Comedy (definition): a drama in which the central motif is the triumph over adversity, leading to a successful conclusion.
In the literary sense, Easter is comedy: Easter is a drama in which the central motif is the triumph over adversity, triumph over crucifixion, over humiliation and death, leading to a successful conclusion, leading to resurrection, leading to the death of death.
However, since the earliest days of the Church, Easter has been understood as more than a comedy...Easter has also been regarded as a joke. A supreme joke. The best joke in all the world and the last and best laugh ever.
For us, these two millennia later it's not easy to get the joke because we know the ending. There's no surprise.
So in an effort to recover the surprise of Easter, I am invite you now to travel with me back in time, to the beginning of what we now call the Common Era, to the time of the Roman Empire to a land called Palestine: there was a gruesome, if inconsequential, incident of capital punishment.
The Roman Empire executed a peasant with an attitude...a peasant who refused to pledge allegiance to the Empire, refused to regard Caesar as a god.
From Rome's perspective, this peasant's death was inconsequential and matter of fact. It was routine. There are really no records to speak of--other than the hand-me down stories told by his little band of followers--there is no record that in killing Jesus of Nazareth Rome had wrestled down a mighty insurrection.
The Jesus movement--it wasn't mighty. It wasn't large...it was tiny. Nor by any stretch of the imagination, was it an insurrection, an uprising, insurgency or rebellion. It was nothing like that.
Jesus and his tiny band of fishermen followers, these were no armed terrorists plotting a takeover. They planned no kidnappings, no taking of hostages, no assassination of heads of state.
They carried no weapons. They laid out no strategy. They had no plot to overthrow the powers that were.
What's more, they had no manifesto. Except maybe this: to love one another.
No, from the perspective of the Roman Empire, the death of Jesus was inconsequential. A small cog in the vast and mighty machinery of the Roman Empire executed a peasant who had a weakness for love. But as far as Rome goes, the execution was not worth recording or reporting.
So here's the joke...in fact, here's the first of two Easter jokes:
The first Easter joke is on death. Death, far mightier even than the mighty Roman Empire ...death, which always gets the last word and the last laugh. Death is made a laughing stock by Easter. In the Easter story it is Life that gets the last word and the last laugh. In the Easter story the joke is on Death and Death is silenced. Death is rendered impotent. In Jesus, Death meets its match and then some.
So that's the first joke...the joke on Death.
And here's the second joke. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this second joke is to note what did not happen on Friday, what failed to occur this past Friday. Good Friday.
On Good Friday the vast and mighty machinery of the New York Stock Exchange failed to rally itself into business. That's right. On Good Friday the stock market remained closed. It remained closed in deference to a Palestinian peasant, an itinerant preacher who lived over 2000 years ago, among whose most memorable teachings is this: Do not store up treasures here on earth where moths eat them and rust destroys them and where thieves break in and still...but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. The New York Stock Exchange is frozen today, suspended in time, exactly as it was 4 p.m. last Thursday.
This extraordinary annual three-day closure of the mighty and massive machinery of the stock market is in deference to Jesus of Nazareth.
Here's what I imagine happens up in heaven on every single Good Friday.
I imagine that on the morning of Good Friday, Jesus' family and friends all gather together...Mary and Joseph, James and John, Peter and Paul, Lazarus and Martha and Mary, and Bartimaeus and Nicodemus, and Zacchaeus--all of them. I imagine they're all together in heaven on the morning of Good Friday; and at 9:29 a.m. precisely, Eastern Standard Time, New York time, they grow silent. All the saints in heaven grow silent. Heads cocked, ears straining to hear, they listen for the opening bell.
And when the clock reaches 9:31 a.m. and the opening bell hasn't sounded, I imagine the friends and followers of Jesus and all the saints in heaven erupting into peals of uncontrollable laughter...bent over, stomach-aching, rolling-in-the-cloud laughter. A laughter of absolute and utter incredulity at the power and reach of Jesus and his teachings.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri tells of the night of Good Friday in the year 1300 of Common Era. You know how it starts: In the middle of the journey of our life, Dante comes to himself, in a dark wood, where the straight-way is lost. There Dante meets the spirit of Virgil who promises to guide him on a journey to Heaven. However, the journey to heaven begins in the harrowing bowels of Hell.
The journey through Hell is slow, gruesome, torturous. Dante makes his way along the way, seeing sights so agonizing and ghastly that they are forever burned into his eyes. But he journeys on, up and up and up and up.
Finally, departing Hell, Dante plods onward and upward through Purgatory. Up and up, onward and upward. Then, just as Dante draws near to the celestial sphere, as he draws near to Paradise itself, he hears a faint and distant sound. Cocking his head, straining his ears, Dante listens, then smiles, nods to himself and proclaims: it sounds "like the laughter of the universe."
Eugene O'Neill, great American playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a play called Lazarus Laughed. The play tells the story of Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from death. As Lazarus is the first person to return from the realm of the dead, people want to hear from him, to hear his story. They want to know, "What was it like, Lazarus?"
In his post-death life, Lazarus does have things to say. Among them, he tells people there is no death. But more than what he says, it is what he does that convinces people. Lazarus laughs. He laughs at everything, even death. And the more Lazarus laughs, the younger and stronger he becomes. His home in Bethany is called House of Laughter.
In the book of Ecclesiastes the author writes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build up,
a time to weep and a time to laugh.
My friends, Easter Sunday is a time to laugh. It is a time to laugh at Death, a time to laugh at Empire.
Because in the end, here's the thing. In the end, the joke's on them. In the end, God wins. In the end, no matter what, no matter what happens, no matter what you are facing, in the end, my friend, death is dead, and God's got your back.
Let us pray. Dear God, although adversity is far too central a motif in all of our lives, we give you great thanks for the knowledge of a happy ending. Thanks be to you, O God, for Easter's victory and final word. Amen.