Carbonated Holiness

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 23, 2017, the first Sunday after Easter.

Texts: Psalm 126, Genesis 18:1-2, 9-15


There is a sculpture that has inspired and encouraged me for years.  It has been in my pastor’s study—often on my desk—since I received it as a gift from my mother.  It has become a profound symbol for me of something deeply important in the spiritual life.  The sculpture is of a laughing pig.  The pig is on its back, its two front hooves holding its round belly, mouth wide open in laughter.  Michelangelo’s “Pieta” gets all the attention as a masterpiece of Christian art, but I think the sculptor of “The Laughing Pig” should get more accolade.  For me it’s a sacred icon of earthy joy.  I find it impossible to look at the giggling swine without feeling a shift in my spirit—a lightening up.


Laughter doesn’t often get its due in Christian settings.  In an attempt to be faithful, we can become awfully intense, we can take ourselves very seriously, we can—as I try to regularly remind us—begin to feel responsible for every single problem and broken place in the world.  And that’s a heavy load to carry.  But as we enter this Easter season, the story we tell is that God’s love and mercy are the powers that can—and DO—bring about resurrection and transformation in the world.  We get to share in the work of new creation that God is always busy with—but we are not God!  Lightening up doesn’t mean we aren’t taking our responsibilities seriously—but rather that we have proper perspective.  That is good news if I’ve ever heard it!  I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this good news all the time.  I need constant reminders to lighten up!


One way the ancient church helped people claim and experience the good news of Easter was through a custom, dating back to the early centuries of Christianity in Greece, in which the days after Easter were celebrated as days of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus resurrection.  Over the centuries, playing practical jokes on each other, dancing, laughing, and generally having fun together have all been part of the celebration.  Over the past thirty to forty years, some churches in America have reclaimed this practice, calling the Sunday after Easter, “Holy Humor Sunday.”


The custom is based on the reflections of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom who mused that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  They referred to this as “Risus paschalis—the Easter laugh.”[i] Growing up, I observed my dad’s family delight in trying to one-up each other with practical jokes. I love the thought of God being the original trickster.  No one’s going to one-up God—God gets the last laugh! 


I have a running debate with a close friend about Jesus on this point.  My friend tends to think that Jesus was too concerned with the great cosmic struggle between good and evil and the deeply bruising earthly struggle against greed and injustice to spend much time joking around or laughing.  I, on the other hand, am convinced that all those children wouldn’t want to be near Jesus if he didn’t laugh and play; everyone wanted Jesus to join their dinner parties—and he spent time with folks who knew how to have a good time; and, though in translation it’s sometimes hard to recognize, some of Jesus’s parables are deeply funny.  All this is to say, I think Jesus laughed.  A lot.  And the more I learn about laughter, the more convinced I am of that.


Laughter is scientifically proven to have healing effects on our physical and mental health.  It boosts our immune system, relieves muscle tension and stress, and causes the brain to release “endorphins, interferon-gamma (IFN), and serotonin.  These are nature’s own feel good chemicals and are responsible for helping to keep your mood uplifted.”[ii]  Studies out of Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic (among others) confirm that “Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh.”[iii]  In other words, laughter is good medicine when you’re stressed, ill, or discouraged.


I imagine all of us can think of a time when we were in the midst of a deep struggle or right in the middle of grief and found ourselves laughing with others—and in those moments felt at least a moment of relief.  There is deep folk wisdom in the phrase “sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying!” That might be going on in our story today from Genesis when Sarah overhears the messengers prophesy that she will get pregnant.  She had lived her long years unable to become pregnant.  And in the culture of the time, to be childless was a tragedy and disgrace.  Sarah had reason to cry.  But she laughed!  Did she laugh to keep from crying—to ward off the temptation to hope and, yet again, have those hopes dashed?  Or did she laugh simply because the whole idea was ridiculous—since she and Abraham were not exactly in the habit of acting like newlyweds anymore and her body’s monthly cycles had long ceased?  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.  I’m struck by her denial out of fear—evidently she sensed she wasn’t supposed to laugh.  And that makes me think of all the times I get the giggles in the most inappropriate moments.  There was a serious conversation going on between Abraham and some Very Important People.  And Sarah gets tickled.  I can relate. J


