When the saints come laughing in

The new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art includes some paintings by Rembrandt that depict Jesus Christ with a faint smile.

Showing a divine figure with human emotion was considered radical. Showing him laughing is unheard of.

An ancient document called the Lentulus Letter determines precisely how Jesus is to be depicted. It is quoted in the Rembrandt show:

“His beard is abundant … His aspect is simple and mature …He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity. He was never known to laugh, but more prone to cry …”

Wait … he was never known to laugh?

“Look,” said Lloyd DeWitt, the co-curator of the Rembrandt exhibition, “icons look grim because they are eternal. They’re otherworldly. They are unemotional. But what a contrast to Rembrandt.”

Rembrandt broke from official church doctrine by painting Jesus with emotion, but he never went so far as to paint Jesus actually laughing.

Finding divinity in mirth

Mikhail Sergeev believes that divinity lies in mirth. The Moscow-born professor of religion and modern art at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia began collecting religious jokes to lighten his lectures.

“Art students regard me as authority in religion,” said Sergeev. “I needed something to be an icebreaker, get them involved, and show them I’m not an authority.”

Like this one:

A Jew is very sick with cholera. He asks for a Catholic priest. The priest arrives. The Jew starts repenting his sins and says:

And all my money I give to the synagogue.

Maybe you better ask for a rabbi? says the priest.

Why would I call the rabbi to come to a hospital with infectious patients?

Jokes like this are not meant to ridicule religious belief, but rather deflate the human ego. Humor is particularly good at mocking imperfections.

“The person who cannot laugh at himself is socially dangerous,” said Sergeev. “The illusion of grandeur–if you have this and apply it to religion–that becomes very dangerous.

“You start to use God for the purpose of aggrandizing yourself,” he continued. “Religious jokes can be seen as spiritual exercise. The purpose of spiritual exercise it to make yourself smaller. My ideal of a saint is a saint who is full of laughter.”

One well-known city businessman once met the local priest and told him, “You probably noticed, Holy Father, that I don’t visit the Church.”

Yes, I noticed and I regret this, answered the priest.

I don’t go to the Church because there are many hypocrites there, said the businessman.

We can always find a place for one more, replied the priest.

Holy jokes!

Professor Sergeev collected thousand of religious jokes from books, newspapers, websites, and friends. “Smile from Heaven: An Anthology of Religious Humor “was released in Russia in 2004.

Sergeev still has not found an English-language publisher. It has chapters on Jewish jokes, Catholic jokes, jokes about the Book of Genesis (Adam and Eve are particularly ripe for punch lines) and Russian Orthodox jokes.

Notably, he does not include Muslim jokes. Those are too hot to handle. Sergeev said it was risky enough to include jokes about Russian Orthodoxy.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian orthodoxy was experiencing a revival. When people come from atheism back to religion, they become neophytes. Religion is everything to them,” he said. “They may see religious jokes are anti-religion. I have a sense of uneasiness, but so far no problems. We’ll see. Hopefully not.”

They say that one minute of laughter makes one’s life five minutes longer. Now you know why, after having created life on Earth, God lives forever.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.