“Why do we laugh? Because it is a gravely religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” — GK Chesterton
What are the greatest human emotions? Perhaps that question is far too broad. But I think that the answer is not too broad: joy and sorrow, often expressed in laughter and tears. These emotions are so completely demanding that our whole body must respond — the hearty laughter that rocks your whole body and the tears that flow interminably. Such expressions depart from any Stoic philosophy, and they are utterly human and are gifts in our humanity.
It is easy to see how joy is a gift, expressed in laughter. And that laughter in itself is a gift. Joy lives into a hope that is beyond any despair and suffering. Laughter is a sound that echoes joy. The full-bodied laughter that escapes from children and un-self-conscious adults reminds us of the emotional state of the Divine: one of joy. We feel to our bones that there is goodness. Someone once said that the person who had laughed, heartily and truly, was incapable of being irremediably evil. There is an inherent and indestructible goodness to laughter, and so it is a gift. It is a gift that brings us to goodness. And in the end, there will be laughter.
Until then, there are also tears. We are far more familiar with tears, I think, than we are with true laughter. Often, we think of tears as anything but a gift, but I find in them a cathartic truth. The sorrow of life can be overwhelming, but tears allow an expression of that to escape from us, to pass beyond our eyes. The gift of tears is a gift of release, of laying down burdens and giving up. Tears are not an ultimate resignation but a soul-wrenching, soul-cleaning experience. Tears can energize and renew. Tears are like the rain. Tears are not the flip-side of laughter, but they both share the gift of expressing our emotions, our embodiment, and our coping with our world.
At this time of the year, we experience and we remember both. Many of our Christmases have had both laughter and tears. While these are gifts, they are expressions of other gifts and other hurts. We want our Christmases to have more laughter than tears, but that is not always the case. I think that theologically that is not even the case — while the incarnation is to be celebrated, one cannot help but see the cross in the manger, Golgotha in Bethlehem. Laughter and tears mingle together, but both are gifts that lend expression to our humanity and it is our humanity that is shared and celebrated at Christmas, when God became one of us, took on our humanity with all its joys and sorrows.
May we laugh this Christmas. May we not hold back tears where they are needed. May we see in the babe born to Mary the truest joy and sorrow. And may we know that all things are being made new, and soon every tear will be wiped away and laughter will remain. Until then, may we live in the gifts that we have, live humanly and deeply, and may we laugh from our depths.