I recall, 20 or so years ago, how stunned I was when I first saw the conclusion of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A clever film which is ultimately more about people than anything else, it tells the story of Brian, a Jewish revolutionary, who endures a remarkable amount of (often hilarious) misfortune.
The film famously concludes with a scene in which Brian finds himself unwillingly nailed to a cross and (against his will) reduced to a symbol. Everything about the circumstance is unjust, not to mention ridiculous.
But up on the cross, a crucified man to his side gives him Monty Python’s version of the good news. The resultant song, “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life,” is fun and silly, but in its cinematic context (aided by excellent cinematography), it is actually quite moving and powerful. Here is channelled the defiant spirit of Nietzsche – smiling in the face of death and insanity. And indeed, laughter is the ultimate defiance.
Laughter is a peculiar human response, and manifests in a remarkable amount of circumstances. It does not tend to come easily to those who are perpetually confronted with their burdens. But when it does, it is a relief from one’s burdens, a way of deferring their crushing reality, a way of sympathizing with others, objectifying, naming, and conquering our griefs. Indeed, this is perhaps precisely why those of us with a dark sense of humor find it so cathartic. To laugh in the face of the crushing weight of existence is to gain some small victory over it.
But, the Pythons are honest—brutally honest. This mode of life has a terminal point, and they capture this paradox beautifully. “You see it’s all a show, just keep laughing as you go. Just remember that the last laugh is on you.” Laughter can defer sin and death and despair and evil, but it cannot conquer it. The stopping point to all pain and guilt and fear is just death itself—the final victor.
It has often been remarked that the gospels never portray Jesus as laughing. Understandably, theologians have tended to say that this is no evidence that Jesus didn’t laugh, and even less that it would be unfitting for Him to have laughed. But the gospels portray Christ in a number of emotional states (even very positive ones), and so it is worth asking whether or not this fact might be significant for larger reasons. Herein, I suggest that the lack of laughter in the gospels is to be related to the manner in which Christ bore the burdens of others.
Christ is frequently saddened or frustrated in the gospels not only by the general spiritual blindness of Israel, or the effects of the fall on the bodies and souls of those around Him, but even saddened and frustrated by the squabblings of His closest friends.
But in passage after passage, Christ instructs and gives good-will to His disciples, while bearing the burden of the world’s brokenness and suffering. He heals and forgives, but in each case, He carries the burden of guilt and sickness and death into Himself. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Throughout His ministry, this burden-bearing only increases as He moves closer to the moment of the cross. In order to meet His own spiritual needs, He frequently goes off to be alone, only to be followed by crowds of people who need Him. And unlike so many of us, He is kingly and broad-chested (as one writer put it) and carries the weight of the world on His shoulders.
At the beginning of the end (in a moment of excruciating spiritual torment), Jesus uncharacteristically asks His disciples to minister to Him, and after all He did for them, they fail and rather meet their own needs of sleep. Subsequently, they abandon Him while He bears the weight of a broken political system and a rebellious people. In all of this, weight after weight after weight is added onto the shoulders of Christ. This climaxes in the cross where all the weight of Israel’s rebellion, the false righteousness of the Pharisees, a broken legal system, the power of the devil, the guilt of our sins, etc is laid upon Him and crushes Him to death. And while at any moment, He could call a legion of angels for relief, He endures. If Christ never laughed, it would not seem shocking.
And yet here we see the inversion of the Pythons’ set-up. While Brian discovers laughter on the cross, Jesus Christ refused any such relief. He stares the “last laugh” of death in the face and confronts it directly. And in Christ, the last laugh is turned on death itself. All the deferring of pain and guilt and sin and shame and fear has its stopping point on a single burden-bearer, a single man who carried the weight of the world, of all of history’s oppressive structures, of all the race’s guilt, of all His people’s failures, of all disease and all sickness on His shoulders at a single moment in time.
And with all of that weight on His shoulders, crushed to death—in the resurrection, Jesus shoved back. In the resurrection, the flow of grief and death and guilt and pain was shoved back in on itself and the gravitational pull of evil reversed in direction and flow. In other words, perhaps Jesus did not laugh so that we could. We can unburden because He did not.
And being caught in that reversal, we are united to He who bore all of our burdens, and who bears them still in His Spirit. And for precisely this reason, a characteristic attribute of the church (in its performance of the way of Christ) is that we lay down the desperation to have our own needs met in others, our tendency to instrumentalize others, and we can truly die to ourselves because there is One who bears all of our pain. We are able to love and live in others because someone has loved and lived in us.
It is embarrassing to admit that you are weak, and that you are unfit to bear the burdens of your life. Especially for men who care about some traditional notions of masculinity and familial headship, it can be difficult to admit that one’s burdens are too much for them, that they feel crushed, that they are (in fact) extremely weak and unable to move toward death well. The beautiful truth of the gospel is that King Jesus has born the weight of the world, carried it, and pushed it back, and that (in our weakness and in the receiving and empty hands of faith) He is present to be our Savior, friend, Shepherd, King, guide, prophet, priest, counselor, etc. And in Him, in the strength of His might, we are relieved to begin bearing the burdens of others, to get outside of ourselves (as sin turns us inward), and to find the freedom of being for others in good will – trusting God to supply all of our needs in Christ.
Caught in the flow of Jesus’ victory over all, we laugh, and even scoff at our enemy—death. Our laugh (and our burdens) are suspended atop the broad and weight-bearing shoulders of Christ who stands victorious over all sin, death, and pain. And in Him, the weak are made strong and able to bear the pain of others – indeed – to find their joy in the freedom of laying down one’s life to meet the needs of other travelers in this long pilgrimage.
Perhaps Jesus did not laugh so that we could. Only, the deferment of all pain now has its terminus not in death, but in its defeat. Our laughter is no longer tinged with cynicism and defeat, but carries a note of victory. We are not less defiant than Nietzsche’s children, but more so, because we follow a mighty King who has crushed all burdens to death and vanquished all our enemies – a gentle servant, a fearsome warrior, and our friend.