risus paschalis for Christmas: laughing with Sarah, begetter of Isaac

Begin, little boy, to get to know mother with a laugh.
Ten months have brought a mother’s long labor.
Begin, little boy; for whom parents do not laugh,
no god honors at his table, no goddess honors in bed.

{ Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem,
matri longa decem tulerunt fastidia menses.
Incipe, parve puer, cui non risere parentes,
nec deus hunc mensa, dea nec dignata cubili est. }[1]

Andrei Rublev, Trinity icon

Even at age seventy-four, Sarah was beautiful enough to be a wife for the King of Egypt. But she hadn’t produced any children. Eager for children, Sarah ordered her husband Abraham to have sex with her slave-girl Hagar. Like most husbands, Abraham did what his wife told him to do. He was potent enough at age seventy-five to have a child with Hagar. Sarah then blamed Abraham for Hagar, a mother, looking down on her, a barren woman. Whatever happens, men get blamed. With the passivity of a man who understands his subordination to women, Abraham told Sarah to do to Hagar whatever she wanted to do. Sarah then kicked Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael out of their home. Such is the cruel futility of family life in gynocentric society.

God intervened in history to provide a different family destiny. When Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety-nine, God promised Abraham a son with Sarah. In response, Abraham fell on his face before God and laughed.[2] Laughing is not what a pious person usually does prostrate before God. But Abraham didn’t keep his laughter inside himself. God, who loves human beings as creations of his own hands, wasn’t offended by Abraham’s laughter.

Later, three mysterious visitors appeared to Abraham at Mamre. They said that Sarah and Abraham surely would have a son. But Sarah’s menstrual cycle had ceased long ago:

And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying, “After my being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old? [3]

{ וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י
עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃ }

Sarah doubted her husband’s capability to provide her with pleasure and her own ability to bear a child. Husbands, however, will make extraordinary efforts to please their wives. The Lord, who knows every person’s inner being, questioned why Sarah laughed. Sarah, who hadn’t laughed openly, denied having laughed. But the Lord, wise enough not to always believe women, pointed out Sarah’s lie: “Yes, you did laugh.”

Despite their old age, Sarah and Abraham had a son, as the Lord had foretold. They named their son Isaac. That name literally means “he who laughs.” Sarah didn’t confess explicitly that she had been wrong:

And Sarah said:
God has made me laughter,
whoever hears will laugh at me. [4]

{ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר שָׂרָ֔ה צְחֹ֕ק עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֱלֹהִ֑ים כָּל־הַשֹּׁמֵ֖עַ
יִֽצְחַק־לִֽי׃ }

The Hebrew verb used above for “laugh” could alternately mean “mock” or “scorn.” Whether others laughed with Sarah or laughed at Sarah doesn’t seem to matter. Either way, laughter highlights the astonishing reality that in her old age, Sarah had a son Isaac with Abraham.

Isaac was subject to a trial that to Christians prefigured Jesus crucified and resurrected. God told Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering atop a mountain in Moriah. Resolutely faithful to God, Abraham complied with this horrid request for human sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood to which his father Abraham then bound him to be killed. But God at the final moment stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.[5] Isaac must have been terrified. How could Isaac have gone on to get married and have children of his own? Perhaps he overcame his emotional trauma with cathartic laughter at the inscrutable ways of God.

In twelfth-century Europe, laughter was associated with celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. An Easter sequence by the great Parisian hymnist Adam of Saint Victor sings of Isaac:

The boy, figure of our laughter,
for whom the ram was slain,
signifies the joy of life.

{ Puer, nostri forma risus
pro quo vervex est occisus,
vitae signat gaudium. }[6]

Isaac’s salvation, Jesus’s resurrection, celebrating Easter, laughter, and the joy of life are united in this stanza. Heloise of the Paraclete’s husband Peter Abelard wrote hymns for the Oratory of the Paraclete’s nuns to use for the all-important liturgical hours of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Thirteen of these hymns conclude with a stanza associating the resurrected Jesus’s glory with Christians’ “laughter of Easter grace {risus paschalis gratiae}”:

Make us, Lord, so to suffer with you
that we may become sharers in your glory;
so to conduct these three days in grief
that you may grant us the laughter of Easter grace.

{ Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine,
tuae participes ut simus gloriae;
sic praesens triduum in luctu ducere,
ut risum tribuas paschalis gratiae. }[7]

This sense of laughter and comedy at the culmination of Christian salvation history probably existed much earlier than the twelfth century. Perhaps in the ninth century, the Latin epic Waltharius was written with a preface that declared that reading it “requires one to jest with the Lord rather than to petition the Lord {ludendum magis est dominum quam sit rogitandum}.”

