Jesus in the Gospels displays a wide range of emotions, but one that is glaringly absent is laughter. Even after his resurrections, widely celebrated during the Easter season, Jesus remains stoic almost to a fault. Shouldn’t the restoration of the universe after a grueling passion elicit at least a chuckle? Wouldn’t God incarnate perhaps want to snicker after conquering death, enduring a world still lost in its own self-importance?
It doesn’t happen in anywhere in the New Testament, but in the ancient heresy called Gnosticism, there are moments when Jesus just had to laugh.
The chief one occurs in the Nag Hammadi library’s Apocalypse of Peter, where the risen Jesus interprets the visions of the Apostle Peter during a spiritual walkabout. In one vision, Peter relives the Crucifixion and witnesses two Christs present: one crucified in the flesh and one ethereally floating above the crowd, full of joy.
Jesus explains to Peter what the vision means:
The person that you saw on the tree, the one who is glad and laughing, that is the living Jesus! The other one, into whose hands and feet they are driving spikes, that one is the body; he is the flesh-manifestation of the immortal being put to shame, the likeness perceived by the natural eye. Look at him, then look at me.
In essence, Jesus informs Peter that his real essence never suffered, just as the real essence of any human can never suffer when spiritually awakened.
Interestingly, in another passage of The Apocalypse of Peter, it is Satan, the chief representative of earthly power in Christian texts, who is placed on the Cross as a proxy for Jesus. In the end, like the cheering or weeping crowd, Satan is just another deluded actor too attached to the tragic theater that is the world of forms.
Like a bemused Shiva, the living Jesus stands above such spectacle (this certainly echoes the concept of the laughing Buddha). To him, astral pleasure is to be relished once inner divinity is remembered, and this concept was championed by the ancient Gnostics. Those who do not possess Gnosis (divine knowledge) cannot see the living Jesus and therefore cannot see their true selves. The Apocalypse of Peter even says that Jesus “laughs at their lack of perception, knowing full well that they were born blind and are blind still.”
Another Gnostic text where Jesus laughs is in the Gospel of Judas, not once but four times! His laughter is sarcastic and directed at his apostles, mainly for worshipping mechanically or simply not understanding his message. In one section, Judas even asks, “Teacher, why are you laughing at us?” Jesus responds with the proverbial damage control of “I’m actually laughing with you!” But he is obviously laughing at Judas and the other apostles, later explaining that his scoffing is truly directed at the deficient universe and its bureaucratic god.
It’s almost as if the living Jesus is indicating that if one escapes the bondage of the ego and cosmic ego, attains higher forms of consciousness, then it’s almost impossible not to ridicule the absurdity of a temporal world (and those within it who take it seriously).
Beyond laughing, Jesus in Gnostic and apocryphal texts is more jovial and fraternal. He dances with his disciples (The Acts of John); ostensibly rolls his eyes when the Apostle John doubts him (The Secret Book of John); and regards passionate women as valid followers full of intelligence and insight (The Gospel of Mary/The Pistis Sophia).
Who has the last laugh?
In a way, the living Jesus of the Gnostics is more down to earth that the Orthodox Jesus. He is more human. He has fun with friends, enjoys parties, and seeks the company of intelligent women — going against the accusation of Gnosticism being an existentialist, negative, and transcendental movement.
The main point, though, is that the living Jesus suggests that authentic joy is there for those who open their eyes and hearts to what is eternal. Yet expressing this joy might sometimes come at the expense of those who won’t let go of what is temporal—like Peter, Judas, and really all of us stuck in the middle of the material and spiritual realms.
In other words, even if no one notices the heavenly beauty above the wooden constructs of mortals and gods, sometimes the best thing to do is just laugh.
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