"I like a good laugh." That phrase, "a good laugh", opens an interesting set of questions. Laughter is a human response to a whole range of experiences, from the incongruous to the completely unexpected; laughter can be a shared joy, a healing relief, a derisory put down, a vocal signal of sarcasm, even a rejoicing in an enemy's hurt or worse. So what makes a good laugh good? Good for whom? Good for what? Perhaps for the person who laughs, so that laughter is therapy; or the person laughed at, so laughter is a humiliation; or the person laughed with, although shared laughter can also be corporate bullying, the clique picking on a less powerful individual. So laughter is morally malleable, and the motive and intention as well as the source and target, are all important criteria in deciding whether laughter is good or bad.
All of this was sparked in my mind this morning reading chapter 13 of Julian of Norwich and her Revelations of Divine Love. Julian has a fifth Revelation and sees the Devil as evil incarnate, but also sees that the Passion of Christ has rended the Devil's power impotent, because the cross signals the final defeat of evil, and the resurrection the final triumph of the love of God. So, seeing the strutting arrogance of the devil, the contrast between such vaunted power plays, and the triumph of the crucified Christ is so absolute, that Julian, from the depths of her suffering and near fatal illness, burst out laughing so hard it became infectious and all those waiting round her sick bed dissolved into mirth, festivity, inexplicable joy and loud laughter. Here is her account of her hilarious outburst having just seen evil do its worst, and eternal love do its best:
"At the sight of this I laughed heartily, and that made those who were around me to laugh and their laughter was a pleasure to me. In my thoughts I wished that all my fellow Christians had seen what I saw, and then they would all have laughed with me."
This is no trivialisation of evil, suffering, cruelty, greed, pride and the arrogance of abusive power. Julian lived through the black death, and in the context of an often brutal and violent culture; she knew evil was real, destructive, manipulative and persistent. But she had seen its end, because she had seen God take on the world's worst nightmares, bear their terror and absorb their toxic waste. Julian had seen that the love that made and sustains and redeems the creation is forever more powerful and life giving than anything evil can concoct. Laughter is her response; a good laugh is hopeful merriment at the expense of evil and the pretensions of sin and devil alike.
In that sense there is a close connection between holy laughter and eschatology. Holy laughter erupts from a heart that hopes and imagines and trusts "the love that moves the sun and other stars." Laughter in that sense is praise, laughter is gratitude for life, laughter voices faith and confidence in the grace and mercy of a Creator, whose purposes are benign and benevolent beyond human imagination. To see evil boast of its achievements, while knowing its ultimate defeat is to enter into the greatest mystery and the greatest denouement of the greatest drama ever. The incongruity of laughter at the foot of the cross is precisely what makes Christian faith wise foolishness, and Christian hope defiant of all other claims on the heart's allegiance.
The suffering of the Syrian people, the cruelty and inhumane trading and trafficking in people, the long treks and voyages of refugees, the poverty and powerlessness of billions, the plundering, waste and despoiling of our oceans and forests and human habitats, are all, and each, reason enough to dread for the future. They are no laughing matter; and Julian of Norwich, whose world was incomparably different from 21st Century times, would nevertheless recognise our human fallenness and capacity for damage and hurt of others, and our intractable and self-defeating fixation on self-interest, whether individual or national. And she would weep, as we ought.
And yet. I recognise in her laughter a profound theological conviction, that God, not us, holds the decisive hand. Julian's theological instincts are being entirely re-oriented as the Passion of Christ and his Cross, is shown to her in its folly and power, its apparent defeat yet mysterious triumph. And into the deep layers of her laughter, seeds of hope fall from the Cross, and in prayers of trustful joy, they germinate and propagate towards fulfilment as God's great purposes work out, "breaking down dividing walls of hostility, and "reconciling all things to himself, making peace by the blood of the cross."