Helping People to Meet God • Make Friends • Grow in Faith

Risus paschalis  

During the Middle Ages it became custom in some areas to elicit laughter from the congregation on Easter Day in order to express the joy of Christ’s triumph over death. Priests would tell jokes and amusing stories from the pulpit to get the congregation to laugh. There was even a technical, liturgical term for this—risus paschalis, the paschal (Easter) laughter. Unfortunately, over time some priests had to reach for ever more risqué stories to elicit such laughter and the jokes told were becoming somewhat crude. As a reaction to that vulgarisation of the custom the Reformers turned against the tradition, emphasizing the holiness and dignity of the occasion. Instead, the Protestant tradition turned to triumphal and joyful music to convey the sense of the occasion.

At the heart of these customs is the realisation that we don’t just understand with our minds alone, but also with our emotions. It is through solemnity that we get to understand in part the sorrow of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. It is through celebration that we get to experience the joy of the resurrection more deeply. In part the various traditions around Easter have been developed, retained and changed to express this sense of celebration. Yes, eggs have more to do with old pagan customs and the fact that in the northern hemisphere chickens tend to lay more eggs from the middle of spring. But they are also a luxurious meal after weeks of fasting. When they are coloured they convey a sense of joy and celebration. The association between Easter and chocolate is more recent, but developed out of a tradition of eating sweets after the Lenten fast, expressing the festivities of Easter.

There are clearly reasons behind the various customs,
for the joy of the Resurrection is to be experienced with all our senses. However, at times these traditions obscured the real significance of the Resurrection and detracted from the wonder of Jesus’ victory. I hope that we do celebrate at Easter, that we can feel some of the joy, and that the surprise and hope of the resurrection may direct our lives.

Blessings – Tim