Earlier this summer, I was invited to present at the Catholic Media Conference, speaking to journalists and editors about “using humor and joy in writing and publications.” As I told my audience, the assigned topic was nearly impossible to speak about because humor is a very subjective concept.
There is no such thing as a “universal joke.” What one person finds uproariously hilarious may be thoroughly offensive to the person in the next seat. And sometimes a genuinely funny observation may not even be appropriate to share, due to the situation and context. So, speaking (or writing) about humor for a broad audience was bound to be a fool’s errand.
As people of faith, we also must be mindful of the Gospel commandment to act with charity toward all, which includes our use of language. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes, “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (Eph. 5:4). The idea of “levity which is not fitting” is a good warning about the limits of humor, a reminder to consider the situation and the audience, and a deeper call to reflect on what we’re actually trying to say with our humor.
If humor can be a minefield, why should we even be interested in plotting a path over that dangerous ground? In a word, it’s because we, the Church, are called to be people of joy. We are urged on by the Holy Spirit to share with all creation the love that we ourselves have received, and to invite everyone we encounter to discover the hope that we have found in Christ Jesus.
Pope Francis has made this theme of joy a central idea of his papal ministry, writing in his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation, I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come” (EG, 1).
He continues this theme of joy in his 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which begins: “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church” (AL, 1). He again echoes the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs, and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (GS, 1).
We are called to be evangelizers who share the joy of the Gospel in a world that is increasingly divided. Of course, there has been division in the world since our first parents decided to enjoy the forbidden fruit in the Garden, and it was to heal this division that Christ became incarnate. He, the God through whom and for whom everything was made (cf. Col. 1:16), was born in a specific time, place, and culture, with all the messy divisions and conflicts that came with that decision.
How did Jesus address the conflict and division of His time, and what can that teach us who also live in divided times today? A story from the 7th chapter of the Gospel of Mark may help illustrate Jesus’s approach: Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him. She came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged Him to drive the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She replied and said to Him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Then He said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” – Mark 7:24–29
I know what you may be thinking: how can this be read as a story of humor or joy? Jesus actually sounds a bit cruel, calling the woman a “dog,” just because she was a Greek and not Jewish. In his book Discovering Humor in the Bible, theologian Howard R. Macy suggests that if we envision ourselves as wallflowers in the scene, and turn our focus to the faces of Jesus and the woman during their interaction, we might discover something different: “The text doesn’t give us facial expressions or vocal inflections; we bring those to it. Imagining Jesus smiling and even being a bit coy rather than being cranky makes a lot of sense, particularly when we remember Jesus’ response in so many other stories.” (Macy, 115)
He goes on to say, “My colleague Ron also tells me that this passage is very important to missiologists. They see this as one of the ways Jesus was teaching the disciples the wide range of the gospel. The sneaky gentleness of humor, as they watched, could well have had an enduring, powerful effect.” (Macy, 116)
Missiologists are academics who study and practice the work of evangelization, which echoes what Pope Francis wrote in his first encyclical, where he encouraged all of us to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy,” to be missionary disciples.
So that is our charge: to share the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of those we meet, to share with them the joy and hope that we have found in Christ Jesus. As members of the Church, we have lots of support for this mission, including the sacraments, the communion of saints, and popular devotions. I look forward to exploring these in future columns.
Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend. For more, visit blog.hallenius.org.
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