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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017
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Sacred and silly combine on Holy Humor Sunday

Did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi and the minister who walked into the bar? If not, head to church this weekend for Holy Humor Sunday. Or you could turn the tables and heave a pie in your minister's face. This is the one day you could get away with that. "Laughing releases tension, and we have enough of that these days," says the Rev. Daniel McDonald, who plans to crack a few jokes from the pulpit at Clearwater's North Bay Community Church.
A custom begun by early Greek Christians, the observance was kept for centuries with "days of joy and laughter," parties and picnics, in the week after Easter. Originally called Bright Sunday, the day was meant to keep the excitement of the Resurrection alive, with churchgoers and pastors playing practical jokes on one another, singing and dancing. Early church theologians including Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa taught that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. They called it "Risus paschalis" - the Easter laugh. But as belief in the Resurrection began to fade, so did the observance. It took a jokester to bring it back. In 1988, Cal Samra, founder of the Fellowship of Merry Christians, started encouraging churches to include the day in their Easter season calendars. "We thought churches needed to lighten up." says Samra, a former newspaper reporter who now runs the ministry from Portage, Mich. "Jesus had a sense of humor. Why not us?" To help those who feel awkward injecting humor into a sacred setting, Samra publishes The Joyful Newsletter. It provides jokes, cartoons, funny stories and suggestions for subscribers. He says he has more than 10,000 subscribers from "the whole spectrum" of Christian denominations. Many of those churches publish in their bulletins a popular print of a joyful and triumphant risen Christ surprising his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. It's distributed by Samra's Fellowship of Merry Christians. "It's our most popular item," he says. "That's how we like to think of Jesus, as the life of the party." Over the years, congregations began referring to the day as Holy Humor Sunday - a name that has stuck. For this tough year, Samra chose the theme "Humor for the Hard Times." "Faith and humor go hand in hand as survival tools," he says. Some of the antics played in churches over the years: Choir members wearing bathrobes and playing kazoos; sanctuaries decorated with smiley faces and balloons; and members re-enacting humorous skits based on television shows. A Missouri church posted a sign outside the door, announcing: "If you must sleep in on Sundays, sleep in here." Sleeping bags were stacked in the back pews for naps during the service. McDonald gave one of the world's shortest sermons on a Holy Humor Sunday. He announced that the focus of his talk would be on sin. "Don't do it," he said from the pulpit. "Amen." Then he sat down. "I think we all need to stop taking ourselves so seriously," he says. "We need to recognize that this is really God's world, and he has so much in store for us. We put too much emphasis on what's wrong and what's bad with it." There's another benefit to the observance. It comes the week after Easter, when attendance drops dramatically. "We get everyone hyped up over the big moment as we celebrate the Resurrection," McDonald says. "And after all the preparation, it's done in a day. People tend to feel let down. So I say, let's keep the party going." IF YOU GO
What: Holy Humor Sunday
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: North Bay Community Church, 3170 N. McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater
Information: (727) 796-0071

Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613.

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