True story: My aunt G----- (an honorific -- she was my Mom's high-school classmate) tells a story about a print of the Laughing Christ that she had in her home. Laughing Christ was a sketch of a jolly Jesus, in the midst of an unrestrained belly laugh, that was popular in the 1960s. My grandmother, a prim and Yankeefied lady, who was very devout, noticed the picture on a visit, and was miffed. "I don't think he was laughing when they nailed him to the Cross!" she huffed.
And so are religious culture wars carried on.
Lots of Christians love the idea of a laughing (at least smiling) Christ. A smiling Savior is is more attractive than a beaten and bloody one. for sure. For starters, he doesn't give kids nightmares. And As George Carlin (playing Cardinal Glick in Dogma) claimed, he doesn't "give us the willies."
True dat. Crucifixion and Christ on the Cross have featured in more than their fair share of my nightmares.
But did Jesus laugh? Was he a happy guy? A great partier?
The gospels do give us a few details about Jesus's emotional life.
Anger: Jesus often got mad at the scribes, lawyers and Pharisees who came to trick him. He also got mad once at a man who wanted a healing -- for doubting that he could heal him! He rebuked his disciple Peter and called him Satan. Ouch!
Pity: Jesus felt moved to pity by the hunger of the crowds who came to the wilderness to hear him preach. Everybody got a free in-flight meal.
Love: he loved the rich young man who wanted to become a follower. He had a "disciple whom he loved" in John's gospel.
Grief: Jesus wept when he met the sister of his newly-deceased (and soon-to-be-raised) friend Lazarus.
Longing: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, ... how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings...."
Terror: a free interpretation of "My heart is sorrowful unto death" that described his feeling in Gethsemane.
Pain/despair: He cried out while on the Cross -- "God, why have you forsaken me?" "And with a loud cry, he breathed his last."
But no laughter. Not even a smile. Or a grin. Or a giggle.
Does that mean Jesus never laughed? Not necessarily. Some of his stories were hilarious. Like the Pharisee stumbling around with a log in his eye. Or the judge who was awakened by a persistent widow. His first sign, at Cana, was at a wedding where the guests had drunk the bar dry. His most common images of the Kingdom were of a wedding feast. He was known for his table fellowship -- he ate at the home of Levi the tax collector and at the home of Simon the Pharisee. He was called a glutton and a friend of drunkards. Though the Last Supper was no party.
But could Jesus have engaged in all this feasting, celebration and joyful imagery and still have been very serious?
He was hunted from his first days in the cradle. People suggested that he was illegitimate. They laid traps for him, at a time when brutal occupiers ruled Judea, with their summary and brutal means of punishing rule-breakers. Then, there was his mission. The gospels show Jesus in a huge hurry to turn the people of Israel from their sins before God turned the world upside down. To Jesus, to be saved was not a theological nicety, but a literal salvation from wrath to come, and to come in short order.
Did such a Jesus smile as he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, the taking of every other person, and his own death?
This side of Paradise, we won't know for sure. Perhaps it's best to keep both Jesuses in our spiritual arsenal. The smiling Jesus who loves and accepts. And the harried/hurried Jesus who challenges and provokes.