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Monday, First Week of Advent

"Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” – Genesis 21:5-7

Ho, Ho, Ho!

What’s so funny? What is Santa laughing about all the time? He’s just a jolly old elf, says the poem. Maybe he doesn’t realize that there is a massive financial/ employment crisis going on. Or a war on terrorism? Perhaps Santa knows something we don’t?

We do not typically look to the Bible for a sense of humor. In general people read it with sober faces with utter seriousness. Yet Reinhold Niebuhr, a major Protestant thinker of the last century, writes, “Laughter is the beginning of prayer.” How strange.

The ability to laugh, especially the ability to laugh at ourselves – and our situation – is a sign that we are equipped, somehow, to stand outside of our lives, and look in at the incongruities between the way things are for us, and the way things should be. If we forget how to laugh at ourselves, if we take ourselves too seriously, someone will eventually help us out by laughing at our self-pride and our false dignity. Isn’t there something deliciously, classically funny about someone full of their own importance, brought down to earth by a banana peel, or a cream pie in the face?

Sarah in the Genesis story had wanted a baby for a long, long time. The covenant God had made with Abraham to form a new nation seemed in jeopardy because she could not conceive a child. It was not until she was ninety years old and way beyond child-bearing capability that God chose her for motherhood. It was so crazy, so incongruous, so hilarious, that she could only laugh at her disbelief. She was not the proud matriarch she had imagined she would be, but having been humbled by her infertility over the years, she could laugh at the good news, unexpected and joyous as it was.

We may think we are in control of our world. We may believe that with a little more insight, better technology, better economic models, we can solve our deep conflicts, end poverty, racism and abuse, and study war no more. We’d be feeling pretty proud about ourselves, sacrificing our own self-interest for the wellbeing of others. So how long will it take us to realize that we are beyond the age where we can reform and save ourselves from our own self-destruction? Ninety years? 2000 years? More?

However long it takes, perhaps then we too might start to giggle when the voice of scripture speaks to us of a wee baby born to change our despair over our situation into joy of our mutual reconciliation. Then we begin to chuckle to think of how we used to imagine we could do it ourselves. We break out into a belly laugh of how absurd was our pride in ourselves and how great was our need for transformation. Deep in the night we hear the seasonal guffaw: Ho, Ho, Ho. Now, we can finally say to one another and mean it, “Let us pray…”

— Jeffrey McArn
College Chaplain