Easter is the most solemn feast of the Christian liturgical year. However, it is overshadowed in our society by Christmas, with all its commercial, social and family celebrations. Easter has been making a slow recovery to its place of primacy since the liturgical reforms of the 1950s under Pope Pius XII, when the liturgy was made more “user-friendly.”
While Easter is our most solemn feast day, that does not mean it should make us grim-faced and over-serious. Quite the opposite. And the authority for this is none other than the former pope, Benedict XVI.
Before he was pope, Joseph Ratzinger delivered occasional sermons on Bavarian Radio. His meditations covered major Catholic holidays. He connected the celebration of Easter with joy and laughter. He commented that on Easter, we imagine Jesus’ laughter of redemption. “We who share an Easter faith can say, like Sarah, ‘God has made me laugh.’ ”
Ratzinger connected Easter and laughter by reflecting on the story of our founding family of faith: Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. Here is an excerpt from his sermon, which focuses on Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac:
“. . . Jesus is both the lamb and Isaac. He is the lamb who allowed himself to be caught, bound and slain. He is also Isaac, who looked into heaven; indeed, where Isaac saw only signs and symbols, Jesus actually entered heaven, and since that time the barrier between God and humanity is broken down. Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy in his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy — this laughter of redemption: If you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh! (cf. John 16:20).
“In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with a joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed?
“And is it not a sign of an Easter faith when Haydn remarked, concerning his church compositions, that he felt a particular joy when thinking of God: ‘As I came to utter the words of supplication, I could not suppress my joy but loosed the reins of my elated spirits and wrote allegro over the Miserere, and so on?’
“The Book of Revelation’s vision of heaven expresses what we see by faith at Easter: the Lamb who was slain lives. Since he lives, our weeping comes to an end and is transformed into laughter (cf. Revelation 5:4f.).
“When we look at the Lamb, we see heaven opened. God sees us, and God acts, albeit differently from the way we think and would like him to act. Only since Easter can we really utter the first article of faith; only on the basis of Easter is this profession rich and full of consolation: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. For it is only from the Lamb that we know that God is really Father, really Almighty.
“No one who has grasped that can ever be utterly despondent and despairing again. No one who has grasped that will ever succumb to the temptation to side with those who kill the Lamb. No one who has understood this will know ultimate fear, even if he gets into the situation of the Lamb. For there he is in the safest possible place.
“Easter, therefore, invites us not only to listen to Jesus but also, as we do so, to develop our interior sight. This greatest festival of the church’s year encourages us, by looking at him who was slain and is risen, to discover the place where heaven is opened.
“If we comprehend the message of the Resurrection, we recognize that heaven is not completely sealed off above the earth. Then — gently and yet with immense power — something of the light of God penetrates our life. Then we shall feel the surge of joy for which, otherwise, we wait in vain.
“Everyone who is penetrated by something of this joy can be, in his own way, a window through which heaven can look upon earth and visit it. In this way, what Revelation foresees can come about: every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the world, is filled with the joy of the redeemed (cf. Revelation 5:13).
“To the extent that we realize this, the words of the departing Jesus — who, parting from us, is the coming Jesus — are fulfilled: “Your sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn 16:20). And, like Sarah, people who share an Easter faith can say: ‘God has made me laugh; every one who hears will laugh with me’ ” (Gn 21:6).