God’s April foolishness

by Kim on March 31, 2012

Palm Sunday tomorrow. It’s also April Fools’ Day.

There are many theories about the origins of April Fools’ Day. Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation concerns events surrounding the replacement of the old Julian calendar by the new Gregorian calendar in the late 16th century. In the old calendar, New Year’s Day was celebrated on April 1st, but in the new calendar (the one we now use), the New Year begins on January 1st. Pope Gregory XIII sent out the decree inaugurating the new calendar in 1582, but apparently many people in France either didn’t get the message or simply refused to accept it. Some people began to poke fun at these calendrical traditionalists, and then started playing hoaxes on them. Soon the practice of pulling April Fools’ pranks spread around Europe.

A more recent explanation comes from Professor Joseph Boskin of Boston University. Boskin argued that the custom of practical joking on April Fools’ Day goes back to the reign of Constantine the Great (272-337), when a group of court jesters proposed to the emperor that they could run the Roman Empire better than he did. Amused by their cheek, Constantine gave a jester named Kugel the job of being “king for a day”, whereupon Kugel passed an edict proclaiming a national day of absurdity. It became an annual event. Boskin observed that it was, in fact, a very serious day, because court fools were actually wise men whose role was to see the world with a canny eye and wittily expose the pretensions and vanities of power. In 1983 the Associated Press published an article on the Boskin thesis, which was widely circulated in newspapers. There was only one problem: Boskin was playing his own little April Fools’ prank on the gullible press!

Palm Sunday, April Fools’ Day – it’s a snug fit. Not that Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, would have looked absurd to his contemporaries (though I’ve yet to see a filmic version of the scene where he doesn’t look a bit silly to modern viewers!); rather the crowd of rural Passover pilgrims would have seen the event as the fulfilment of a messianic prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). However, the so-called triumphal entry is certainly a self-consciously choreographed parody of the way conquering kings traditionally entered cities: Jesus comes not with an army but with a gesture of peace. Moreover, it was both, unmistakably, a provocative political act, rightly celebrated by oppressed peasants, and also quite a foolish thing to do in eyeshot of jumpy urban elites. It certainly turned out to be the beginning of the end for Jesus.

A few decades later Paul will write to his church in Corinth, some of whose members are boasting of their worldly wisdom: “If you think you are wise by the world’s standards, you should become a fool to be really wise” (I Corinthians 3:18). And the foolishness Paul has in mind is quite specific: it is “God’s foolishness” (I Corinthians 1:25), disclosed in the nonsensical cross of Christ (I Corinthians 1:18).

“Thus the divine unreason,” as the Canadian poet Luci Shaw writes, and continues:

Despairing, you may cry
With earthy logic – How?
And I, your God, reply:
Leap from your weedy shallows.
Dive into the moving water.
Eye-less, learn to see
truly. Find in my folly your
true sanity. Then Spirit-driven,
run on the narrow way, sure
as a child. Probe, hold
my unhealed hand, and
bloody, enter heave.

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tortoise 03.31.12 at 7:54 am

Thanks for this Kim. I had already been thinking along these lines for tomorrow’s congruence of Palms and Foolishness - now would I be an ass to ride on the coat-tails of your research into the day’s tomfoolery?

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