Maundy Thursday doesn’t often fall on April Fools’ Day – about 4 times a century (although there’s usually a few close together – 1999, 2010, and this year, 2021 – and then not again until 2083!) While there’s no definitive origin of April Fools’ Day, some suggest it goes back to the change of calendar. In the old system New Year celebrations began at the end of March with the New Year starting at the beginning of April and so those who didn’t transition were the April Fools. It’s an interesting proposition because the Feast of Fools, which also has unclear origins, is celebrated at the end of the year or the beginning of the New Year as we now know it in December / January.
The Feast of Fools was a highly symbolic tradition that often spilled over into debauchery, as did many feast days! However the Feast of Fools, using Mikhail Bakhtin’s approach to carnivals, was a prime example of anti-authoritarian spaces that pointed towards a different way of structuring society. Hyde, however, goes on to suggest that these feasts were a way for authorities to release the pressure of conformity by condoning a period without rules so that the masses would comply with the rules the rest of the year. Brewin takes a slightly different approach to suggest that such feasts can be a model of social change where the temporary release points towards a more permanent transformation. In some ways, regardless of how you read foolishness, we do well not to miss this deeper reading of foolishness.
Maundy Thursday has a slightly clearer tradition summarised in two ways. First, it arises from Christ’s mandate (from which we get Maundy) to love one another (found in John 13:34); and second, the example of Christ washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (also recorded in John 13). The washing of the disciples’ feet is a poignant image as we know how the story unfolds in the following chapters. Beasley-Murray reminds us that foot-washing in this context is a task reserved for the lowest of low – a job for a slave. This isn’t just a menial task, but a topsy-turvy, upside-down moment as the master empties himself and puts himself below his followers. But it is very much a Kingdom moment – Christ tells Peter this much relating the whole event to inheriting the Promised Land and the eschatological Kingdom.
But as we bring these two traditions together – Maundy Thursday and April Fools’ Day – we begin to see the potency of reading them alongside one another. Christ shows us a different way of being, and a different way to act – Kingdom-orientated beings that prioritise loving others through practical service. Christ washing the disciples’ feet reverses the normal rules of engagement and turns upside-down the expected order of society. During the Last Supper, we get an example of a temporary space that points us towards a more permanent transformation.
And as we travel from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, we think of Paul’s reminder of the cross’s foolishness. It is not that the cross was foolish in the sense of a prank, or foolish in lacking purpose or chance of success, but rather it was foolish in the way it subverted expectations. In Christ’s death and resurrection, we see a temporal event that points towards a permanent transformation – the coming Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. In that moment, the world changed, but it is an event that continues to unfold to this day and beyond.
Reading Maundy Thursday in this light we see that it’s more than servant leadership – it’s about a radical challenge to what is at odds with the Kingdom but is considered normal in society. It’s about challenging injustices and inequalities driven by greed and profit in order to lift up those that are treated unfairly in society; it’s about a radical hospitality that welcomes in those on the margins that society shuns (even the deniers and betrayers!); and it’s about seeing beyond our limited vision so that we can embody God’s Kingdom on earth.
And yes, this is foolishness!
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World
Kester Brewin, Mutiny!
George Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 36 (John)
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!