This year's Spring Enrichment keynote speaker wants you to know that Jesus was a funny guy.

Rev. James Martin, SJ, a contributing editor at America magazine and author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of Spiritual Life," will speak May 14 at The College of Saint Rose in Albany during Spring Enrichment.

Spring Enrichment is an annual four-day series of talks and workshops for catechists, youth ministers, liturgical ministers and others in parish ministries. It's sponsored by the Albany diocesan Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Family Life.

In his book and talks, Father Martin insists that Jesus' humor - though often missed by modern readers of the Bible - seeps through His playful parables, quick wit and sociable personality.

Father Martin told The Evangelist that many saints, popes and other biblical figures also remember to take themselves lightly - and Catholics should, too.

Church chuckles
"Many say they've never laughed in church," Father Martin noted. "Once they step into a church, they tend to turn off their sense of humor. Who wants to join a group of miserable people?"

Even if Catholics can let themselves giggle in the pews, they are often surprised to hear the many examples of humor in the Bible.

Sad liturgical music or gloomy church art doesn't help, either: Even in works of art portraying Jesus performing miracles, Father Martin said, "He looks annoyed."

A culture more than 2,000 years separated from biblical times adds to the overlooked comic relief of many stories: for instance, the story of Jonah in the belly of a large fish.

The outlandishness of Jesus' comparison of a man who does not obey His words to a man who built his house on sand (Mt 7:26) probably got more of a laugh from His contemporaries, Father Martin said: "Humor is very culture-bound and time-bound. We've heard the stories so many times [that they] cease to be funny."

His humor
The keynoter pointed out that Jesus assigned lighthearted nicknames to the Apostles: James and John were the "Sons of Thunder;" Peter was essentially called "Rocky." Even Jesus' first miracle - turning water into wine at a wedding party - was lighthearted.

Interviews with social scientists, theologians and psychologists for Father Martin's book revealed that people lacking a sense of humor would miss such social cues. Jesus, however, drew large crowds and brought joy to the young and old.

"In a sense," Father Martin concluded, "it's a bit of a heresy to say that He had no sense of humor."

Jesus' ancestors could laugh, too: When Abraham and Sarah were 100 and 90, respectively, they both snickered at the notion that they could bear a son. "Isaac," the son they went on to have, translates to "he laughs."

"The beginning of our religion starts with a laugh," Father Martin said.

The speaker's favorite biblical example of comedy occurs in John 1:46, when Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus of Nazareth.

"Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Nathanael quips.

Silly saints
Biographies of saints also surprise with stories of jokes and silliness, according to Father Martin: St. Philip Neri, for instance, wore bizarre clothes and often walked around Rome with half his beard shaved off.

For today's Catholics, such an example makes a saint seem more human and "changes their understanding about what Christian spirituality is," Father Martin said. "I think it opens a door for them - a door to a more lighthearted life. It can give them the permission to be joyful, have a sense of humor and laugh."

In his keynote at Spring Enrichment, Father Martin hopes to strike a balance between the serious and joyful aspects of faith and motivate Catholics to "appreciate laughter as a gift from God. The good news should put a smile on your face."