This is the second of three posts about the comedy of Easter, with Easter Day being on April Fools Day in 2018. Read the first post here.
Crucifixion is a cruel and painful punishment. It is literally excruciating. That’s where the word comes from. It would therefore seem hard to describe the brutal execution of any man – let alone the God-Man Jesus Christ – as funny. It isn’t funny, despite the age old saying that tragedy + time = comedy. But the Passion of Christ is comic.
What does ‘comic’ mean? What is comedy? I’m not about to posit a grand unified theory of comedy akin to the physicist who wish to explain everything in a one simple equation. Many august philosophers have tried that with comedy. But no matter what your theory, you encounter jokes, routines and formats that just don’t fit. Comedy is like that. It is subversive and anarchic. And yet based on truth – but we don’t really have time to get into that. (You’ll need to read my forthcoming book coming out in January 2019. Sign up for my mailing list on the right).
In A Nutshell
The most compelling explanation for comedy is incongruity. It’s placing two things next to each other that don’t belong together. The artistry of comedy is revealing or creating that juxtaposition in an elegantly surprising way. Man walks down the road. Not funny. Man falls down manhole. Funny. Man sees manhole and walks around it. Not funny. Man sees manhole cover – and manages to fall in anyway. Very funny.
If we look at the Passion narratives for incongruity, we see it everywhere. Because the story unfolds with such a sense of inevitability, and those taking part have no idea how it appears, and how it fulfills prophecies going back centuries, the incongruity is also highly ironic.
There is, of course, a point at which irony stops being funny. There’s a sense of symbolism in the Passion narratives that are more dramatic and didactic, rather than funny. For example, the arrest, sham trial and crucifixion of Jesus takes place at Passover, the memorial of the release of Israelites from Egypt, during which time an innocent lamb was sacrificed. Jesus is that Lamb.
Much Ado About Lazarus
But the idea that Jesus can be killed is comic. That’s one of the more subtle themes in John 11. After Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, some Jews reported back to the Pharisees and a meeting of church elders was called. The reason for their dismay is not disbelief of the miracles, but what the miracles point towards: trouble. They complain that Jesus is performing these signs of his power, but that “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him” (v48). Ha ha! Wouldn’t that be awful? Everyone believing in the GodMan who clearly has power over life and death? You want to nip that in the bud, guys.
They then show that they are still more afraid of the Romans who “will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (v 48) Then the High Priest, Caiaphas pipes up with a statement dripping with irony, “You know nothing at all! (ha ha! Really? THEY know nothing?) You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (v49-50) The gospel writer, John, points out the irony, but the joke is in v53. “From that day on, they plotted to take his life.”
Erm, excuse me? So far in John’s Gospel, Jesus has turned water into wine, fed five thousand people, walked on water and healed a man born blind. And now he’s just raised a man from the dead. You’re planning to kill that man. Who raised a man from the dead. Good luck with that.
False Sense of Security
Killing Jesus, however, proved worryingly easy. For a man of such apparent cosmic power, he seemed curiously easy to beat up, whip, mock and torture.
They should have seen the signs. That’s another huge comic irony of the story. God becomes man, and we kill him. But who kills him? Religious people. The people whose job it was to know and teach the scriptures, many of whom will have memorised the prophecies with which the Old Testament is riddled.
The religious people rush a trial through, but the crowd are also implicated. They had been cheering Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then when he was arrested, they demanded a murderer and a terrorist to be released by Pilate, instead of the Prince of Peace, the one who can raise the dead. Jesus wasn’t the king they were expecting, when he turned up riding a comically pathetic donkey. What a ludicrous sight. It is almost as comic as the young man running away from the scene of arrest in Gethsemane Mark 14:42 who was so desperate to get away that when his coat was caught, he wriggled free and ran away stark naked.
Even though Pontius Pilate knew this man was innocent under the law, and washed his hands of it, he allowed his soldiers to do their worst. Luke also points out that Jesus’s trial united Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:12) which is not the kind of peace or kingdom that Jesus was talking about.
In the blackest and bleakest day in human history, all of the above mocked and jeered as Jesus was forced to drag his own cross to the top of a hill, where he was nailed to it and hung between two common criminals. One of the criminals, despite being near to death himself, used his dying words to join the mockers, by sneering at him. They mishear Jesus quoting Psalm 22, saying ‘He is calling Elijah’, when he was giving more clues to his identity and the awful mistake the religious leaders had made. But they just taunt Jesus, telling him come down from the cross, which he could do, but chose not to. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” (Matthew 27:42) He is, of course, saving others at the cost of his own life.
The ironies abound. Above Jesus is a sign saying that this is the king of the Jews, which is funny because it’s true. Peter, the sturdy fisherman, Jesus’s rock, is denying Christ to a young girl. Jesus tells a common criminal that he will join him in paradise. (Luke 23:43). A centurion, the despised Roman occupier, could see that this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Jesus, the Prince of Peace, healer of the sick, God’s chosen, prophesied king, has been killed by priests. It doesn’t get more incongruous than that.
James Cary is writing a book about comedy and religion for SPCK. To keep updated on that, do sign up for the mailing list on the right of the page.
He also discussion of this subject with Glen Scrivener.