The legendary fall of Troy was precipitated by the horrific death of the priest Laocoön, whose warning not to take the Horse into the city was punished by two sea serpents strangling him and his sons. The tragic scene came vividly to life in one of antiquity’s most famous statues (c. 200 BC), characterized by a modern writer as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art:1
For those familiar with the biblical tradition, the snakes also have a terrifying resonance with the Serpent in the Garden, binding and strangling humankind in the snares of sin.
Here is Charles Addams’ 1975 reception of the great artwork:
What makes this so funny?
While humor is too mysterious to be reduced a formula, scientists of laughter speculate that it derives from a combination of incongruity, relief, and superiority. In the case of the Laocoön Sausage, little need be said about the incongruity between the tragic sublimity of the statue and the bathos of the butcher shop, as the middle-aged woman with shopping bag passes by with only the mildest of interest. The terror of the priest and his sons being strangled by snakes is relieved by the non-lethal sausage string. And in catching the allusion to the ancient statue, we experience the intellectual thrill of “getting it.” Sausage itself is inherently comic, a slightly scary mongrel of a food, the making of which is a metaphor for unseemly processes we would prefer not to know too much about.
The essence of humor is also conveyed by the word “preposterous,” which etymologically means “reversing the first and the last.” Anyone who has seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) will be familiar with the stock figure of ancient Roman comedy, the servus callidus or “cunning slave,” who outwits his master and everyone else. There is nothing funny or narratively rewarding about the strong defeating the weak; instead, we crave stories about underdogs, clever tricksters, David and Goliath. The comedic relief of the Roman Saturnalia derived from this reversal of power roles, with masters serving their slaves during the week-long festival. It ended on December 23—right before the day we celebrate the arrival of the Master who took the form of a slave, showing us that only in service can we find perfect freedom.
The Incarnation is, in a word, preposterous.
To appreciate the mind-boggling absurdity of Christian truth claims, it helps to recognize how much of the philosophical enterprise throughout the ages has involved freeing the soul from the prison of the body. This Platonic impulse is nicely summarized in the Greek jingle sōma sēma, “the body is a tomb.” As the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus explained to the boneheaded Christians, “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.”2 The intellectual and spiritual is the realm of enlightenment, of infinity; the corporeal is base, dirty, confining. It should be obvious that the philosopher, rising toward the Infinite on the wings of the mind and spirit, is vastly superior to the butcher.
Christianity does embrace contemplation as a great good, and to that extent it is consonant with the philosophic tradition. For instance, the prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-14) at first appears congenial to soul-body dualism. “In the beginning was the Logos”—word, thought, rationality—“and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” The Platonist would have been at home with the light of the Logos shining in darkness, and the assurance that the saved were born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” So far so good. But then—
“The Logos was made FLESH, and dwelt among us.” That one word, SARX, explodes Platonic metaphysics. The transcendent Form of the Good, the telos of all philosophical contemplation, became a sausage?
As shocking as the Incarnation may be, however, it is a fitting consummation of the story of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. Salvation history is a string of sausages stretching all the way back to our first parents, a screed of every imaginable sin and failure. Think of Noah passed out naked and drunk; Abraham lying and prostituting his own wife; David committing adultery and covering it up with murder—and those are the good guys! As Eamon Duffy points out in “The God of History,” every woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is “sexually compromised” in some way:3
From this contaminated stream is drawn the pure abounding water of life. Matthew here confronts us with God’s inversion of our values, with God’s refusal to be confined within the bounds of the likely or the respectable. The Christ who sat down and ate with harlots and sinners is consistent from his very beginning.
The incongruity that is the soul of humor is also the soul of our faith.
Today, April Fools and Maundy Thursday, we commemorate the punch line of a joke more than a thousand years in the making. When the Israelites first encountered the miraculous bread from heaven that would sustain them on their exodus from slavery to freedom, they called it Manna, “What is this?” We can hear in their puzzlement all human perplexity at the bewildering gifts of God. At the Last Supper, the Passover meal that begins the exodus from earth to heaven, Jesus, the Bread of Life, caps that question with an even more astonishing answer: “This is my body.” Against all the rules of probability and decorum, God became a sausage and commanded us to eat him. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25). As we keep the preposterous feast this Easter, let us rejoice that his sense of humor, too, is infinitely better than ours.
- Nigel Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (University of California Press, 2001), 25.
- Origen, Against Celsus 7.42, quoted by Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 2003), 9.
- Eamon Duffy, “The God of History,” in Walking to Emmaus (London: Burns & Oates, 2006), 153-63, at 161-62.