This year, Easter falls on April Fools’ Day for the first time in more than 60 years (1956).
Easter is naturally a happy time. With April Fools’, there’s little doubt that you’ll hear a joke or two in church this Easter. Perhaps you’ll even hear a funny story told during the homily.
In the Middle Ages, it was an Easter Sunday tradition to tell a joke during the homily. Called the risus paschalis (the Easter laugh), it was supposed to recall how God had tricked the devil and gave us the last laugh over death.
Of course, those medieval jokes soon turned to pranks and eventually got too rowdy. In the 17th century, Pope Clement X outlawed the risus paschalis altogether.
In the last few decades, though, many churches — especially Protestant and Evangelicals — have revived the idea of God’s laughter at Easter. They celebrate Holy Humor Sunday on the Sunday after Easter with music, food and parties.
It might seem odd to think of God and jokes, but some of the early church fathers wrote about Easter as the time when God did indeed play a practical trick on the devil. For example, back in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostum preached an Easter homily that noted how Easter mocked hell and, by extension, the devil.
Around the same time, St. Gregory Nyssa also wrote an Easter homily called “‘The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ.” In it, he said Christ purposely concealed his real identity from the devil when he died. So Satan, thinking Jesus was just another dead human being, swallowed the bait and took Jesus into hell. Too late, Gregory said, Satan realized his mistake. By then, he had admitted the light of Christ into the dark, infernal abode. That meant that Satan had destroyed his own kingdom. The power of God prevailed, even in hell, and God had the last laugh.
Gregory’s reference to fishing reminds us that a symbol for Christ, and for all Christians, is the fish. In France, April Fools’ Day is known as poisson d’avril (April’s fish). This refers to the spring hatch of fish — who, being so young, are easily caught and therefore foolish. The French tradition is to sneak a sticker of a fish on someone’s back, so they become “the foolish fish.”
On Easter Sunday, you’ll see flowers and bright decorations and hear joyful music — including the return of the Alleluia and the Gloria. And it won’t hurt to laugh a little, either. After all, the psalm response for the Easter Vigil tells us: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad” (Ps 118).
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of many books.