MONDAY-SUNDAY, APRIL 17-23—If someone in your Christian community is making merry in this week after Easter—they may be tapping into traditions that stretch back nearly two millennia.
“Originally this idea of good humor in the week after Easter came from the early Greek Christians, way back in the third century or so. They called this period after Easter Bright Week and the first Sunday after Easter is Bright Sunday,” said Cal Samra, this week, the nation’s leading expert on adding a dose of laughter to services in the week after Easter.
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I’m still alive and well and going strong,” Cal said in an interview. Visitors to Cal’s website, the Joyful Noiseletter, had been concerned about Cal’s status, these days. Some of the coverage on Cal’s homepage looks a little dated. A Google search of news stories about congregations scheduling Holy Humor Sundays, Cal’s trademark program, also look a little dated in 2017. One of the most popular online articles about the practice is from the U.S. Catholic, still showing up prominently on Google even though it originally was published in 2000.
The journalists who produce ReadTheSpirit are among many religion newswriters nationwide who covered the impact of Cal’s newsletter in prompting mainly Protestant churches to organize laugh-out-loud services of celebration on the Sunday after Easter. One of the most influential journalists to cover Cal’s impact in his early years was David Briggs, who was Associated Press Religion Writer when he published this landmark story in 1996: Christian Merrymakers Don’t Put Gloomy Face on Lent.
For more than a decade, newspaper stories about Holy Humor Sunday services popped up coast to coast. In 2017, we’re not seeing as many—but clearly that’s not because Cal has lost his festive spirit.
AN ANCIENT CHRISTIAN TRADITION
For nearly 2,000 years, Eastern Orthodox Christians have called the days after Easter “Bright Week” (Wikipedia has an extensive article). In Eastern tradition, special Bright Week customs range from processions and a special focus on joyful music—to a practice of keeping the holy doors in a church’s iconostasis open to symbolize the stone rolled away from Jesus’s tomb in Gospel accounts.
There are many cultural variants on the general theme. On “Wet Monday” 2017, the New York Times published this column from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, also known as Little Poland.
At least one leading Catholic writer, in recent years, has argued that the Orthodox don’t have a corner on holy humor. This should be regarded as a universal Christian custom, says best-selling author Fr. James Martin SJ. You can read more in our earlier ReadTheSpirit interviewed with Martin about his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
Some Protestant denominations also have staked their claim to a good laugh post-Easter. The United Methodist Church recommends the practice—along with a link to Cal’s resources—on its Discipleship Ministries website.
CAL SAMRA’S CURRENT CAMPAIGN
At age 86, Cal told us, “I still play tennis four times a week and I try to eat natural, organic foods. I’ve stayed halfway in good shape, for my age.”
That is why, over the past couple of years, Cal’s work has shifted toward a message closely linked to Christian ministry in many denominations: promoting healthy ways of living. “I’m still very much into humor, but I’ve spent a lot of time working on health and prevention, looking back into the early work of people like John Wesley, who wrote a lot about health care. My newest book is The Physically Fit Messiah.”
Cal opens his new book with his familiar message: Jesus is “a joyful spirit with a keen sense of humor who used humor, as well as prayer, in his healing ministry. He was not the sad-sack Messiah portrayed in many old icons and contemporary Christian paintings. He kept exhorting his followers to ‘Be of good cheer!’”
Then, he explains why he is spending more time researching and writing about health, these days. “Looking back on the last 30 years of Joyful Noiseletter issues, we were astonished at the number of articles that focused on physical fitness, good nutrition and health.”
Want to sample some of Cal Samra’s gentle humor? Check out this sample page on his Joyful Noiseletter website.