Laughing with the Face of God

Christianity is often derided as a humourless creed, but since earliest times Easter has been a time of laughter, prompted by a belief in Christ’s victory over death.

Amused young women in traditional costume on Easter Sunday.
Amused young women in traditional costume on Easter Sunday. Germany. Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

The Emperor grasped a fistful of the Mesopotamian sand. It was warm now, and sticky, from the steady flow of his blood. In impotent fury, the Emperor flung the handful of gore into the empty distance, spitting the words ‘thou hast conquered, Galilean’. So goes the traditional account of the death of Julian the Apostate, the man who tried to de-Christianise the Roman Empire after the adoption of the Galilean’s faith by his uncle, Constantine. Julian had been a successful military commander, winning victories against Sassanid Iran, but his luck had run out.  He had been stabbed – either in battle or by an assassin, even, possibly, by a saint – and his final fury was directed against the one man he had tried his very hardest to defeat but failed: the Galilean.

This Galilean was, of course, Jesus Christ. His death at the hands of another frustrated Roman administrator, Pontius Pilate, and the subsequent reports of his Resurrection would change the Empire, would change almost all empires, forever. The message and consequences of that first Easter, in Jerusalem, was to spread a dangerous promise of glory, triumph, and eternal life bought for each and all alike by the man who had been written off by the Romans as a mere Galilean criminal. Despite the efforts of rulers such as Julian, no writing off would be possible again. The Galilean’s conquest continued, firstly around the Mediterranean and then through to the borders of China, across North Africa and up into the frozen northlands of Europe.

For it wasn’t just kings that Jesus, called the Christ, sought out and slayed; it was gods, too. Far from the desert of Iraq, the lush mounds above Gamla Uppsala in the centre of Sweden were said to be places where Odin sojourned. Freyr, too, took an interest in this green and pleasant corner of Scandinavia, so blood soaked that ground as well. It was she who began its tradition of sacrifice. Nine males of every species, up to and including men, would be hanged from the trees in its sacred grove, before their blood was used to daub the great ash or yew that stood next to the temple itself. Then the Galilean came.

The pretty little stone and brick church at Gamla Uppsala now stands where the temple once did. Inside is a carved representation of another bloodied tree, the cross, requiring not the perpetuation of death but its conquest, a gateway to eternity. The ultimate message of Easter is the futility of earthly power – Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod – in the face of the redemptive power of God. Indeed, the claims made by that redemptive power go even further and level the greatest King of all: Death himself. So it was that the tool of death, the cross, became a tool for preaching eternal life. The place of death, the grave, became the cradle of life. Even the very process of death itself was now, as the Easter hymn puts it, ‘but the gate of life immortal’. Topsy-Turveydom had won: it was the Galilean’s world now.

No surprise then that early bishops encouraged the tradition of joke-telling in church on Easter Day, taking to heart the apostle Paul’s example of mocking death and the grave. Some clergy became accomplished jokers. This risus paschalis, as the Church soon named the Easter laughter that symbolised Christ’s defeat of death, would eventually ring out over the ruins of the temples of the New World and across the ancient spirit lands of Oceania. The Galilean gained a scale of dominion that even the fiercest pagan gods or greatest Roman emperors could only dream of.

But what now? While no serious person believes Easter to be the Christian repackaging of paganism, as perpetuated by internet myth, one might argue that nobody has to. As the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts observed: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.’ Yet banal modern lore is perhaps only a chaffing irritation, as much to Reason as it is to God. Much more serious threats to the Feast of Easter are the rise of an apostasy more recent than Julian’s – the rejection of the Galilean and his creed passed transmitted by the concrete and fibreoptic cables that lie under the sacred groves of the Old World. For some time now, the totality of his triumph has been questioned.

This week, however, Easter laughter will invariably ring out. Mostly it will be figurative: given how often Christianity is characterised as humourless, perhaps a return to the actual risus Paschalis is in order. Certainly, the Galilean has had his fair share of wits, clowns, satirists and even practical jokers among his followers: St Artemius, a general martyred during Julian’s anti-Christian persecutions, got his revenge in ghostly appearances poking fun at or generally cursing the inadequate genitalia of male pagans.

And it is not just pranksters who have followed in the conquering wake of the Christ, but logicians, too. In fact some of the best – from Peter Abelard to Kurt Gödel – who read the Bible every Sunday, have put their services to the Easter cause. This is no surprise, because the conquest of the Galilean is necessarily logically circular: for even when it looks as if the cause, the creed, the very God of Christianity itself is facing death, its followers laugh. The very change wrought by the Galilean is this: that death is not death at all, but life; defeat is, in fact, victory. As it was in the face of the furious Apostate of the fourth Century, and the grim totems of gore at Gamla Uppsala in the tenth, so too it will be in the midst of the faith’s reported death in the twenty-first.

Julian may yet get his revenge by way of numbers: but the conquest of the Galilean will be assured in laughter.


Fergus Butler-Gallie