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The Last Laugh

Many people, believers or not, find something funny about the way the holiest day of the Christian year is marked in America. Comedian Jim Gaffigan (think pale, balding guy whining about "Hot Pockets") captures the kitschy part of this church hol...

Many people, believers or not, find something funny about the way the holiest day of the Christian year is marked in America.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan (think pale, balding guy whining about "Hot Pockets") captures the kitschy part of this church holiday that carries the name of a pagan goddess.

"Easter - that's a weird tradition," he said on his recent one-hour TV special, launching into a dialogue with himself:

"Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead. What should we do?"

"How about eggs?"

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"Well, what does that have to do with Jesus?"

"All right, we'll hide 'em."

"I don't . . . I don't follow your logic."

"Don't worry. There's a bunny."

Gaffigan says his actress wife is a "Shiite Catholic," who worries his jokery will endanger his soul.

Seriously, even devout Christians see Easter as a time to let loose with the laughs.

Since 1985, The Fellowship of Merry Christians has preached the Gospel that Easter is God getting the last laugh on the devil and death. As St. Paul put it, quoting the prophet Hosea as a taunt: "Death, where is thy sting?"

A sample joke from The Fellowship ( www.joyfulnoiseletter.com ): A little girl tells her pastor that, even if the Bible doesn't say so, she figures Jesus' first words on rising from the dead were: "Tah Dah!"

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But the smiles of Easter always have been for Christians through tears. A way of whistling past the graveyard.

You only get to Easter morning through the death and darkness of that Friday.

At Easter, Eastern Orthodox Christians speak of Christ, risen, "trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."

While Easter is exclusive, in one sense, to Christianity, it also rings with universal harmonies with the world.

It comes in spring, so the idea of new life seems natural. Eggs: chicks; bunnies: well, more bunnies.

The word "Easter" may be borrowed from a pagan goddess; but pagans are made in God's image, too, Christians believe. And the tale of Jesus' Resurrection was an old story already, echoing back to "in the beginning," before pagans and before it actually happened one morning in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, the church teaches.

It retains links to Judaism because Jesus was Jewish and was celebrating Passover the week he died and rose. Many Christians, in fact, call it Pascha - the Greek word for Passover - instead of Easter.

But some say the funny thing is, in America, Christmas gets more attention than Easter.

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Noted author and commentator Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote recently about the strange disconnect:

"It's that time of year again, when schoolchildren are coloring pictures of Jesus hanging from a cross, and shop-owners fill their windows with gaily colored cutouts of the flogging at the pillar. In the malls, everyone's humming along with seasonal hits on the sound system, such as "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded" (did you hear the Chipmunks' version?). Car dealers are promoting Great Big Empty-Tomb Size discounts on Toyotas," she wrote online at www.beliefnet.com .

"Yes, it's beginning to look a lot like Easter."

Taking her tongue out of her cheek, Mathewes-Green gets serious about Christians having a little more fun at Easter.

She says even a Jewish friend was struck by the anomaly. "Why Christians don't whoop it up more at Easter is a mystery to me," he told Mathewes-Greene. "How inspirational! How joyful! That is the time to toast each other, lay on gifts, attend worship services, pack in the rich food. Something really substantial and holy to remember."

Long ago, another Jewish man, cum St. Paul, summed up how big a deal it really is for Christians: "If Christ is not raised from the dead, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

Much made was recently of a television special by a famous Hollywood movie director about claims - considered dubious by many scholars - that an archeological find some years ago might include the bones of Jesus. Which would upend a basic teaching of Christianity, of course. (No doubt that was the farthest thing from the movie director's mind.)

Elemental to followers of Jesus always has been the belief that he was raised, bodily, from death and alive again, somehow, someway.

One of the earliest Christian stories credits Mary Magdalene with being first to see the risen Christ in the garden on that morning. She was given the job of being the first preacher of the Resurrection, to the other disciples. They were holed up, hiding out, crying and scared as bunnies, worried the whole thing had cracked like, well, egg shells.

Mary Magdalene's message is a gloss of Gaffigan's good joke: "Don't worry. I've seen the Lord."

Mathewes-Green says she does follow the logic of Easter in a world filled with despair, desolation and death.

"I saw people live through situations so crushingly unfair that it was impossible that the universe bore no witness, impossible that there was no God who could wipe tears away and effect justice on the last day.

"Yet, in the midst of this desolation, we find Jesus, triumphant over death and still shockingly alive, present to us in ways we cannot understand, much less explain."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or slee@gfherald.com .

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