In Europe from the fifteenth through early-eighteenth centuries, “Easter laughter {risus paschalis}” apparently was a popular practice. A modern scholar and church official explained:

In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus pachalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in Baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed? [8]

Among the York Corpus Christi Plays registered about the year 1470 is a staging of Christ before Herod. In that play, King Herod is a extravagantly comic character leading an unsuccessful attempt to get Christ to speak. Prior to being confounded by Christ, Herod exclaimed:

Oh, my heart hops for joy,
to see now this prophet appear!
We shall have a good game with this boy;
take heed, for in haste you shall hear.
I believe we shall laugh and have liking,
to see how this scoundrel alleges our laws.

{ O, my harte hoppis for joie
To se nowe this prophette appere.
We schall have goode game with this boy;
Takis hede, for in haste ye schall here.
I leve we schall laugh and have likyng
To se nowe this lidderon her he leggis oure lawis. }[9]

Soldiers (“knights”) brought Christ before Herod and told of Christ’s wondrous sayings and acts. Christ himself, despite questions, mockery, and threats, refused to speak before King Herod. That was an astonishing act of silence. One of Herod’s sons declared:

My lord, all this muteness amends not a mite.
To mess with a madman’s a marvel to me.
Command your knights to clothe him in white;
let him go as he came to your country.

{ Mi lorde, all youre mutyng amendis not a myte,
To medill with a madman is mervaille to mene;
Comaunde youre knyghtis to clothe hym in white
And late hym carre as he come to youre contré.}

King Herod agreed:

Sir knights, we’ll endeavor to make you be glad;
our counsel has warned us wisely and well.
White clothing is fitting for this foolish lad.
Fully all of his folly in faith we feel.

{ Sir knyghtis, we caste to garre you be gladde,
Oure counsaile has warned us wisely and wele:
White clothis we saie fallis for a fonned ladde,
And all his foly in faith fully we feele. }

For the Christian audience in relation to Christ, truly “fully all of his folly in faith we feel.” Herod, lacking Christian consciousness, enacted a joke upon himself.[10] For Christians celebrating Easter, weeping at Christ’s crucifixion is turned to joy at his resurrection. Medieval Christians then had the blessing of laughing with the risen Christ.

Who has ever heard of such,
tell me, I pray, about these doings.

{ Quis audivit talia,
Dic, rogo, facta }[11]

Christian laughter isn’t only for Easter. When he heard that his wife Sarah would have a son, Abraham prostrated himself before God and laughed. Those who will celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas should laugh like Abraham. Christ showed comedic spirit in raising Lazarus, in healing the sick, and in playing with the Canaanite woman. Christians, fools for Christ, now more than ever live in a world of clowns. Over here, over there, funny things are everywhere. With men subject to bizarre paternity laws and men deprived of any reproductive rights whatsoever, what are men to think of Joseph, foster-father of Jesus? Who can believe that women and men can still love each other and have children?

Tomorrow let love whoever has never loved; whoever has loved, let tomorrow love.

{ Cras amet qui nunquam amavit quique amavit cras amet. }[12]

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[1] Virgil, Eclogues 4.60-4, Latin text from Greenough (1900) via Perseus, my English translation, benefiting from those of Mackail (1910) and A. S. Kline (2001).

[2] Genesis 12-18; in particular, Genesis 12:4 (Abraham 75 years old), 12:14-5 (beautiful Sarah taken into Pharaoh’s house), 16:1-6 (Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham), and 17:17 (Abraham 100 years old, Sarah 99 years old, Abraham laughed before God).

[3] Genesis 18:12, Hebrew text via BlueLetterBible, English translation from Alter (1996), where I have inserted “my” before “being shriveled.” For God’s response, Genesis 18:15.

[4] Genesis 21:6, sourced as previously, with my change from “Laughter has God made me” to “God has made me laughter.” Alter notes:

The ambiguity of both the {Hebrew} noun tsehoq (“laughter”) and the accompanying preposition li (“to” or “for” or “with” or “at me”) is wonderfully suited to the complexity of the moment. It may be laughter, triumphant joy, that Sarah experiences and that is the name of the child Isaac (“he-who-laughs”). But in her very exultation, she could well feel the absurdity (as Kafka noted in one of his parables) of a nonagenarian becoming a mother. Tsehoq also means “mockery,” and perhaps God is doing something to her as well as for her. (In poetry, tsahaq is often linked in parallelism with la’ag, to scorn or mock, and it should be noted that la’ag is invariably followed by the preposition le, as tsahaq here.) All who hear of it may laugh, rejoice with Sarah, but the hint that they might also laugh at her is evident in her language.

Alter (1996) p. 97, note.

[5] Genesis 22:1-19.

[6] Adam of Saint Victor, “Let the old leaven be purged {Zyma vetus expurgetur}” (Easter sequence) st. 9, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 198, my English translation benefiting from that of id. Here’s a Latin text with German translation, and the English translation of Neale (1867). The Christian letter to the Hebrews associates Christ rising from the dead with Isaac. Hebrews 11:17-9. Galatians 4:28 calls Christians “children of the promise, like Isaac.”

