As early as the 16th century, it was said: "Don't joke in the pulpit!"

Easter laughter at Mass - more than just laughter?

Bonn - The jokes that priests and preachers used to recite to the faithful at Easter services were crude, obscene and sexualised. The custom of Easter laughter still exists in the church today. However, this pastoral practice has also been criticised.

Published  on 31.03.2024 at 00:01  – by Madeleine Spendier

The Bishop of Passau, Stefan Oster, has brought the custom of Easter laughter back into fashion. His "Easter jokes" are well clicked on the internet. One joke he told last year at the Easter service in Passau Cathedral was: "A husband goes on holiday and writes a message to his wife, who wants to join him. However, the message is inadvertently sent to another woman who has recently buried her husband, probably not unwillingly. So she mistakenly receives the message: "My dear darling. I've only just arrived. Everything is ready for your arrival. I'm really looking forward to seeing you. P.S. It's insanely hot down here."

This joke, which is somewhat to the detriment of married couples, is definitely part of the colourful tradition of the "risus paschalis", the "Easter laugh" or "Easter laughter". Jokes about husbands, for example, who are subject to the regiment of their wives, can be found several times in older sources of jokes, writes the Italian theologian Maria Caterina Jacobelli, who takes an in-depth look at the tradition in her book "Das Ostergelächter - Sexualität und Lust im Raum des Heiligen", which was published in 1995. A common joke from the 16th century in Marchtal on the Danube goes like this: "During the service, the priest asks the men who are in charge at home to sing the Easter song "Christ is risen" out loud. Because all the men are silent, the women sing the song loudly."

There is evidence ofthe custom of laughter in the liturgy as early as the 9th century . This spread throughout Europe and is documented in sources from the 16th to 18th centuries in German-speaking countries, Italy and Spain. The collection of sermons by the Bavarian priest Andreas Strobl from Buchbach, for example, contains a number of Easter tales, i.e. invented stories. His handbook "Neugefärbte Oster-Ayr" contains 40 comic sermons and was even printed in three editions at the beginning of the 18th century. Some of the stories and anecdotes have a clear connection to Easter. For example, there is an account of the devil's long nose, who spreads lies about Jesus' journey to hell, or of the clumsy Mary Magdalene, who tramples the herbs in the garden in front of Jesus' tomb and is scolded by the supposed gardener.As this collection of sermons was even provided with an "imprimatur", it can be assumed that it was officially authorised and used for preaching.

Even though Easter laughter was very popular and widespread in some areas, it was not known everywhere, emphasises Trier liturgical scholar Marco Benini. There are no references or notes about it in liturgical books or even missals. Nevertheless, Easter laughter was common practice in regions such as Bavaria or the Rhineland, according to Benini.

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Video: © Bistum Passau

Bischof Stefan Oster erzählt am Ende der Auferstehungsfeier in der Osternacht 2018 im Passauer Stephansdom einen Witz. Damit greift er die Tradition des "risus paschalis" auf.

In the liturgy, preachers and priests tried to make people laugh with funny gestures and appropriate facial expressions. However, the stories and pantomime performances usually contained raunchy content, as Jacobelli describes in her book. Some preachers would even expose their bodies in order to reap gales of laughter from the worshippers. It is therefore not surprisingthat the jokes, crude sayings and obscenities did not please everyone at the time. Not only because this pastoral practice missed the actual core of the Easter message, but also because the jokes ridiculed and hurt others, explains liturgist Benini.According to Jacobelli, the "liturgical jokes" certainly also contained criticism of the church and people of other faiths. The "Easter jokes" were used to fuel the dispute between Catholics and Protestants.It was probably precisely this that sparked the fierce criticism, especially from representatives of the Reformation and Enlightenment. However, there were already reservations about Easter laughter before the Reformation, reports liturgical scholar Benini. Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, for example, probably the best-known preacher of the late Middle Ages, called for more seriousness in the sermon. Martin Luther also rejected this custom as "foolishly ridiculous chatter" and Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote in the 16th century that it was "the most shameful thing he knew when some people made people laugh at Easter with invented and obscene stories", according to quotes in Jacobelli's book.

