The Feast of Fools

Introduction

April Fools’ Day is a familiar tradition in British culture but not one normally celebrated in the churches, most of which are unaware of its origins in a subversive medieval festival. This resource contains liturgical and teaching material for churches or communities that want to celebrate the Feast of Fools.

The resource has been developed by the Anabaptist Mennonite Network, a relational network of Christians and churches committed to discovering fresh ways of following Jesus and being church in a changing culture.

One of our core convictions is that we are moving out of Christendom, where the Christian story was familiar and church-going was normal, into a new context (‘post-Christendom’), where these things are no longer so.

In post-Christendom, the churches are not at the centre but on the margins of society. We will need to find fresh ways of thinking and living. In this culture, most people regard Christianity as boring and passé. We will need to find new ways of telling God’s story. But maybe there are some resources from the past that can inspire our imagination.

Perhaps celebrating the Feast of Fools can help us. How? Read on…

The Feast of Fools

The Feast of Fools was originally celebrated in the Spring (the season that was said to ‘fool’ people with its sudden changes of weather) and was linked with the coming of the New Year on 1st April. When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, which moved the New Year to 1st January, those who failed to adapt and still celebrated New Year on 1st April instead of 1st January were dubbed ‘April Fools’.

The origins of the Feast of Fools are disputed. Most accounts suggest that it was popular in many places in the Middle Ages and was certainly not a solemn occasion; that the church authorities were unsure how to deal with it; that officially they banned it; and that in practice they often tolerated it as an escape valve for frustration.

Some have suggested the Feast of Fools has pagan roots (as so many Christian festivals did) but that it was gradually Christianised and its distinctive elements were given new meanings and applications.

  • There are similarities to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when a brief social revolution was celebrated and slaves were allowed to take on their masters’ roles.
  • Another possible link is with the Roman festival of Hilaria (from which we get the word ‘hilarity’) that took place on 25th March.
  • There was also a ‘feast of asses’, when these working animals rested for the day.

According to most accounts, the Feast of Fools was a day when the normal social order was turned on its head and revolution was enacted symbolically. Role reversals took place. The powerless made fun of the powerful. Boys would dress up as bishops. The sub-deacons, who were normally ignored, took centre-stage. Those normally on the margins came to the centre. There was a strong element of burlesque and revelry. Masks were worn. There was plenty of eating, drinking and partying. There were parades of asses. People played practical jokes on each other. But there were also liturgical readings, especially of the Magnificat, celebrating the reversal of fortunes in the kingdom of God. And the feast of asses became associated with the story of the ass on which Mary travelled to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus.

However, recent research has suggested a rather different history, arguing that it developed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the Day of the Circumcision (1st January), and that it was a dignified alternative to rowdy secular New Year festivities. The intent of the feast, then, was not mockery and revelry, but thanksgiving for the incarnation of Christ. Prescribed role reversals, in which the lower clergy presided, recalled Mary’s affirmation that God ‘has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble.’ The ‘fools’ represented those chosen by God for their lowly status. It seems that this version of the Feast of Fools was largely confined to cathedrals and collegiate churches in northern France and was suppressed by the senior clergy in the fifteenth century.

There may, therefore, have been different versions of the Feast of Fools – one popular among the common people and another developed as an alternative by the church authorities – not the first time the churches have tried to domesticate subversive activities!

Celebrating the Feast of Fools Today

Why might churches today consider celebrating the Feast of Fools?

  • In a society that has been inoculated against Christmas and Easter, perhaps we need to find fresh occasions to tell the Jesus story.
  • April Fools’ Day is familiar in our culture, but its origins are unknown and a creative celebration of this might intrigue people.
  • There are themes in this festival that are deeply subversive and can be oriented to the reversals of which the gospel speaks.
  • Radical hilarity and celebration of absurdity are elements missing from most church services.
  • Churches (and their leaders) can so easily take themselves too seriously.

When might this festival be celebrated?

  • On the first Sunday in January in order to link its themes with the Christmas story and the ass journey to Bethlehem.
  • On the first Sunday in April in order to connect with April Fools’ Day and to link its themes with the Easter story and the cosmic reversal at its heart.
  • On any other day when the themes it explores seem appropriate.

How might churches use these resources?

  • In a one-off Sunday service.
  • For a series of small group studies and activities.
  • In a special event to which friends are invited.
  • As an annual celebration.

Teaching Themes

1. The last shall be first – foolish values

(a) A repeated saying of Jesus, set in various contexts (Mark 9, 10, Matthew 19, 20; Luke 13), challenging social norms and traditional value judgements.

(b) The Magnificat, Mary’s song (Luke 1), is the classic statement of the role reversals associated with the coming of the kingdom.

(c) Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13) is the classic embodiment of this theme.

(d) How does impact our churches? Why do we not wash each other’s feet? What would happen if we did? In what ways are the last becoming first? Are those on the margins coming into the centre?

2. Jubilee – foolish economics

(a) The radical jubilee passage in Leviticus 25: freed slaves, cancelled debts, fallow land and restored property.

(b) Tithing is advocated as radical in some churches but is much too sensible and mediocre.

(c) Jesus proclaimed jubilee in his Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4:18-19 and modelled and taught what this might mean.

(d) The early church practised some kind of jubilee as they shared their resources in Acts 2 and 4, so that there were no needy persons among them.

(e) Paul called for radically foolish sharing of resources so that there might be justice and equality in the church in 2 Corinthians 8.

(f) What might this foolish economics mean today in our church communities?

3. Asses – foolish wisdom

(a) The role of asses (or donkeys) in the Jesus story – in Mary’s journey to and from Bethlehem, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem in fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy (9:9).

(b) Asses elsewhere in the Bible are sometimes associated with enemies: Exodus 23:4-5 (an opportunity to love your enemy); Judges 15:15 (a weapon to slay your enemy); Luke 10:34 (a means of caring for your enemy).

(c) Another ‘ass and enemies’ story: the story of Balaam and his wise ass – seeing what the prophet does not (Numbers 22-24).

(d) Blessing rather than cursing our enemies; humility rather than power. How might this foolish wisdom inform our response to our enemies?

4. The foolishness of the gospel

(a) God’s foolishness in giving free will to humanity.

(b) The foolish risks in the Christmas story.

(c) The foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1).

(d) Jesus the fool and his foolish teaching.

(e) Fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:10).

(f) The Orthodox Church has a tradition of ‘holy fools’ (the saints)

Resources

1. Michael Card sings ‘God’s Own Fool’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sklJ2vCgVtU

Seems I’ve imagined Him all of my life
As the wisest of all of mankind
But if God’s Holy wisdom is foolish to men
He must have seemed out of His mind

For even His family said He was mad
And the priests said a demon’s to blame
But God in the form of this angry young man
Could not have seemed perfectly sane

Chorus
When we in our foolishness thought we were wise
He played the fool and He opened our eyes
When we in our weakness believed we were strong
He became helpless to show we were wrong
And so we follow God’s own fool
For only the foolish can tell-
Believe the unbelievable
And come be a fool as well

So come lose your life for a carpenter’s son
For a madman who died for a dream
And you’ll have the faith His first followers had
And you’ll feel the weight of the beam
So surrender the hunger to say you must know
Have the courage to say I believe
For the power of paradox opens your eyes
And blinds those who say they can see

Chorus
So we follow God’s own Fool
For only the foolish can tell
Believe the unbelievable,
And come be a fool as well

2. David Augsberger: Dissident Discipleship (Brazos, 2006) – has a chapter on ‘Habitual Humility’ with several reflections on humour:

  • ‘Perhaps the way to puncture pride without wounding the personality is to laugh at ourselves.’
  • ‘Humour helps us see ourselves for what we really are…It is a perspective on life that allows us to discover, express and appreciate the ludicrous, the absurd, the incongruous elements in ideas, situations and happenings.’
  • ‘In a community that nourishes a habitual humility, seeing presumed superiority exposed, incongruous vanity deflated and over controlled emotions relieved all contribute to pride’s undoing and to humility’s quiet return.’
  • Deflating moments can be ‘embarrassment for the defensive but moments of humour for the mature.’
  • ‘Laughter keeps the human spirit alive in the midst of deeply troubled times. It is a kind of subversive defiance against both the laws of nature and the laws of human government.’
  • ‘The comic vision is essentially a protest, so rather than being dour and gloomy persons, Protestants should be first-rate comedians…The comic perspective protests all finite claims to speak the infinite; it is genuinely prophetic, truly iconoclastic, ultimately humbling.’
  • ‘Humility is being gentle with the fool who lives within me.’

3. Jon Sweeney: The St. Francis Holy Fool Prayer Book (Paraclete Press, 2017) – contains a week of daily offices focused on the concept of the Holy Fool and spiritual practices for countercultural living.

4. Michael Frost: Jesus the Fool: The Mission of the Unconventional Christ (Baker Books, 2010).

5. Elizabeth-Anne Stewart: Jesus, the Holy Fool (Sheed & Ward, 1999)

6. Arthur Boers: Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership (Abingdon, 2015)

7. Nick Page: Kingdom of Fools: The Unlikely Rise of the Early Church (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)

8. Max Harris: Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Cornell University Press, 2014)

9. Roly Bain: Playing the Fool (Canterbury Press, 2012)

Bible studies: Foolish Economics in Luke 19

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it.A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Why did the crowd grumble? Which of these do you think irritated them most?

1. Jesus has not accepted hospitality in Jericho but now he intends to stay with Zacchaeus of all people!

2. Jesus has invited himself rather than waiting for an invitation – how rude!

3. Doesn’t Jesus realise he will become unclean himself if he eats with Zacchaeus and stays in his home?

4. Why is Jesus siding with an oppressor rather than the oppressed people?

Luke 19:11-27

While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’ ‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’ His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’ Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’ Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’ He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’

1. Who is the hero in this parable and who is the villain?

2. What kind of behaviour is this parable advocating?

3. Is it possible that the king is not Jesus or God? What sort of character is he?

4. What difference would it make to your interpretation if you knew that the hated Archelaus, a Herodian puppet king, had recently rushed off to Rome to be confirmed as ruler of the Jews (contrary to popular demands against this)?

5. What difference does the context make (the encounter with Zacchaeus in verses 1-10 and the entry into Jerusalem and clearing of the temple in verses 28-48)?

6. What is Jesus trying to communicate about the nature of God’s kingdom (v11)?

7. What would a contemporary application of this parable be?

Luke 19:45-48

Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there;and he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

1. What angered Jesus – the commercialising of religion, corrupt market traders, filling the ‘Court of the Gentiles’ with stalls to prevent them praying, or what?

2. Is this an example of Jesus using violence? Against whom? Check out the parallel passages (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; John 2:14-17). Does this legitimise his followers using violence? Or is this a prophetic act – a ‘feast of fools’ type of act?

3. Why wasn’t Jesus immediately arrested?

4. What might an equivalent action be today?

A Sermon: Anabaptist Foolishness

The Story of Dirk Willems

Listen to the story of a fool. His name was Dirk Willems and he lived in the town of Asperen in The Netherlands in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Dirk was an Anabaptist. Foolishly he had not been content with being christened as a baby, as almost everyone was in Europe then, nor with attending his parish church, which everyone was expected to. Instead, he joined an underground movement, foolishly received baptism as a follower of Christ (which was illegal) and challenged the 1000-year old synthesis of church and culture known as Christendom.

Dirk met with other fools in a home in Asperen to study the Bible and encourage each other to be faithful disciples, but they were betrayed to the authorities, who raided the house, arrested and imprisoned Dirk and his friends, who faced the death penalty for re-baptism and for being subversives.

