joy-filled 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.
Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints.