There’s laughter in the loins

*** Although certainly offered for ageing lovers, this hymn is is for all who ‘make love’s home on earth’.



The theological heart of this hymn emerges from reflecting on the name Isaac, that is: God has smiled, laughed. Before Sarah knew she was pregnant with Isaac, God had laughed; it was an expression of creative goodwill. But when Sarah first heard that she would have a son, she laughed; yet hers was a different laughter, an expression of incredulity. The hymn is composed out of the tension between these two laughters: ‘love’s purpose’ (which ‘is creation’s fate’) and suspicion that ‘God’s laughing heart’ is indifferent to human sensitivities, given only to whimsy or jest.

In Genesis 18 the objects of God’s laughter are Sarah and Abraham. Sarah laughs because, aged ninety, and her husband ten years older, the prediction of her pregnancy can only be a joke, an unkind joke at that. But the story insists that divine goodwill is not frustrated by mortal impossibility; and the aged woman gives birth to her son.

The hymn names the divine will to create life and enable life to reproduce itself as ‘laughter’, and identifies it as ‘God’s spirit’. In the first stanza the laughing spirit is incarnated in those who make love. It is not a charter for sexual indulgence; the hymn intimates that fulfilling sex is about making ‘love’s home on earth’. It implies recognition of emerging presence in lovers’ relationship, a movement away from partialising fantasy to embracing the fullness of reality. In this view, to hope that the woman will become pregnant is but one of the many possible outcomes of love-making. Each person is the centre of a little world, and in love a couple together take on the creation, the development, of a larger world.

The third stanza has attracted adverse comment, because it seems to commend the idea that, like Sarah, women of a great age may become pregnant. But, if making ‘love’s home on earth’ is conceived in the broadest possible sense, as in making a ‘home fit for heroes’, or ‘fit for children to grow up in’, creative possibilities emerge. The ‘wells’ that ‘have dried’ may be atrophied, or cynical spirits, and many who are not at all old exemplify that condition. Yet ‘the source of laughter’s child, God’s erotic spirit, ‘implants its seed’ where it wills, and new life is engendered. Some people read the story of the wedding at Cana[1] that way: the wine ran out, but after Jesus’ intervention, the word to the host was you have kept the good wine till now. In the wake of God’s visitation ‘many aged weary saints grow young where grace has played’. Here chronological age is irrelevant; we are as old or as young as we behave, as we respond to the love-making spirit of life within us. The good wine kept till now may be tasted as much by young as by old. Yet old and young may have not yet tasted the best awaiting them.

Erotic joy (which is hugely more than the consuming pleasure of sexual desiring) is drained when creativity aims at no more than feeling good. The hymn’s fourth stanza draws attention to ‘many more’ than the creatively fulfilled, people who are ‘deprived, disgraced, have never known your smile’. It transpires that the hymn is more than a celebration of God’s procreativity; it is a prayer for the inclusion of those who are written-off for whatever reason. Just as God was not content to leave Sarah and Abraham in contented retirement, so the Church is not content to leave anyone in un-awakened existence. We have the world to change for the better; it is a mission that requires everyone’s free, joyfully chosen participation. ‘Let them’ (let us all) ‘by mercy thrive, enticed to praise you in life’s soil’.

It was very difficult to see how to write a hymn out of the story of Abraham’s and Sarah’s retirement at Mamre and the visitation they received there. Then the author remembered a friend, Keith Tippett, asking, ‘How do you make God laugh? – by telling him your future plans.’ So the hymn was written in laughter, and the happy, flowing music is named after the laughter’s prompter.







[1] John 2.1-11