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In comedy, they say, timing is everything. If so, this post will bomb. It takes up the theme of Easter jokes, a practice in the ancient church, but one to be exercised on Easter itself or Easter Monday. This post appears instead on Holy Saturday or Black Saturday or the day awaiting the Easter Vigil, a day of solemnity and sadness and grief. No time for jokes. So if you’re sensitive on the point, file this one away for a couple days.

Speaking of the Easter Vigil, Episcopalians like to tell the one about the old man who stumbles out of a bar and into the back of the sanctuary during the Vigil to sleep it off. Rudely awakened by the blare of trumpets the next morning, he spies the be-robed verger swinging the censer to a fare-thee-well and bellows out, “Hey lady, your purse is on fire!”

But why joke around Easter at all? The reason lies in the venerable Christus Victor theory of the atonement that was long forgotten in the West, owing to the triumph of Anselm’s satisfaction model, until being recovered by Gustav Aulen’s eponymous publication in 1930.

In this account, Christ’s death did not constitute a legal payment to cover a certain number of sinners but broke the power of evil itself. On one version, Christ in his death invaded and conquered the kingdom of the devil, breaking its hold on us and setting us free. In a modern application, Christ’s death smashes the systems of oppression and alienation that account for the woes of the world, that bind and threaten us—and that turn us into their accomplices.

But the comic reading, which is probably the main source of the Easter-joke tradition, tells of a cosmic bait-and-switch. Satan, so it is said, loves to seize every new person that comes into the world for his own. Jesus is born as a human and, sure enough, Satan goes after him too, having to take the extraordinary measure of crucifixion to conquer so extraordinary a man. But Jesus turns out to be no ordinary mortal, but also God, packing a power that defeats Satan’s titanic evil. The crucified Jesus is the bait masking a hook that takes captivity captive, that brings death down to death, that conquers the power of evil for good. The joke’s on the devil, and there’s nothing more apropos for celebrating Easter than cracking wise.

So enough of the theory, will you please get to the jokes already? Ok, I’m Christian Reformed so mine tend to involve hymns. Misunderstood hymns and images that hymns inadvertently bring to mind. You can imagine the snickering that occurred during the singing of “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” when our elementary school eyes fell on the author tagline at the bottom of the page: John Fawcett, 1782. Or later, at our Christian high school chapel, when we lustily (!) bellowed “in intercourse at hearth and board/with my beloved ones.” The line’s been primly altered in more recent renditions but you can find it right there—verse 2, line 2—of “Fill Thou My Life, Oh Lord My God,” #449 in the CRC’s old blue Psalter Hymnal. Notice, too, as we adolescent guys surely did, the author tagline: Horatius Bonar, 1866.

My wife’s imagination was not so pitifully salacious but, as an immigrant girl, she had her own challenges getting hymn lyrics right. Summers, she loved to bounce from one Vacation Bible School to another, ringing out the peppy tunes that Baptists and Methodists and other such low-grade assemblies used to corral the enthusiasm of youth. Alas, to her Frisian ears, “Safe Am I, Safe Am I” turned into “Save the My, Save the My”—perhaps anticipating the individualistic soteriology of the Bible lesson to come. Happily, her native Calvinism came through when, in the next line, “sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er” became “shut the door, shut the door/to His love forevermore.” At least she was prepared to understand reprobation in the catechism classes that loomed ahead.

But Easter jokes require an Easter hymn, and here my imagination remains transfixed by “Low in the Grave He Lay” by the appropriately named Robert Lowry. As I sang out the words on Easter mornings as a boy, my mind couldn’t help but jump to the big dinner that awaited us at home. Ham was on order, of course, but Mom did not prepare it with fancy glazes or sauces derived from pineapple or cherries. No, meat and potatoes required gravy for the potatoes. When the meat was beef roast, the result was exquisite. I miss it to this day. But ham gravy? Not so much. Salty brine it was. Mom juxtaposed this with perhaps her most distinguished achievement in her career of jello creations. You choose a lime base, then add the different food groups to see if you can get all four. There were shredded carrots in there, mandarin oranges, chopped walnuts, and a whipped topping that passed for dairy. Somehow it worked: that combo of tart and sweet off-set the ham gravy just right.

This being Easter Sunday dinner, the good china would be out. And the good china included a gravy boat that reminded me of a woman’s shoe—a wedge pump, I’ve since learned. A long, low slope. Kind of like the stone bed inside of the tomb as pictured in the Easter number of our Sunday School paper. And so, inevitably, the lyrics of that Easter morning hymn turned into “Low in the gravy lay/Jesus my Savior/Waiting the coming day/Jesus my Lord/Up from the gravy arose!/With a mighty triumph o’er His foes….” There flashed across my mind the image of Jesus bursting up out of that gravy boat, dripping ham brine all over the nice white linen (!) tablecloth. I figured Mom wouldn’t mind, once she got over the shock of it all. She would mind my mind going in such sacrilegious directions. As did I. Singing there in church, I would be appalled at my mental pictures. And trying to stifle my laughter at the same time.

Horror and laughter. Consummate suffering and addled joy. Kind of sounds right for this weekend. Let’s let the redoubtable Reverend Lowry have the final word:

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation,

I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation….

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?…

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing;

All things are mine since I am his—how can I keep from singing?

Happy Easter! No joke.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    “Up from the gravy: a rose!” We always had a slightly different picture.

  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    My favorite Easter joke is:
    A teacher was talking about the resurrection with her Sunday School class and she asked Billy, “What did Jesus say when he rose from the dead?”
    Billy responded, “Ta da!”

  • Eloise VanderBilt says:

    It must be the cadence of the song. Here, 75 years after I heard it in an American Indian language, I still remember ” yan palaquin pilakya”. I don’t even know if that is correct, but it sounds true to my hearing!

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