Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reflections on A Fools Prayer and Christ’s Passion

As April 1st marks both April Fools Day and Palm Sunday this year for most Western Christian churches, it is worth trying to appreciate how humor aligns itself with scriptural hermeneutics. Some straight laced religious types wonder about Laughter and the Lord. But on a deeper level, the Passion of the Christ left many to wonder about heaven’s perceived foolishness.

Edward Rowland Sill, an American Poet in the mid Nineteenth Century, penned “The Fool's Prayer”
The royal feast was done; the Kin
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
Kneel now and make for us a prayer! 

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head and bent his knee
Upon the monarch's silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: "O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

"No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but, Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

" 'Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
'Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

"The ill-timed truth we might have kept -
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say -
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

"Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must clense them all;
But for our blunders - oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!"

The room was hushed; in silence rose
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
"Be merciful to me, a fool!"
Several things are striking about this Victorian aged verse. The mocking royal court commanding a comedic solemnization misses the true message about prayer. The fool has a bitter smile that is hidden by his painted grin. This reveals to the reader that he bows before the terrestrial potentate with dutiful reluctance. The fools prayer alludes to his foibles and failures. While asking for mercy the fool gently shows truth to power revealing how this world lauds the knave (which can mean deceiver) and punishes the fool who does the Lord’s work.

These arresting dichotomies are reminiscent of what was termed “jarring ambiguities” in the Johnine Passion account. Jesus knew that deciding to visit Jerusalem during the Passover could lead to His death, yet He did so anyways as he was obedient to His Father’s plan. Jesus’ triumphant entry into the holy city was greeted by throngs of adulating fans, yet Jesus cried as He realized that they could not embrace the true Kingdom of God as they were still slaves to sin. The people still expected the Messiah to be King who would overthrow the Earthly Oppressor and they would have trouble embracing the Prince of Peace who road to the seat of power on an ass. When the earthly end game began, the Christ chose to be meek and allow Himself to be crucified amongst common criminals. These ironic details in our salvific history of Passiontide could certainly seem foolish to the eyes of man. But as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 1:25 “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”.

Long time Harvard Divinity Professor Harvey Cox was inspired by this concept of the foolishness of God. When he wrote “Feast of Fools” (1969) he included a chapter entitled “Christ the Harlequin” which proposed a Theology of the Jester. Cox theorized that Christ the Harlequin shows the divine willingness to reveal the true self to the world through humbleness and ways that may seem foolish to the world. Steven Schwartz and John Michael Tebelak thoroughly embraced this joyful revelation of the divine in Godspell ((Play 1971, Film 1973).

But the reach of the Theology of the Jester did not stop on Broadway or in Hollywood. Fr. John Naus, S.J. who has graced the Marquette University campus for nearly fifty years, also was inspired by Cox’ spiritual insight. For years, Fr. Naus would periodically conduct a Harlequin Mass and celebrate the Liturgy in the guise of Tumbleweed the Clown. While this was not a High Mass held in the basement of Schroeder Hall was definitely no mockery of the mass. Fr. Naus is a Doctor of Philosophy who shared the Jesuit charism of “Finding God in all things”. The Clown Mass was a way of reaching college students to demonstrate how Jesus could identify with our weakness and was willing to “look foolish” to the world and shed His own Precious Blood for the New Covenant and give us eternal life. Naus' good humor helped him recover from a serious stroke in 2004 to remain active as  Marquette University's Alumni Memorial Union's Chaplain at age of 88.

Indubitably, some Christians would find expressions of Christ the Harlequin as improper or perhaps even sacrilegious.  In  Fr. Naus'  Philosophy of Humor course, comedy was understood as taking was readily identifiable but having it presented in an incongruous way.  So often humor can stem from sadness or pain but be transformed through a change of vision (metanoia) into something that can overcome the original hurt and uplift many.

In a similar way, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta's vocation to the Missionaries of Charity saw things in a different way.  Mother Teresa sought to see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the miserable and the poor.  By serving the least of her brothers, she served her Savior. While the suffering servant was no laughing matter to Mother Teresa, the seeming disparity between the  worldly reality and the spiritual reality involved seeing things differently and appreciating that weakness and travesty may not be as it seems as part of the divine plan.

While most celebrations of the Triduum will be rightly somber, understanding the jarring ambiguities in the Passion remind us of how Our Father’s Plan took in what Zealots would consider ignominious end in Jesus’ crucifixion into a divine victory which releases God’s family from the shackles of sin. If it’s God’s will, stay foolish!

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