Notes on Genesis (viii)
‘And Sarah said “God has made me laugh; all who hear will laugh with me.”‘ (Gen 21:6)
The conception of Isaac by the elderly Sarah opens the series of unexpected biblical pregnancies that will culminate with that of the Theotokos. Sarah’s initial response in hearing what lay ahead had been one of laughter, perhaps of a sardonic kind (Gen 18:12), and Hagar’s laughter that follows is similarly presumably not of a good kind (Gen 21:9), but it would be good to think that that of Sarah following the birth of Isaac was the real thing, to be reflected in the name of her newborn, which apparently means ‘the one who laughs’.
Nevertheless, the biblical and Orthodox world view gives the impression of not being keen on laughter: ‘Woe to you who laugh!’ (Luke 6:25) ‘Since Christ condemns those who laugh, it is clear that no time for laughter is allowed the believer.’ (Basil of Caesarea) Readers of The Name of the Rose will remember the sinister way in which this theme is developed in that novel. Some years ago I read the remark of a distinguished Byzantine scholar that he had never seen a figure in a piece of Byzantine art who was in the act of laughing.
There’s no denying that this is disconcerting; laughter shared among friends is very rewarding. But perhaps laughter was not the best response for someone in Sarah’s situation: ‘as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy…’ (John 16:21), a perfect working out of the principle ‘Weeping will lodge at evening, but great joy in the morning’ (Ps 29(30):6). We are told that on hearing the voice of the pregnant Theotokos the unborn Forerunner leaped for joy (Luke 1:44), and that the birth of Christ was an occasion of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). The poetry of the Church about another unexpected birth echoes this perspective: ‘Rejoice together, heaven and earth; praise her ye kindreds of the nations. Joachim is glad and Anna rejoices.’ Indeed, ‘Your nativity, Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe.’