[7] Peter Abelard, hymns for the Sacred Triduum, e.g. “On Friday for the hour of the morning {in parasceve ad laudes},” st. 4, Latin text from Woods (1992) p. 168, my English translation benefiting from that of id. “Christ, the new Isaac, both is risus paschalis, and the new laughter of Easter, and gives that laughter to Christians in the rejoicing that follows his death.” O’Connell (2002) p. 51. John 16:20 tells of sorrow turned into joy. Luke 6:21 explicitly refers to laughter:

Blessed are you who now weep, for you shall laugh.

{ beati qui nunc fletis quia ridebitis
μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν ὅτι γελάσετε }

Cf. Ecclesiastes 3:4.

In his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard clearly intended to emphasize risus paschalis. His poetic form has been presented slightly differently by different authors. O’Connell states that “each of the fifteen hymns” that Abelard wrote for Good Friday and Holy Saturday concludes with the above stanza. Id. p. 50. In her careful study, Woods point out that the manuscript arrangement sets out fourteen hymns, with the first hymn for Good Friday ending with this, its ninth stanza:

Let this night of weeping and these three days
when tears shall linger, be the evening,
until the most welcome morning of joy is restored
to us in our sorrow, with the rising of the Lord.

{ Nox ista flebilis praesensque triduum
quo demorabitur fletus sit vesperum
donec laetitiae mane gratlsslmum
surgente Domino, sit maestis redditum. }

Latin text and English trans. from Woods (1992) p. 149. Editors have split this hymn into three hymns and added the “risus paschalis gratiae” stanza to the end of two of them. Id. p. 145. In Woods’s learned judgment, that change isn’t warranted. In either case, the importance of risus paschalis is beyond doubt.

Abelard also remembered and represented laughter in his Easter sequence Epithalamica. When the bride is re-united with her bridegroom, she sings:

Now I see what I had desired,
now I clasp what I had loved;
now I laugh, I who had so wept:
more I rejoice than I had grieved.
I laughed at dawn, I wept at night;
at dawn I laughed, at night I wept.

{ Iam video quod optaveram,
iam teneo quod amaveram;
iam rideo que sic fleveram:
plus gaudeo quam dolueram.
Risi mane, flevi nocte;
mane risi, nocte flevi. }

“Speak bride, your wedding song {Epitalamica dic, sponsa, cantica},” st. 7, Latin text from Ashlock (2013) pp. 47-8, my English translation, benefiting from that of Waddell (1986) p. 251. Ashlock newly transcribed the Latin to more accurately represent the manuscripts than does Waddell’s Latin text. Ashlock (2013) p. 19. For this stanza, the only difference is Waddell’s classical spelling of que as quae.

The Epithalamica draws heavily on the Song of Songs. In traditional Christian topological interpretation of the Song of Songs, the bride represents the church, and the bridegroom, Christ. The bride’s desire for her bridegroom also has an obvious earthly correlate. The medieval manuscripts treat the Epithalamica as a Marian sequence and associate it with the liturgical Birth of Mary office. Waddell (1986) pp. 246-7. In Christian understanding, Mary is intimately and uniquely associated with the birth of Christ. The laughter of the Epithalamica can thus also be felt as Christmas laughter.

Waddell highlighted the importance of laughter to Abelard. He observed:

the laughter/weeping, morning/evening couples … bear the stamp of Abelard, or, more correctly, Abelard and Augustine. As early as pre-Lent Septuagesima Sunday, Abelard’s sermon for that day had begun by ringing the changes of Qoheleth’s Tempus flendi/ tempus ridendi, “A time to weep/a time to laugh.”

Id. p. 263. In addition to his repeated invocations of laughter in his hymns for the Sacred Triduum, Abelard also explicitly referred to laughter after weeping in his Easter sermon. Id. p. 265. Just as for Isaac and his experience of nearly being slaughtered by this father, Abelard may have found in laughter some release from the horror of his castration.

Some scholars now attribute the Epithalamica not to Peter Abelard, but to Heloise of the Paraclete. Wulstan (2002), Ashlock (2013). My sense is that Abelard wrote the Epithalamica. Scholarship attributing the Epithalamica to Heloise seems to me to draw upon motifs in Martianus Capella’s On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury {De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii}, suitably interpreted.

[8] Ratzinger (1997) pp. 50-1. Another authority explains:

The ‘risus paschalis’ referred to the widespread practice of the pastor telling jokes on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ in this resurrection enjoying “the last laugh” over Satan and death; that was done in the spirit of “those who laugh last laugh best.”

O’Collins (2013) p. 79.

