Embracing foolishness

Juggler of Our LadyA sermon for Tuesday of Holy Week.  The Epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Listen to a version of the sermon HERE.

I really wish that tonight’s Epistle, from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, because Easter Day this year is on April Fool’s Day.  Later in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he spells it out:  We are fools for the sake of Christ (1 Cor. 4:10), but Paul is leading up to this in tonight’s passage:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Many of us are familiar with the idea of a court jester, someone who might seem, at first, to entertain the king or queen, but who was also able to communicate deep truth to the monarch.  Good kings or queens would look to their jester, or “fool” not only for foolishness, but also for wisdom.  But others have taken their inspiration from the scriptures and have played the fool for Christ, but also played the fool for the Church.

An early fool was Simeon, who in the 4th century lived for 37 years on a little platform on top of a high pillar near Aleppo (in modern Syria.) Others came after him, playing the part of the fool and sometimes taking his name.

In the 6th century, another Simeon went into the desert to understand God more deeply and when he came back into town, he came, dragging a dead animal behind him. He would go to church and throw nuts at the priests while they were leading services.  And most outrageous of all, Simeon would stand out side the church on Good Friday (when most were fasting) eating sausages!  He did all he could to poke fun at people who took themselves too seriously, the sort of Pharisees of his day.  Another Russian fool lived during the time of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but it was said the only person Ivan feared, was the fool named Basil the Blessed.  It’s this Basil that the famous cathedral in Red Square.  Basil sometimes walked around wearing nothing but a beard.  He stole from dishonest merchants and threw rocks at the house of rich people who ignored the poor.

There’s a legend from the middle ages of a juggler who wondered what he could give for God, and so one day he stood in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and juggled for her.  He juggled, and danced, and stood on his head—to amuse Mary and her son Jesus. St. Francis sometimes portrayed this jongleur de Dieu, or jester/juggler for God; and it’s a part of responding to God in faith that we need to remember.

Inspired by a topsy-turvy God, the Blessed Virgin Mary sings of a world that only a holy fool can see or imagine, a world in which

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy …
(Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer version)

Especially in times such as ours, when the king (or the president) needs a good jester to poke fun and speak truth, we can be inspired by the tradition of the Holy Fool.

When we read scripture, we see over and over again how people though Jesus was foolish, a little off in his head, or perhaps took the “God-thing” a little too seriously.  We even have stories about how his family thought he’d gotten out of control and tried to bring him home.  Peter tries to tame Jesus from time to time, and some suggest Judas lost all patience with Jesus’s foolish way of wisdom, and betrayed him precisely for that reason.

There is a tradition of what is called the Risus paschalis or Easter laugh.   The 4th century preacher, John Chrysostom preached an Easter sermon in which he described the crucifixion as a Godly joke on the devil, allowing the devil to think he had won by killing Jesus, only to laugh at him as Jesus is raised from the dead.

Jesus mus have seemed to be speaking in a riddle when he said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  What foolishness (to some.) But hope, promise, and truth to those who believe.

Not only this April 1, but on every day of faith, may we be filled with the gift of holy laughter, that we would sustained by the foolishness of Christ to enter one day into the eternal laughter of God.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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