Pursuing a Playful Liturgy
What would it mean to laugh as we worship—to head to church anticipating fun?
“Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer” — Reinhold Niebuhr
“If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there” — Martin Luther
"Seriousness is not a virtue,” G. K. Chesterton states in his marvelous book Orthodoxy. “It would be a heresy,” he continues, “but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity."
If Chesterton is right, that a certain form of seriousness is a vice rather than a virtue, then it is a vice for everybody—a vice that tempts both the plumber and the prime minister, both the homemaker and the priest, both the academic and the artist. It is a vice that especially tempts folks who belong to my own tribe: the tribe of liturgical scholars. Reversing C. S. Lewis’ judgment about heaven, liturgists would have us believe that seriousness is the serious business of heaven—and of worship—not joy.
Of course, liturgical scholars are not all the somber, fussy sort. The mid-twentieth century Swiss Reformed theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen, is a refreshing exception. In a comment about the way in which the church in its dual ministry of worship and mission is open to heaven and earth, von Allmen uses the delightfully domestic image of a can of condensed milk to make his point:
If [the church] is open to the world through its apostolic ministry, it is open to heaven through its liturgical ministry. It is only because of this dual opening that there can come from it something orientated towards the world, namely the Gospel, and something orientated towards heaven, namely thanksgiving and intercession. In fact, if I may be so bold as to use the metaphor, it is like a tin of condensed milk: if you wish to make it flow, you must pierce two holes.
Yes, our public worship begins and ends with the Father’s glory and it is centered on the work of Christ and the Spirit. Yes, a primary purpose of our liturgical gathering is the praise of God and the sanctification of his people. And, yes, idolatry, superstition, hypocrisy, irreverence, formalism, and all other heretical “isms” are serious matters. But does this mean that corporate worship is fundamentally a “serious” affair? Can the church’s liturgy not also be a fundamentally joy-filled affair, distinguished by festivity, laughter, and perhaps even a dash of humour?
If Lewis is right, that joy is the serious business of heaven, then what does it mean for joy to enter into our corporate practices of worship? And how might that joy not simply be turned into another form of deadly seriousness and instead be allowed to become an actual joy? What would it mean for our corporate worship to become the playful business of the children of God who have exchanged their workaday clothes for the festal attire that befits the eschatological banquet?
The answer to these questions depends on how we understand our terms and on how we construe the church’s public worship. On what grounds might we let humour enter into our respective liturgies? Allow me to suggest three theological reasons here: the grace of God, the future of God, and the comedy of God’s work. I’ll also use a personal story to illustrate my point.
First, a sense of humour is required of the people of God at worship because the grace of God requires it. The world that God has made is marked by hyper-abundance. There is more in creation than human beings need or could ever make good use of in multiple lifetimes. Birdsong, tuneful to the human ear, exceeds our need for aural pleasure. The flavor in our foods, from Chicken Korma to Krispy Kreme donuts, goes beyond what any individual deserves. In creation there is wonderful excess—of light and texture, of goodness and beauty—and it is all a grace.
There is nothing needful about such a divine act. Nothing outside of God’s character compels him to make a world in which not just one kind of apple exists, but rather 7,500 cultivars of apples, from Acey Mac to York Imperial. As Karl Barth sees it, it gives God a “sporting joy” to make such a world possible—to “its very depths.” It is a world made in grace, and for grace. Marked by such a grace, we are freed from an anxious need to live only “usefully” or “productively.” We are freed to revel in creation’s excess. We get to; we don’t just have to.
In the context of our common worship, we get to make our church architecture playful, like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, with its whimsical colors and its fantastical vision of a world renewed by the resurrected Christ. We get to include puns in our sermons, like Jesus did. We get to shout for joy, like the mountains continually do. We get to laugh in the Spirit. We get to participate in a joyous dance. We get to do so because it is God’s everlasting pleasure to make such worship possible.
Second, a sense of humour is required of the Christian at worship because of God’s good future. Again, Barth points us in the right direction. He writes, "humour undoubtedly means that we do not take the present with ultimate seriousness, not because it is not serious enough in itself, but because God's future, which breaks into the present, is more serious.” Such a future, he clarifies, “declares itself implicitly as laughter and tears." If our present worship is a foretaste of the worship that marks the eschaton, then the practice of joy and laughter in worship today becomes an act of eschatological faithfulness.