In one study I consulted, I read that “Laughter allows us to entertain the absurd and imagine alternate possibilities.”[iv]  Spiritual writer, Carolyn Arends, sees that happening in Sarah’s story:  “Consider the laughter of…Sarah, blossoming from incredulity into incredible joy. When Sarah had a baby at long, impossible last, she named him Isaac—which means, of course, ‘laughter.’” Arends goes on to say, “laughter belongs to the world of wind, or Spirit—unexpected joy arrives on the gust of a fresh current and carries us to a different place from the one where it found us.”[v]


I’ve mentioned some of the many places that laughter can carry us from:  physical tension and stress, over-responsibility, disappointment, grief, taking ourselves too seriously, lack of perspective.  Christian writer and essayist, Anne Lamott, speaks to some of this saying, “Humor and laughter and silliness and giggles can get into some dark, walled-off places inside us and bring breath and lightness…When I am at my most stressed, I sometimes lose my sense of humor, and that condition is just a nightmare…For me, hell is when I’m absolutely stuck in self-obsession, this terrible, terrible self-consciousness.  The healing and grace often comes from being put back together by people… [who] somehow help me lighten up and get my sense of humor back. When I have my sense of humor back, nothing can stop me.”  Lamott describes humor and laughter as “carbonated holiness.”[vi]   //  I love that way of thinking about the gift of laughter.  As a bubbly, refreshing drink of God’s grace, as the thing that is always available to us, just waiting to nourish and renew us body and soul.  “A good laugh is a release—even if only for a moment—from worry, strife, and self.  It is a sudden, often unbidden confession that someway, somehow, all is well, or at least there is a hope that it can be.”[vii]  Carbonated holiness…grace…laughter.  With such a beautiful healing gift always extended, why not take advantage of it as much as humanly possible? 


I can’t remember who wrote it, but someone once said that Christians should look more redeemed.  That is, the good news of God’s love, mercy, and resurrection power should lead us to rejoice, to laugh and be glad!  And, even if you don’t necessarily identify as Christian or can’t get down with the whole God thing or resurrection thing, laughter is proven to be good for you.  There is almost no downside to it—though Woody Allen mentions one saying, “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”  Aside from that, laughter is just good.  So, what are some ways that we can cultivate laughter in our lives?  Here is a pretty good guide I found:

“Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humor and laughter, as you might with working out, and build from there.  Some ways to start:

Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter and like laughter, it’s contagious.  When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling.  Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with.  Notice the effect this has on others.

Count your blessings. Literally make a list.  The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humor and laughter…

Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humor in everyday events.  Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.

Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, ‘What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today?  This week?  In your life?’”[viii]

There are so many other ways to imbibe carbonated holiness:

  • Watch a funny movie, TV show, or YouTube video
  • Invite friends or co-workers to go to a comedy club
  • Read the funny pages
  • Share a good joke or a funny story
  • Check out your bookstore’s humor section
  • Host game night with friends
  • Play with a pet
  • Goof around with children
  • Do something silly
  • Make time for fun activities (e.g. bowling, miniature golfing, karaoke)”[ix]

As we move through this “Soul Food” series, I hope that we’ll all make sure to give ourselves a heaping portion of laughter.  Let this time be an opportunity to more intentionally seek out laughter in your life; so that it becomes part of your regular spiritual diet, nourishing you for the long haul as we continue to attend to the serious work of sacred resistance and intentional community.  Drink in the “carbonated holiness” that can refresh and renew!  St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order once remarked to a novice, “I see you are always laughing, and I am glad of it.” Ignatius also “once danced a jig to cheer up downcast Jesuits.  He was a man whose joy was known to be full.” So much so that the phrase, “Laugh and grow strong” is often attributed to him.[x]


Laugh and grow strong, friends.  Imbibe some carbonated holiness.  Find your laughing pig and keep it ever before you!







[v] Carolyn Arends, “Carbonated Holiness: Laughter is Serious Business,” Christianity Today, “Wrestling with Angels” column, April 2008.  Accessed at:

[vi] Anne Lamott, “Anne Lamott: The Habit of Practice,”

[vii] Carolyn Arends


[ix] Ibid.