Easter Fools' Day

March 26th, 2018

The challenges of navigating the liturgical calendar and our secular calendar are nothing new, but the way things fall in 2018 is particularly interesting. The Christian observance of the season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, which also happened to be February 14th or, Valentine’s Day. Forty days plus several Sundays later, we will celebrate Easter on April 1st, also known as April Fools’ Day. The latter observance (I hesitate to call it a holiday) is primarily a celebration of practical jokes and pranks. In the era of the internet and “fake news,” sometimes these jokes can be difficult to spot. Generally finding that many of these pranks and jokes wind up on the wrong side of the line that separates fun from harmful, I tend to abstain from April Fools’ — but sharing a date with Easter has invited me to reconsider.

Depending on one’s view of the resurrection, the April Fools’/Easter mash-up could either be a commentary on the “joke” Jesus plays on death or, more cynically, a denigration of the historical resurrection as a joke. If, as preachers, we choose to broach this topic, we must be sure to clarify that the resurrection is no joke. Jesus was not just “playing” dead for a few days only to surprise and startle the disciples by jumping out of the tomb.

Going beyond pranks or practical jokes, there is something in humor that can reveal truth and help call power to account. The role of the court jester or “fool” was not only to entertain with dance, music, and comedy but also to give bad news to the ruler. In Shakespearean plays, the jester is often the voice of common sense and honesty, pointing out the follies of those in higher stations. As the lowliest member of the court, the jester could make political observations and judgments that would land a higher nobleman in jail. In the Middle Ages, Death was often portrayed in jester’s garb as one who has the last laugh and who humbles everyone regardless of standing, just as the jesters made fun of everyone.

In our celebration of Easter, in our encounter with the empty tomb, in our experience of the Risen Christ, we know that Death does not get the last laugh. If anyone plays the fool or the jester, it is Jesus. By his silence in front of Pontius Pilate, he reveals the kangaroo court for the sham that it is. By his submission to violence, torture, and death on a cross, he reveals these things as ultimately powerless. In spite of his lowly social standing, Jesus calls to account the religious and political authorities of his day.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” a kind of guiding principle for a jester or fool. There are ways in which we can call the abuses of power to account by means of joke or satire that we cannot say directly. Importantly, in our use of joke or satire, we must be careful to “punch up” to those in power as the fools did, rather than down to those who are oppressed. This is the difference between effectively calling to account and merely bullying.

Beyond indulging in pranks or practical jokes, the concurrence of Easter and April Fools’ Day has the potential to unlock aspects of God’s character and the resurrections that we might not normally consider. After all, Paul writes to the church in Corinth that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). These two are not mutually exclusive. On Easter, the power of God is foolishness in the sense that it reveals worldly power and death for what they are. It is God-in-Christ who gets the last laugh, not Death.

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