When I was a little girl, I used to love old movies (I still do): Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Danny Kaye. I loved the earnest dramas, but even more I loved the screwball comedies, the way they confronted the accepted norms of our lives and revealed our crazy obsessions, how strange our “civilized” way of being really is. The Court Jester, with its send-up of Medieval times; Bringing up Baby, poking fun at the New England elites; The Awful Truth, with its tug-of-war between reason and the way our attachments to one another really work; and, of course, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which takes down the pretensions of our Greco-Roman cultural heritage and leaves them giggling in the dust. Those films were bread and meat for a small girl trying to figure out how the world works; they showed that the adult customs that puzzled me really were as irrational as they seemed, that life wasn’t a choice between the games of children and the solemnities of adults, but that all of it was a played by made-up rules, and that sometimes the best choice was to laugh, to be be zany, to break all the rules.
Last Friday, I went to see A Funny Thing Happened (etc.) — not on the screen, but live, on stage. The actors threw themselves into the whole, improbable, utterly silly mess of a plot, and I was left thinking about the kinds of comedy. On stage, comedy is what is funny, what is silly, what evokes laughter. It is the pie in the face, the dumb blonde or inane muscle-man, the pointed wit. It dwells in what is lowborn, ignoble, and common. As Stephen Sondheim put it, “nothing with kings; nothing with crowns; bring on the the lovers, liars and clowns.” Comedy is, above all, frothy: it does not occupy itself with great matters, but with what is small, trivial, evanescent.
The Christian story, too, is a comedy: the divine comedy. It is not silly or trivial, but it takes what is small, low, and of little account, and uses it subvert the pretensions and seemingly-impregnably power of the great. It is a story that begins in darkness, in a world haunted by cruelty and by the power of death, and it ends with a shattered tomb and the echo of divine laughter. It begins in a stable and ends in the heavenly Jerusalem, earth restored and shining more richly than Eden in the light of the first day.
This time of year, the readings in our worship are dark and barbed; they dazzle with strange images and hints of catastrophe. They call us to repent, to acknowledge our own fragility, the transient nature of so much in which we put our trust. It is easy to be frightened, to live in the fear of that judgment. And, to some extent, we should. That day is the measure of our lives, the day on which we will see whether what we have been and done is of Christ.
But that day is also comedy: a day of rejoicing, of the triumph of the Lamb. It is the day in which God’s goodness will supersede human cruelty; in which God’s joy will eradicate all pain, in which God’s resurrection life will overcome death forever. The angel who visited Mary is knocking on our doors, too, crying out to us what he cried to her so long ago: Hail, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. And if we say, in reply, that we are too small, too lowly, too messed up, not spiritual enough, still the angel smiles. Hey, man, this is comedy! The Lord IS with you.
The two paintings I’ve chosen are taken from van Eyck’s altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. If you click on the small blue one, it should become large enough to gaze upon. Try it; it’s really beautiful.