The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy

Both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter to their absurd plight.  Sarah laughs privately and Abraham “fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17).  The absurd situation of being promised a child, though Sarah is barren and Abraham is so old he is as good as dead, is laughable as it is absurdly hopeful.  The laughter is not simply doubtful, though it encompasses doubt. It is, as one might say at the unforeseen but happy resolution of an impossible situation, “Unbelievable!” Their laughter is acknowledgement of the absurdity but it is not bound by mere impossibility or tragedy. The fact that they memorialize the laughter in naming the child Isaac (He Who Laughs) indicates this laughter is integral to their faith. Since Abraham, in Paul’s explanation, is the prototype of faith, this indicates our own faith is to be caught up in the same laughter. More than that, Isaac or He Who Laughs is a type of Christ, meaning that the divine and human are melded in laughter personified.

Kierkegaard may be the first thinker to develop a deep appreciation for, what he calls, this “comedic” element. The comic arises with a recognition of the tragic so that the “tragic and the comic are the same inasmuch as both are contradictions, but the tragic is suffering contradiction, and the comic is painless contradiction.”[1] A childless old couple, unable to propagate their name through progeny (the equivalent of being unable to continue to go on living) face an impossible tragic circumstance. If they should go around bragging that they were about to have a baby – absent a promise from God – this gets at tragic incongruity. There is a tragic humor which laughs at life’s absurdity – think of Monty Python’s music for crucifixion. A row of crucified men whistling this chorus is a contradiction – but it is a tragic contradiction.

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing
And…Always look on the bright side of life

The final chorus captures the deep incongruity but also the overwhelming tragedy:

I mean – what have you got to lose?
You know, you come from nothing
– you’re going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing
Always look on the right side (I mean) of life[2]

The tragic and the comic contain a deep incongruity but the laughter evoked by the tragic is a suffering laughter while the laughter of the comic recognizes the tragic but it is outweighed and made relative (e.g. by the promise given to Abraham). The comic is a seeming contradiction or incongruity through which one escapes, what otherwise, would be tragic. In Kierkegaard’s explanation, the fully comedic surpasses tragedy in that it evokes laughter in the midst of tragedy in one who perceives he will miss tragedy through an impossibility.

The comic arc of the Bible and of the incarnation are often missed because of the same Platonizing tendencies which have produced a disembodied sort of Christianity. Laughter or the comic are an important and, for many, an essential feature of everyday life. Religiosity or piety has a long history of separating out the most sacred from the realities of life, and this is especially true in regard to laughter. The early Church, in its eagerness to incorporate Greek thought, seems to have inherited Plato’s low regard for laughter. It is an emotion (already a problem) that overrides rational self-control. Early Christian leaders such as Ambrose, Jerome, Basil, Ephraim, and John Chrysostom warned against either excessive laughter or laughter generally. This Christian rejection of laughter continued through the Middle Ages and the Reformation culminating in the strongest condemnation from the Puritans. While one might agree with their associations of moronic laughter with “foul discourse,” “railing,” “insult,” leading to “blows and wounds,” what is missed is the full embrace of the realities of life – both tragic and comic.

This is, after all, the explanation for Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter – they have been granted life in the face of death – meaning they can now face up to both. Laughter is their realization of this reality and captures the point of transition or the point at which their despair is dissipated. The occasion is marked by their change of name and presumably marks the formation of a different sort of Subject. It is their immediate and enduring response to God’s resolution to their tragic situation – now turned into comedy. Just as their child, or simply the promise of having a child, turns tragedy into laughter, so too Christ, the real He Who Laughs, breaks into the tragedy of the human plight to establish an alternative sort of humanity.

Kierkegaard, especially after his virtual martyrdom in the Corsair Affair, came to regard a failing of comic perception as the evident sign of a failed Christianity. What people laugh at (e.g. him, his walk, his posture, etc.) and what they do not laugh at makes evident their progression or digression along the stages of life’s way. That they would take Hegel seriously – this failure to laugh at forgetting that one is a human being – is tragically incoherent (especially when combined with laughter at his anti-Hegelianism) . To not laugh at a philosophy so incompatible with being human suggests the failure to see the comedic contradiction. For Kierkegaard this failed laughter was a failed Christianity, a failure to grasp the Absolute Paradox of the divine human, and a failure to grasp the infinite and qualitative difference between God and ourselves.

The incongruity of the divine infant fully embraces the tragic in a comedic reversal, perhaps most succinctly summed up in the song Mary Did You Know.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am[3]

To miss laughter in this comedic overcoming of the tragic is to have missed life itself. As Kierkegaard notes, one might be an outstanding thinker but to have missed the comedic is to have missed the eminent sense of existence as a human being.[4] The incarnation, Christianity, is an incongruity with worldly thought  which tends toward the disincarnate and this gets at the basic comic contradiction. To laugh rightly is to embrace the world (in all of its tragedy) and to laugh wrongly – to misplace feeling and seriousness – is to miss the reality of the world.

[1] Concluding Unscientific Postscript, (Hong Edition) vol. 1. P. 15. See The Legitimacy of the Comic: Kierkegaard and the Importance of the Comic for His Ethics and Theology Will Williams, Ph.D. file:///C:/Users/Paul%20Axton/Downloads/Will_Williams_phd%20(1).pdf

[2] Always Look On the Bright Side of Life, lyrics by Eric Idle.

[3] Songwriters: Buddy Greene / Mark Lowry, Mary Did You Know, lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Capitol Christian Music Group

[4] Ibid, 303.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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