The Laughing Christ

An unfamiliar image — An image like this help us remember that Christians are called to show joy.

Laughing Christ

Laughing Christ

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I’ve attached one of my favourite images of Jesus to this column. Have you seen it before? Some of you may have seen it. It was drawn by artist Willis Wheatley in 1973 for the United Church of Canada, one of four sketches Wheatley drew. It was originally titled “Christ the Liberator”, but has widely become known as “The Laughing Christ.”

This image was one of the very first in the whole history of Christian art which shows Jesus laughing. Look at other works of art depicting Jesus. I dare you to find even one that shows this kind of laugh. It’s not just a polite snicker or titter. It’s a full–throated belly laugh. Jesus throws his head back and lets ‘er rip.

Early art tends to show Jesus with a serious look. His lips are usually turned down. Even in works of art showing joyful events, Jesus was depicted stoically, as a somber guy — you know, one of those serious religious dudes with straight laces and long faces. You could never imagine the Jesus of early icons and paintings to crack a joke or share a laugh. He was just a pious bore.

Now, the Bible never explicitly says that Jesus laughed. It does say that Jesus wept — and we hold on to that notion tightly. We talk about Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, or other such titles which perpetuate the notion of a serious, humourless, pious Jesus.

But you can hardly imagine that Jesus never laughed. He went to weddings and ended up making more wine when it ran out; he told stories; he played with children; people were attracted to him. You’ve got to think he wasn’t really a gloomy Gus.

His parables also show us a man with a wicked sense of humour. Ever hear the one about a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle? In fact, some people thought he was having too much fun and called him a drunkard and a glutton. Does this sound like someone who wasn’t enjoying life? “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” he says in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.

An image like this help us remember that Christians are called to show joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul. Always. Not just once in a while, and not necessarily just a quiet joy. Too often I hear people tell me that joy doesn’t necessarily mean you have to laugh, that joy can be expressed quietly and reverently. Really? Honestly? Oh come on now!

When you do something that brings you joy, don’t you laugh? Don’t you smile? Don’t you radiate that joy so that other people catch it from you?

I love this image. Part of the reason is that about 15 years ago, I became so depressed that I thought I would kill myself. I almost succeeded. Thankfully I didn’t. As I worked through the depression, I discovered that one of the things that had happened was that I had forgotten how to laugh. I started taking life much too seriously.

For me, laughing is a sign of health — good physical health, good emotional health and good spiritual health. When you laugh, you are saying that you look at reality as life–giving and nourishing. Granted, there are moments of pain and grief. There always will be. But laughing is a choice which says that despite the sorrow that comes our way, life is filled with wonder and beauty and grace.

So I’m going to hold on to this image of the laughing Christ. Here is a man who loved life to the full, who was able to marvel at lilies and sparrows and see the love of God in those oh–so–very–ordinary things. Here is a man who drew people to him, and taught them to revel in the goodness of God in all of life.

Along with an anonymous 10th century Irish writer, I will celebrate the joy of life with this prayer:

I would like to have the men of Heaven

In my own house:

With vats of good cheer

laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,

Their fame is so great.

I would like people

From every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful

In their drinking.

I would like to have Jesus too

Here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer

For the King of Kings,

I would like to be watching Heaven’s family

Drinking it through all eternity.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.