Babies are born knowing how to cry, but they have to learn how to laugh. Every mother knows this: By 2 months her baby can smile in response to attention, and by 3 or 4 months she begins making imitative noises. But real, honest-to-goodness belly laughs don't occur until 5 or 6 months. Crying comes right out of the gut; laughter requires context.
What makes a baby laugh is the essence of all humor-a sense of unexpectedness. A baby's life is basically a serious business of getting needs met by adults who carry, feed, dress, and change him. Then one day there pops around the corner of consciousness a truly antic figure, well past toddlerhood yet far short of adolescence.
This figure hangs upside-down, makes faces, grunts like a chimpanzee-and it's hilarious. Mother may say, "Stop acting silly, Jimmy," but Baby is shaking with uncontrollable mirth. Smiling and talking are learned responses, but laughter comes out of nowhere and takes him by surprise.
A baby has to understand congruity to recognize incongruity. From such unsophisticated beginnings his sense of humor is on a speedy track to underwear and potty jokes.
Like everything else, humor is corrupted by sin and too soon becomes cynical, bitter, or mocking. It's the way Sarah laughed at the prophecy of her coming motherhood: "A bag of bones like me swelling up like a dewy young bride? That'll be the day."
That was the day, when Sarah laughed again. This time for joy-and for surprise, because she had been around long enough to know that this is not the way things work in the world. She named her baby Laughter, for "all who hear of it will laugh with me."
G.K. Chesterton once made a similar comparison between paganism and Christianity. Paganism was usually rated a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow, but in truth it was just the opposite. Paganism has taken the world's measure and knows that life is a sorrowful business at heart; therefore, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die." But Christianity recognizes that a world of hurt is surrounded by a universe of joy.
Our faith teaches a three-personed God so full of love He could not keep it to Himself. We know that the foundations of the earth were laid "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). Our God saw the end from the beginning, calculated the sum of blood and pain and destruction and death and abomination-and still considered the whole creation enterprise to be worth its cost. Joy is fundamental; grief is a passing shade.
On one notable occasion during His earthly life, the Man of Sorrows, rejoicing in the Spirit, looked heavenward and cried out, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children" (Luke 10:21). The "little children" were the 72 disciples, who had returned from a mission trip all agog that the demons obeyed them in Christ's name. Like, wow! No jaded cynicism here: These were boys who could still be surprised, babbling like babies at the wonders they'd seen. Jesus knew the grief that lay before them. But He also knew the hilarity.
No sorrow on earth has ever come near the sorrow of the cross; no abandonment has ever equaled that suffered by the Son; no necessity was ever so grim as that which put Him there. Yet He endured it "for the joy that was set before Him." We who believe are little children, just experienced enough to be surprised. Yes, care weighs us down, but the irrepressible joy of the universe occasionally pops out and reveals itself, and our youth is renewed like the eagle's.
"There was some one thing," Chesterton wrote, "that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth." While low in the grave He lay, the world was not surprised; this is its way. But up from the grave He arose, and the world was turned on its head.