As the Rev. Thomas Goodhue began his homily, the choir members at his Bay Shore church pulled out newspapers and held them in front of their faces as they read -- seemingly bored to death.
Another time, when Goodhue went to drink water from a glass at the pulpit, nothing came out. Someone had replaced the water with clear Jell-O.
It wasn't heresy or mean-spiritedness. It was all part of Holy Humor Sunday, an increasingly popular practice on Long Island and nationwide that seeks to mark the Sunday after Easter with a day of joke-telling, skits, pranks and general good humor.
The practice, promoted by a Michigan-based group called Fellowship of Merry Christians since 1988, draws large crowds to church on a day that in the past had been among the least attended of the year, Goodhue said.
"It's really astonishing to see the place just packed at a time when it normally would have been practically empty," said Goodhue, who used to be pastor at The United Methodist Church of Bay Shore and is now executive director of the Hempstead-based Long Island Council of Churches.
But Holy Humor Sunday is not just a stunt to boost church attendance, said Cal Samra, a leader of the Michigan group. It is based on ancient Christian church tradition and theological teachings.
"We're saying, 'Hey folks, there's something more than solemnity and vinegar-faced Christianity and angry Christianity. Faith and humor are both powerful healing tools,' " said Samra, who oversees the website The Joyful Noiseletter, devoted to Holy Humor Sunday.
The practice began in the first centuries after Christianity was founded and the faithful spent the day after Easter dancing, picnicking, singing and playing practical jokes to try to keep alive the joy of Easter, said the Rev. Karl Kraft, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Glassboro, N.J.
In those days, it was known as Bright Monday. Today it's shifted to the next Sunday.
The humor is also aimed at underscoring some of the central messages of Easter. "The resurrection of Jesus was sort of God's way of laughing at the devil, getting the last laugh," Samra said.
Added Goodhue: "It's a lighthearted way of celebrating the real theme of Easter, which is love wins over execution. Life is stronger than death. God is stronger than evil."
The practice came and went over the centuries, but the effort by Samra's group has prompted hundreds of churches around the country to revive it, he said. Dozens on Long Island, mainly Protestant, will take part this year.
Kraft said it is essential to prepare congregations for the humor day by explaining the historical and theological significance of it beforehand. A handful of congregants will still object to it, he said.
"They think of it as flippant or being silly," he said. "They just want to come in and sing traditional hymns and hear a traditional sermon."
They won't get that at his church, where congregants plan a skit called "Who Wants to be a Christianaire?" that will include sports-announcer-like judges in "heaven" commenting on and scoring the kind deeds of contestants as they unfold in church on Sunday.
At Roslyn Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dennis Carter hands out clown noses, fake mustaches and crazy-colored wigs to congregants every Holy Humor Sunday.
In the past he has engineered stunts such as placing a real dog -- Pebbles the Presbyterian Superdog -- on the altar, complete with a Superman bib. Carter asks him questions both theological and nonsensical before designating Pebbles as the church's official mascot.
For example, Carter asked Pebbles, "Do Presbyterians recognize more than one God?" and "Do Presbyterians recognize each other shopping in the liquor store?" When the dog did not answer, it was taken as a no.
"We knew he was a real Presbyterian," Carter joked.