Our Savior Lutheran Church in Lansing celebrating a decade of Holy Hilarity Sundays

A hair-raising experience ... Pictured above, left to right, Donna Reed and Grace Ziegelmaier at a past celebration of Holy Hilarity Sunday at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lansing. This year’s celebration will be April 3 at 9 a.m. Submitted photo.

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

In 2007, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lansing began observing “Holy Hilarity” on the Sunday following Easter. This is a humorous observance of the resurrection of Christ. This year the congregation will be having a special celebration of the ten-year anniversary of that event. This year’s celebration will be held this Sunday, April 3 at 9 a.m.
Paula Rathbun, one of the organizers of this year’s event, stated, “Everybody needs to try it sometime. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll come back to a happy church. During Holy Hilarity Sunday you will laugh until your soul is full. We will sing a lot to praise God on high and it’s a time to pray for those in need. In addition to our regular offering, people are encouraged to make donations to Helping Services of Northeast Iowa to show our support for those who are in need.”

Ten years ago, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Pastor Laura Gentry read an article called “Two Parts Faith, One Part Humor” in The Lutheran, the official magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The piece reported on how some Lutheran congregations had started observing Holy Humor Sunday. Christians all over the world, in fact, are resurrecting an ancient tradition of celebrating the Easter festival with humor and merriment.
Church historians cite considerable evidence that during the early centuries of Christianity, Easter celebrations went on for days and even weeks. With it, the tradition of “Holy Hilarity Sunday” developed. This custom of celebrating the resurrection with humor and lightheartedness is especially rooted in the religious life of eastern Europe.
The idea of the celebration is that God, in fact, had the last laugh over death. Jesus was buried in the tomb and it looked like death had won, but three days later Christ arose. It’s the unexpected ending that makes it so delightful - and even funny. In comedy terms, the resurrection is the “banana peel” of the Christian faith. The early theologians called it Risus paschalis, which means “the Easter laugh!”
When the Lutherans in Lansing learned this, they decided to give it a try - after all, they were already known for their laughter club. The first Holy Hilarity Sunday was so enthusiastically received that they have been continuing the tradition for a decade and have gotten quite a bit of press for it, including an article in an international magazine called the Intelligent Optimist.
Church member Donna Reed stated, ”We all love it. I’ve participated ever since we started. We usually dress up crazy. I like that it’s celebrating on the Sunday after Easter the fact that Jesus died for us and rose again. We look forward to it every year.”

Worshipers on Holy Hilarity Sunday are invited to wear silly hats and costumes. Over the years, people have arrived at church in some hilarious outfits. Once, Bob Wood of De Soto, WI wore a costume with two sets of arms. He joked: “When I fold my hands in prayer, it has twice the power!”
Gary Bahlmann of rural Waukon got a laugh when he wore a t-shirt his wife, Gayle, made him. It poked fun at the fact that people normally sit in the same pew every Sunday. So the shirt had a greeting on the back of it with the names of the people who sit behind them. It declared them all “West Pew Friends.”
Pastor Gentry has amassed a whole collection of costumes. Last year, she was a pink elephant, but her favorite costume is a custom-made “Croc Me Up” suit, which makes her look like a crocodile in a mini-dress with neon green go-go boots. It even has a tail she can wag when she dances.
This year several of the members will wear t-shirts commemorating the tenth anniversary, but those who don’t have a shirt can don a funny hat, a smile or a wacky shirt and join in. This year’s t-shirt design was created by Paula Rathbun and Kathy Hay.

Worshipers are also invited to tell their favorite jokes at the joke open mic during the merry service. It keeps members on the look-out for good, church-appropriate jokes. The kids enjoy this facet and have the whole congregation in stitches.
Every Holy Hilarity service is a little different but one thing that is consistent is the happy music. Many of the traditional Easter songs are sung but instead of singing “Hallelujah!”, they laugh, injecting the songs with energy. Many Sunday school songs are used for worship as well, complete with funny actions.
Another tradition which has developed is the “half-time dance.” It started a few years ago when the UNI Interlude Dance was trending. Rathbun and Hay knew the dance and were willing to lead it during the Holy Hilarity service. The congregation danced it so well, that each year a different dance has been chosen for the service. One year ago, it was to the popular Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” song, which the church also made into a YouTube video that has gotten a lot of views.

The theme for the ten-year anniversary is “Laugh, Dance, Sing, Pray” and the church has printed up t-shirts with this theme for the occasion. “We are are really excited to share the joy of the Lord with this service!” says Rathbun.
“Lutherans have a reputation for being serious,” adds Pastor Gentry, “and we are serious about our faith, but who says we can’t laugh? We are joyful because of what God has done for us in the resurrection. That’s what this service is all about. We remind ourselves that we can be lighthearted and rejoice with a child-like faith. Jesus lifts us!”
Don Thran, congregational member since 2000, stated, “Church is often divided between young and old. At first this was very popular with young, but it takes some adapting for the older people. I was born and raised around strict people in church. It was quite a change for me, but I went through five years of my wife with cancer and you need something to bring you back. Between laughter club and the things they did in church, it made a big difference for me. You have to smile, even if you don’t feel like. Everybody needs to have something to smile about.”
The public is invited to join the congregation for worship during Holy Hilarity Sunday, April 3 at 9 a.m. at 480 Diagonal Street in Lansing. Learn more about the event at www.LansingLutherans.org.