A recent documentary about comedy delivered a sad commentary on humanity. This CNN special, part of its History of Comedy series, introduces us to stand-up comedians—people who tend to crave love and affection. Many of them have been starved of it since childhood. Eventually they stumble on a rich source–by making people laugh. In preparation for their fix, they lock themselves in rooms for hours to ponder the truths behind the funny side of humanity’s foibles. In many cases these foibles are their own, and they are ugly truths. They represent much of their anguish and suffering. Nevertheless, walking that fine line between tragedy and comedy, they manage to produce material that makes the masses laugh with them instead of at them—because these are their ugly truths too. These stand-up adoration addicts convince themselves that this is the love they’ve been missing, causing them to seek out ever-increasing doses of applause and laughter. The addiction becomes so severe that the only time they feel the love they seek is on stage. Off stage they find the opposite—through drugs and other chemical substitutes for the real thing. These add to their ugly truths.
This brings us to this Sunday’s mass readings, which all deal with our inability to recognize God. Whether they admit it or not, the closest these comedians come to being one with a supreme being is not on stage, but in that room in which they listen for the muse of their hearts. Creative writing can be the most intimate form of prayer. Jesus proved it by producing parables that spun the purest truths from the voice of God in his head. The prophets who preceded Jesus on the public stage found God the same way—in a solitary whisper, not in a thunderous roar, as Elijah learns by a process of elimination in our first reading (1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a):
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
In our second reading from his letter to the Romans (Rom 9:1-5), we learn that St. Paul felt a desolation similar to what many creative types must feel in their search for love—except his depression lies in the fact that his target audience wasn’t feeling the love of God he was trying to communicate.
I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
We learn from Paul’s writing that the gentiles—not his own people—were the ones who picked up on the love of God he was laying down. The fact he couldn’t get the Israelites to hear God’s voice in his messages devastated him. Christians can see humanity’s inability to recognize God among them in Christ’s own disciples. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Jesus literally has to walk on water to get his audience on his side. Considering that premise, this passage from Matthew’s gospel is pretty funny stuff (Mt 14:22-33):
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
But as all the gospels tell us, those disciples had frequent relapses of disbelief and required repeatedly higher doses of divine inspiration – all the way up to Christ’s very resurrection and subsequent descent of the Holy Spirit into their hearts. The apostles would spend the rest of their lives—and ultimately give their lives– inspiring larger and larger audiences to hear and recognize the voice of God. As the CNN documentary states, many great comedians lost their lives in their own vain search for love on the public stage. The disciples lost theirs helping save us from such vanity so we could recognize God’s presence in the words he writes in our hearts. Too bad those sad comedians didn’t recognize God’s whisper as he spoke to them in the solitude of their writing rooms.