“In God’s Home,” Saint Augustine remarks, “there is an everlasting party.” And what is celebrated there, he explains, is not a passing moment or an occasional feast. No, “the choirs of angels keep eternal festival, for the eternally present face of God is joy never diminished.” Eastern Orthodox Christians understand well how the church’s worship on earth is a simultaneous participation in the worship which takes place in heaven. And because it is heavenly worship, it is also a worship that belongs to God’s good future.
When Christians celebrate a moment of levity in worship, it is a way for them to participate in the levity that marks the everlasting heavenly praise. As the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon imagines it, the Trinity makes the world as a kind of “wild party,” full of joyful shouts and shared laughter. “And forever and ever they told old jokes,” Capon writes, “and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.”
Capon readily grants the crassness of the image. But he also argues that its crassness tells the truth better than most books of theology and treatises on worship that suffer from an impoverished imagination. Because the worship of heaven is an eternal feast, marked by the delight of the Godhead in what it has made, what awaits us in the new creation is made tangible here and now in our liturgical gatherings by the Spirit of God, who declares today the joyful news of the future manifested in the ascended Christ.
Put simply: we joyfully laugh now in our praise of God because it is our way to participate in the joyful laughter that the host of heaven enjoys forever more before the face of God.
Third, a good sense of humour is required in our practices of public worship because comedy, not tragedy, will have the final word in God’s work. In his book, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner states that comedy is at the center of God’s redemptive work in Christ—from birth to resurrection and beyond. “It all happened not of necessity,” he writes, “not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitous, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.”
If a fundamental purpose of corporate worship is to proclaim and to enact the gospel, then surely, I would like to believe, our practices of proclamation and enactment would somehow point to the astonishing, gratuitous, even hilarious nature of the good news. To draw attention to the humourous nature of the gospel in our liturgical gatherings becomes a way to bind us more deeply to Jesus and to humble us more thoroughly because we too have found that grace, not sin, has the last word in our life—preposterously so.
I once impersonated J.I Packer in a chapel service when I was a student at Regent College. I pretended that he was C-3PO from Star Wars. It worked. He laughed, I laughed, people laughed. We laughed, I would like to think, because the impression fit the man. Both J.I. and C-3PO are tall, lanky creatures, all joints and sockets. They’re both British. They’re both über-rational, uncommonly smart, and possessed of photographic memories that lead them, on occasion, to boast of this particular ability. They’re also both catch-you-by-surprise funny.
Having served as Packer’s teaching assistant for three years, I had the privilege to watch him up close. The point of comparing him to C-3PO was not to stress Packer’s ostensibly robotic appearance or preoccupation with etiquette. The point was to highlight certain quirky details of Packer’s wonderfully idiosyncratic self. It was an act of testimony, a common liturgical activity of Christians throughout history. To bear witness to Packer in this context was to bear witness to the grace of God in his life, quirks and all.
This seemed like good news worth celebrating in worship, maybe
also chuckling over in our shared celebration of the good work of God in
“Packer by name, packer by nature,” as J.I. likes to describe himself.
Most of what I say here is easier said than done, and my intent is mainly to raise a question, not to resolve it exhaustively. How humour enters into a liturgical context depends on which part of the worship service we have in mind, whether the celebration of the Lord's Supper or the giving of announcements. A sermon that includes a joke is one thing; a jokey sermon is another. Levity of spirit should not be confused with misguided attempts to be "hip," nor should liturgical festivity ever devolve into liturgical flippancy.
There is an appropriate way to be humourous in worship and usually it is a matter of context and timing. Perhaps we can understand how a sense of humour enters into our practices of corporate worship by appealing to the idea of play. In play, children revel in the sheer gratuity of life. In play the universe comes into being, as an expression of God’s sheer delight in being. And in play Christians enter into a fundamental aspect of worship: as an act of wonderment and delight in the sheer gratuity of God’s grace.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has remarked that for children play is a kind of rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. “On this analogy,” he writes, “the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children.” If Chesterton is right that Satan fell by force of gravity, then the church at worship does well to rehearse the playful delight that marks the children of God in the eternal liturgy of heaven, because we, like saints before us, have been raised by force of grace to a life that fills our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts for joy.
Want to delve deeper into G. K. Chesterton's take on God and humour? Read Matthew Eames' "G. K. Chesterton on the Fool as Saviour of the Postmodern Soul."