In the gospels, Jesus shares in the fullness of the human experience. To paraphrase one theologian, he mourns and rejoices, he hungers and thirsts, He is born and dies. But, to the modern reader, there seems to be one thing we experience that Jesus doesn’t: laughter.
G.K. Chesterton touched upon this at the very end of Orthodoxy:
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
Mirth—that lightheaded spirit that gives rise to laughter—seems entirely absent in the gospels.
For some, this might not seem like an issue. Jesus was born to die. He came to rescue a fallen humanity and redeem the world. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, to defeat Satan, to heal the broken in spirit and body. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we do not catch any glimpse of Jesus laughing in the gospels. It just would not be fitting.
Yet humor is a distinctive characteristic of what it means to be human. It is one of the most effective ways of winning over audiences, exposing falsehoods, and demonstrating truth in the face of power. Laughter is one of the telltale signs of a couple that is truly happy in love. And no one has fully learned another language and culture until they know how to laugh and tell jokes in it.
We look for signs of humor from Jesus for two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily follow from the fullness of His humanity, as one who shared all things with us except sin (Hebrews 4:15). Second, it follows from our personal desire to relate more fully to Jesus.
It is true the gospels record many instances of Jesus’ joy (as this author points out). But joy is not the same thing as mirth or laughter. It is more of an interior state. Parents watching their child graduate from school or get married, artists drinking in that sense of accomplishment at the completion of a painting or sculpture, and believers resting in the truth of God all experience joy—but those moments are not necessarily accompanied by laughter. They may be—or they may bring out tears of joy.
So Chesterton’s reading of the gospels stands. Given the character of Jesus’ redemptive mission it does seem fitting that He might, as Chesterton puts it, ‘conceal’ His mirth.
But Jesus’ lighthearted side does peek out to us from beneath the veil of the Old Testament, in particular, in the wisdom literature. Consider this prophetic account of Jesus, who speaks in the first person as the wisdom of God in Proverbs 8:
then was I beside him as artisan;
I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
Playing over the whole of his earth,
having my delight with human beings (vv. 30-31).
We are afforded a similar glimpse of this more lighthearted side of Jesus in Song of Songs, if we understand the groom to be Christ. Here is how the bride recounts the approach of the groom in Song of Songs 2:
The sound of my lover! here he comes
springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
See! He is standing behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattices (vv.8-9).
Both passages indicate a more lighthearted, ‘playful’ attitude than what we would normally ever associate with Christ’s demeanor in the gospels. The account in Proverbs seems to belong to a primeval time. Perhaps it offers a glimpse behind the mists of time at what the relationship between God and Adam and Eve before the Fall. This state of original happiness is now our destiny thanks to the redeeming work of Christ.
The second passage, I believe, depicts the pure earnestness of perfect love. One way of interpreting Song of Songs is to see it as a parable of the love Christ has for His Church. One could also see it as a description of the love between the soul and Christ (as St. Bernard of Clairvaux does). Mary would have experienced this as Christ’s mother. And Peter may have after the resurrection.
But details on any lighter moments of happiness Jesus experienced and shared with others are largely absent from the gospels. Perhaps this is because the holiest things are the most hidden. God’s own interior mirth, His sheer delight in being is too wondrous a thing for the naked human eye to see. In looking at the gospels directly, the brilliance of God’s smile is obscured to us. But it nonetheless bursts out on the Scriptural periphery of the gospels—in an ancient collection of wise sayings and one of the most intense love poems of the ancient world.
Does Jesus ever laugh? Rest assured He must. But it’s something that’s veiled to us in this life. For now, may we delight in the traces of divine mirth left for us in the Old Testament.