13
Mar
14

Lent (Day 8) — “Why So Gloomy?” — the end, finally

In a sense, though it may be correct (though 100% correct seems a proud boast), Martin’s brief examination of “seriousness” in the Church is very incomplete.  He does, towards the end of the second chapter, devoted to exploring the idea of why the Catholic Church has traditionally taken a rather serious, even somber, tone towards joy, humor and laughter, mention something going on in the Church at the time of the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine to iron out some points of theology, as the vigorous debates on some questions were causing civil disturbances in an Empire Constantine was trying to put in order.  He notes two heresies in particular: one that Jesus was all God, and only seemed to be human (he adopted a human disguise, rather like Zeus and Hermes do in some Greek myths) — these being called the Docetists (after the Greek dokein = “to appear”), and the other heresy being that of the Adoptionists, arguing for Jesus as all Man, and the Son of God only through “adoption.”  This latter heresy is often known by the term Arian, after the bishop, Arius, who took this position.  Christian Unitarians are modern Arians.  The official position of the Catholic Church is that Jesus is all God and all Man.  The way Martin explains it, to be fully human is to have a sense of humor and to feel joy, and that to deny that is to deny Jesus’ humanity, which, by his framing of the question, would be heretical.  

Martin could have (maybe time and length were the big considerations here) also discussed other things going on in the Church during the Roman Empire.  St. Augustine, one of the cardinal figures of the Catholic Church, had, for some time, being a Manichaean, a follower of a sect believing in two gods, one of light, the other of darkness, and these are in constant opposition and war.  Though Augustine became a Christian, he never fully left his Manichaean ideas at the door.  The Roman Empire was under siege in Augustine’s day, and the Vandals had even attacked North Africa, were Augustine was bishop.  Such a situation could very well lead to a sense of a constant siege between light and dark, good and evil.  And in a war situation, levity is not always valued.  St. Jerome, another of the important Christian figures of Late Antiquity, and editor and translator of the Bible into Latin, as well as a Christian cultural warrior, also had a very dark view of humanity as fallen (physicality was a sign of fallenness) and humor was a sign of that fallen state, not seen as something valued in its own right.  

Of course, humor in the Medieval world, which was very much a stratified world, where order came at the price of a certain fixity of place in the world (lords and ladies on high, and serfs below), was often seen as a subversive force, one which poked fun at authority figures.  This could have its place — the king often had a jester at court to lighten the mood, and to poke fun at the high and mighty (even himself), and there were annual festivals such as Carnival (the period just before Lent) which were seen as safety valves, allowing a release of pent-up energy before people settle down to the work of Lent.  But humor, in poking fun at the powerful, could also cause people to question the structure that put some on top and others on the bottom.  And that danger of humor was something to be suppressed, which it continued to be through much of the Church’s history.  

There was no way, unless Martin set out to write a book about humor in Church history (not his intent, so far as I can tell), to address the ongoing suppression of joy and mirth in the Church, so that it becomes a habit for much of its history (even after things get better).  Still, some notice of that history was probably worth noting.  

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