[9] York Corpus Christi Plays, Play 31: Christ Before Herod, ll. 163-8, Middle English text from Davidson (2011), English modernization from Scoville & Yates (2003). The subsequent two quotes are similarly from Christ Before Herod, ll. 335-8 (My lord, all this muteness…), 349-52 (Sir Knights…). A white robe is a Christian symbol of purity. Revelation 3:4-5, 7:13-4.

This play is based on Luke 23:6-12. It was performed by York’s craft of litsters (dyers). Its anonymous author is known as the “York Realist,” a highly accomplished literary author.

[10] O’Connell summarizes:

If English townsfolk also laughed at preachers who told silly stories, capered about, enacted nonsense and animal noises at Easter, then Herod’s performance here participates in that tradition of absurd preaching and reinforces the promise of triumph and laughter in the larger play.

O’Connell (2002) p. 56.

In his interesting, wide-ranging book, Pound declared:

a socially comic and critically informed role for the church in postmodernity, a counter-joke to the joke of capitalism. … we fail to appreciate the central dynamism of trinitarian love directly with the comic, and the task of the church in maintaining love’s comedy: the joke that God sets before us, the counter-joke to a world in which laughter is far too often on the side of the capitalist.

Pound (2019) pp. 13, 215. Capitalism in the U.S. might be regarded as a joke; so was socialism in the Soviet Union. Anti-meninism seems to me a more significant joke that most persons around the world aren’t getting. Anti-meninism can be overcome with comedic integrity. See the discussion of Lacan in note [6] of my post on Arnaut’s “Pòis Raimons e’N Truc Malècs.” Lacan shameless exploited castration culture. The point isn’t merely to create for oneself a crazy-cult following like that of Foucault, but to change the world for the better.

[11] Notcerus Balbulus {Notker the Stammerer}, also known as Notker of Saint Gall, “O, let us recall, worthy of faithful praise, / songs of this day {Eia, recolamus laudibus piis digna / Huius diei carmina},” 13.3-4, Latin text from Brittain (1962) p. 159, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Here’s an online Latin text. Notker probably wrote this Christmas sequence in the ninth century in what is present-day St. Gall, Switzerland.

[12] First line (and refrain) of an anonymous poem conventionally titled “The Virgil of Venus {Pervigilium Veneris},” Latin text from William Harris of Middlebury College, my English translation, benefiting from the various English translations presented in Herz (2018). Dating of this poem ranges from the second century to the fifth century GC.

[image] The Trinity, as figured as the three angelic visitors to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre. Icon made by Andrei Rublev between 1411 and 1425. Preserved as accession # 13012 in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Via Wikimedia Commons. For thoughts on this icon in relation to the Trinity, dancing, and laughter, London (2017).


Alter, Robert, trans. 1996. Genesis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ashlock, Taylor Ann. 2013. “New Music to the Very Ears of God”?: Heloise the Composer. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. Paper 580. College of William and Mary.

Brittain, Frederick. 1962. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: with plain prose translations of each poem. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

Davidson, Clifford, ed. 2011. The York Corpus Christi Plays. Kalamazoo, Mich: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University.

Herz, Bob. 2018. “A Translation & Notes on Pervigilium Veneris.” Nine Mile Magazine: Talk About Poetry. May 29, online.

London, Deforest. 2017. “The Sound of One God Laughing.” Online (June 2) at Deforest London.

O’Collins, Gerald. 2013. “Easter Grace.” Ch. 5 in Winter, Sean. Immense Unfathomed Unconfined: the grace of God in creation, church and community : essays in honour of Norman Young. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

O’Connell, Michael. 2002. “Mockery, Farce, and Risus Paschalis in the York Christ before Herod.” Pp. 45-58 in Hüsken, Wim N. M., Konrad Schoell, and Leif Søndergaard. Farce and Farcical Elements. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Pound, Marcus. 2019. Theology, Comedy, Politics. Minneapolis: MN Fortress Press.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal, from German trans. by John Rock and Graham Harrison. 1997 / 2006. Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Scoville, Chester N. and Kimberley M. Yates. 2003. The York Plays: a modernization. Toronto.

Waddell, Chrysogonus. 1986. “Epithalamica: An Easter Sequence by Peter Abelard.” The Musical Quarterly. 72 (2): 239-271.

Woods, Patricia Hilary, and Peter Abelard. 1992. The Festival Hymns of Peter Abelard: a translation and commentary of the Hymnarius Paraclitensis Libellus II. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Wulstan, David. 2002. “Novi modulaminis melos: the music of Heloise and Abelard.” Plainsong and Medieval Music. 11 (1): 1-23.

7 thoughts on “risus paschalis for Christmas: laughing with Sarah, begetter of Isaac”

  1. Fascinating discussion of laughter over a range of texts. Glad my own text was useful. I’m dubious about some elements that suggest “gynocrasy” in the tradition.

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