The Basel priest and reformer Johannes Öcolampad (1482-1531) complained in a letter to his fellow priest Wolfgang Capito about the liturgical custom of "making people laugh with disrespectful gestures and nonsensical words". And he gives vivid examples of this: "One always shouted cuckoo. Another lay down on cattle dung, pretending he was about to give birth to a calf. Yet another dressed a layman in a monk's habit, then pretended to be a priest and led him to the altar." You don't joke in the pulpit, clarifies the theologian Öcolampad.But Capito defends the telling of Easter jokes. It was simply necessary, he wrote in his letter to Öcolampad in 1518 . It was a way of bringing people into church, entertaining them during mass and preventing them from falling asleep. Anything is better than preaching in front of empty pews, Jacobelli quotes Capito in her book on Easter chanting.

However, there were also isolated prohibitions against telling jokes during mass at this time. The Prince-Bishop of Augsburg and Trier, Clemens Wenzeslaus, who was a Catholic Enlightenment philosopher, forbade Easter laughter in the liturgy. The Regensburg diocesan constitutions of 1835 also banned fables, rhymed poetry and obscurities from sermons. According to liturgical scholar Benini, the aim of the Enlightenment was probably to improve the quality of the sermons by banning jokes.

„This may be a somewhat superficial and superficial form of Christian joy. But isn't it actually something beautiful and appropriate that laughter has become a liturgical symbol?“

—  Zitat: Pope Benedict XVI in "Joseph Ratzinger: Schauen auf den Durchbohrten. Versuche zu einer spirituellen Christologie", Einsiedeln 1984.

And one pope also took a clear stance against Easter laughter: Pope Benedict XIV, who lived in the 18th century, banned this practice, writes Jacobelli. Even though the official church thus clearly positioned itself against the custom of Easter laughter, it could not be stopped and can be traced back to the 19th century, albeit no longer in such an extensive and excessively exaggerated performance practice as in the centuries before. As late as 1802, a churchgoer complained in a Munich newspaper about his pastor's jokes during the service, for which he left the church in shame. In 1853 in Düsseldorf and even in Styria in 1911, there are records of the local priest making the congregation laugh with jokes at Easter.

A prominent advocate of Easter laughter was Benedict XVI. In his book "Schauen auf den Durchbohrten", he writes about Easter laughter: "This may be a somewhat superficial and superficial form of Christian joy. But isn't it actually something beautiful and appropriate that laughter has become a liturgical symbol?" Priest and liturgy scholar Marco Benini also thinks that the custom of telling jokes at Mass is fine, even if he himself is not so keen on telling jokes during the service. It's not so easy to find appropriate ones, especially when you have to tell a new one every year at Easter, explains the theologian. But the joy of life is something fundamentally Christian and such a basic Easter attitude is both a gift and a mission, says Benini, quoting the words from Philippians in the Bible: "Rejoice in the Lord at all times". And Pope Francis also makes it clear in his Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii gaudium": "The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and the entire life of those who encounter Jesus. With Jesus Christ always - and again and again - comes joy."

After all, Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ after his death and that is reason enough for Easter laughter, explains liturgy scholar Birgit Jeggle-Merz from Lucerne. Such joyful laughter after the long 40-day Easter penitential period, during which repentance takes centre stage, allows people to physically experience that overcoming death at Easter is a reason for exuberant joy. Laughing together creates reconciliation and makes a new beginning tangible, says the theologian. Laughing together is like getting up in the middle of life. Easter laughter is an expression of hope that sadness and death do not have the last word, says Jeggle-Merz. Her tip: at least during the Easter service, it is certainly not wrong for Christians to put on a happy, even cheerful face. With or without the "Easter joke".

by Madeleine Spendier