Humour in Holy Week

Humour in Holy Week

Holy Week is the most solemn week of the Church’s year. Donkeys on Palm Sunday lead into the Passion narrative and a series of early-week services that vary from place to place. Tenebrae, compline, simple Evensongs, Passions; there is variety in that first half of the week, but which lead us ever closer to the Cross, through word, reflection and – most importantly, of course – music.

The story of a summary trial and vividly-told execution is, one might not unreasonably assume, not a natural place for humour.

How then, do we justify the off-colour jokes that populate the vestry and the stalls as the choir gathers to bring depth and drama to the solemnity of the occasion? Is it insensitive to plumb the depths of emotional drama and come out with jokes on our lips?

Naturally, this page is borne out of that very particular humour that singers have. And, for much of the year, the bringing together of the social joy of singing with wit and humour is a natural pairing that raises no eyebrows.

But this is Holy Week. Betrayal. Denial. A crowd baying for blood, excusing a murderer and slaying a saviour. It’s not…funny.

At the Good Friday service which many singers will have sung at today, there may have been the singing of the Passion – complete with mangoes, potentially, for an exotic taste – or The Reproaches (probably by Sanders). A cross may have been banged on the floor. Priests prostrating themselves. A sparse, solemn atmosphere which is made so not least by the choir bringing musical drama to the assembled congregation. So that the congregation can fully descend, with Christ, into the death and despair of the day.

The choir, meanwhile, have a job. We sing out and we wring out every note of passion and praise, and we do it while – perhaps – being equally moved by that very emotion that we bring to the service.

There is, in humour, self-preservation. A very real sense of “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry”. Because when you sing Bach’s harmonies to the Passion Chorale, or scream out HOW HAVE I OFFENDED YOU, or lament with Tallis, or squeeze out every suspension in Lotti’s Crucifixus, you do not have the luxury of being as moved as you want the congregation to be, because you have a job to do. And so you find humour in the holiness. Comedy in the crucifixion.

We don’t find the funniness because we’re not engaged, or because we don’t care. We find that funniness so that others can engage and care.

We love the music. We love it deeply, and passionately. And we bring that depth of love into Christ’s Passion so that others can too. If we do it with a smirk, a knowing glance, and sharing humour to safeguard our own emotional well-being, it’s because we need to do it again, and again.

Here’s to the choirs whose busiest weekend has just begun. We’ll keep the jokes coming.

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What is that piece at the top of this page, please?
O My People
Reproaches, I guess, but by whom?

Steve Sargent

“this is Holy Week. Betrayal. Denial. A crowd baying for blood, excusing a murderer and slaying a saviour. It’s not…funny.”

No. This is how life tends to go, and this is a stark reminder that the little lies we tell ourselves to feel better (wrong will be righted, justice will come) are, in fact, lies.

Faced with that you either cry or develop gallows humour – Life of Brian is a prime example. More subtly, the fact that the libertine Mozart could toss off Ave Verum in an afternoon and the respectable god-fearing Salieri couldn’t suggests that God, wherever She is, has a twisted sense of humour.


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