It has been a while since the last SBC blog – the rhythms of term time keeping everyone busy. As we come to the beginning of Lent, which happily coincides with the first Reading and Research week of the second semester, it seems an appropriate break to stop and reflect.
Last week we had Olive Drane visit the College to lead a seminar about the art of clowning and its relation to hermeneutics. You may wonder about the appropriateness or link between clowning and the Gospel! At the risk of misquoting Olive, at one stage she alluded to the idea that often clowns step in (intentionally or otherwise) and receive the pie in the face or some other fate that was due to another. In many cases the clowns become the ‘butt of the joke’ taking the mocking in place of those present. Perhaps it becomes a little clearer how the clown figure can be seen as a Christ-like scapegoat.
The nation of Israel had a rhythm of the year that lilted from feast to fast to feast. These times of feasting and fasting were markers of identity recalling significant events in their history that identified them as the people of God. The feasts and fasts prompted them to retell the narratives of yesteryear, passing them on from one generation to the next.
“This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses . . . 24 “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them… (Exodus 12:14-26, NIV)
In contemporary Christianity there are similar ‘markers’ of significant events that go someway to reminding us of our calling and our identity in Christ. For example, we remember Christmas and Easter as significant events in the life of Christ reminding us of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Both of these feast days are preceded by periods of fasting – Advent and Lent. Whether you observe these times or not, the theme of remembrance and its shaping of our Christian identity is intertwined with our Christian activity:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1st Corinthians 11:23-26, NIV)
Currently we are transitioning from a season of feasting to a season of fasting. Lent, which starts tomorrow, is the fasting period before Easter and leading into Lent there is the feasting and Carnival season (across most of Europe there are various names and traditions of this Carnival season). Depending where you are, it might be celebrated in the lavish Mardi Gras or in the UK we prefer our more sedate (but perhaps more tasty!) Pancake Day. Carnival literally translates as ‘leaving meat’ and Mardi Gras as ‘Fat Tuesday’ and, of course, Pancake Day is when we traditionally use up the fats to make the pancakes – these days are the last days of feasting before the Lenten fast.
The Church has always had an interesting relationship with the idea of Carnival both embracing it and disassociating with it at different times for different reason. However, in and amongst all the joviality, there is a serious message. Carnival season saw the wearing of masks that helped to facilitate the breakdown of social class and where individualism was overcome with a sense of community togetherness. Some Carnival traditions saw the intentional inversion of the social (and often the ecclesial) order where the servants were served by the masters (The Feast of Fools being an example of this). The Jester is an integral member of the jovial celebrations, but in Shakespeare’s King Lear for example, the Fool (a jester-like character), is the one who could command an audience with the King to dispense wisdom and advice that everyone else was too afraid to speak.
And this leads us back to the idea of clowning and Christ. There is something within the spirit of Carnival that upsets the social order and offers the possibility of renewal and transformation: where the powerful are questioned by the ‘fools’ and where everyone has the chance to be included from the highest to the lowest. In the next few weeks you will likely read the passage of the Triumphal Entry where Jesus took to a donkey and rode into Jerusalem. In doing so Jesus reversed the social order of a King or victorious leader processing through the city on horseback. It makes me wonder if, on this occasion, Christ played the Jester. I wonder if social renewal leading to social transformation; of the powerless and outsider being given a place at the feast; of the powerful becoming those who serve; I just wonder if this is really is something of the Holy Fool, of Christ and the Clown. In our times of feasting and fasting, perhaps there’s a deeper message that calls us to revisit and challenge our comforts and communities affirming what Paul writes:
We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ (1st Corinthians 4:9-10)
(Ideas and reflections in this post are personally-held so if you’d like to interact with any of these thoughts then please get in contact / comment – let us keep the conversation alive!)