At this point Dirk did something that seemed less foolish – he escaped and ran for his life, pursued by one of the guards. The engraving shows what happened next.

What do you see?

Why did Dirk turn back to rescue his pursuer? Was he right, or was he being a fool?

What is clear is that this was a reflex action – instinctive, rather than thought out. He had no time to consider carefully what he should do. He acted reflexively – as a fool.

So what had shaped his reflexes so that he reacted foolishly? Counter-intuitive reflexes like this are usually nurtured in communities that teach and model certain values – in this case ‘enemy-loving’. This was part of the foolishness of the Anabaptist tradition: we are to love our enemies and seek their welfare.

What reflexes does our church community nurture? Not what we say we believe or what our teaching programme concentrates on. But what kind of people are we? What are our instincts? What are our gut reactions? How do we react to conflict or respond under pressure? What are our real values?

How did the story end? Was Dirk released as a reward for his selfless action? No, he was rearrested, confined in a safer prison (the church tower) and burned at the stake. His death was lengthy and painful and his cries could be heard a long way off.

What a fool! But his story has inspired Anabaptists and other Christians through the centuries to take seriously Jesus’ hard command – ‘love your enemies’.

Another Story – the Amish of Nickel Mines

We have had another example recently of such foolishness in the Amish community, a branch of the Anabaptist tradition. On 2nd October 2006 a deranged gunman killed five young girls in an Amish schoolroom in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and injured several others.

The initial reaction of horror and shock, conveyed by media around the world, was soon accompanied by amazement as the community expressed their forgiveness towards the man who had killed and wounded their children. Twenty of them attended the gunman’s funeral and they donated to his family some of the money raised by well-wishers.

Some commentators criticised this reflex reaction as precipitate and colluding with criminal violence – foolish; others wondered what kind of community nurtured such a seemingly counter-intuitive response.

Answer: a community schooled in forgiving others because God has forgiven them (praying the Lord’s Prayer many times a day is good reflex training for fools!).

Anabaptist Foolishness

So is the foolishness of the Anabaptist all about enemy-loving? No, although this is very foolish in a world dominated by military consumerism, by the myth of redemptive violence and by the illusion that security can be achieved without addressing injustice and global inequality.

But Anabaptists are foolish in other ways too:

  • In the area of economics, they foolishly challenge the notion of private property, suggesting that sharing resources with those in need is mandatory for those who follow Jesus. Some build common-purse communities; others practise mutual aid; many travel to help in disaster zones; often they discuss their finances openly.
  • In the area of speech, they foolishly reject the swearing of oaths, suggesting that we should always be truthful, not just under oath. After all, the Bible on which we are asked to swear contains Jesus’ saying ‘Let your Yes be Yes and your No, No.’
  • In the area of discipleship, they foolishly reject individualism and practise church discipline and accountability, inviting each other to challenge them when they sin or hurt others and help them restore relationships with each other and with God.
  • In the area of worship, they foolishly encourage many voices rather than one or two dominant voices, spoiling a good sermon with interruptions, questions and dialogue, welcoming offerings of praise and prayers from the inarticulate and musically less gifted.
  • In the area of church planting, they foolishly spend time listening to those they are working among and encouraging them to form indigenous churches, rather than imposing ready-made models. Their church planting teams are small, self-funding and long-term and they go to the poorest communities.
  • In the area of biblical interpretation, they foolishly choose to take Jesus seriously and to suggest that the Sermon on the Mount is liveable. Though biblical scholars have offered alternative options (future not present; internal not external; monks and priests only; reminders that we need grace), Anabaptists have foolishly ruled these out and insisted that Jesus really meant what he said. How foolish is that!!

How do we respond to the stories of Dirk Willems and the Amish of Nickel Mines. What do we think about reflexes and how we nurture these?

Are these areas of foolishness practised by Anabaptists for nearly 500 years at considerable cost now widespread among Christians, or does the voice of the Anabaptist fool still need to be heard?