Three fools died and are at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter tells them that they can enter the gates if they can answer one simple question. St. Peter asks the first fool, "What is Easter?" He replies, "Oh, that's easy! It's the holiday in November when everyone gets together, eats turkey, and are thankful..." "Wrong!" replies St. Peter, and proceeds to ask the second fool the same question, "What is Easter?" The second one replies, "Easter is the holiday in December when we put up a nice tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus."
St. Peter looks at the second fool, shakes his head in disgust, tells her she's wrong, and then peers over his glasses at the third fool and asks, "What is Easter?" The third fool smiles confidently and looks St. Peter in the eyes, "I know what Easter is." "Oh?" says St. Peter, incredulously. "Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus and his disciples were eating at the last supper and Jesus was later deceived and turned over to the Romans by one of his disciples. "The Romans took him to be crucified and he was stabbed in the side, made to wear a crown of thorns, and was hung on a cross with nails through his hands. He was buried in a nearby cave which was sealed off by a large boulder." St. Peter smiles broadly with delight. Then she continues, "Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out...and, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter!
Does that feel slightly off-color -- a little sacrilegious? Done in poor taste? Welcome to the world of holy foolishness. There are fools, and then there are fools. There are the fools who act unwisely and stupidly and shows bad judgment: the Darwin award nominee who was decorating her Christmas tree. A strand of lights seemed to have a short, so the woman stripped the wires in the area and spliced them. While the lights were still plugged into the wall outlet, she finished up by using her teeth the crimp the bare wires together. Needless to say, she lit up like a Christmas tree. That’s a fool. There are fools who are spiritually blind: like the wealthy man in one of Jesus’ story who builds bigger barns to contain his wealth – whom God then calls “you fool” because his life was required of him – and he had nothing of true spiritual value to show for his life.
Holy foolishness is rooted deep in the Christian tradition – in many world cultures – and preserved in the orthodox churches. Paul’s words remind us: “for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” And God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, he chose what is low and despised…” The Fool is recognized as an archetype in human psyche -- an archetype that appears in most Shakespearean plays and Disney movies. In medieval courts and aristocratic households “fools” or jesters not only provided entertainment for could speak boldly, offer insights and criticism that would have sent anyone else’s head to the guillotine. Every village had its idiot. Underneath the silliness and bizarre behavior contained wisdom and healing. The fool exists to bring insight, transcend rigid, unhealthy barriers, to free us to what is possible, to bring joy in authentic being. The fool’s energy is regulated in modern days – usually expressed in Halloween, Mardi Gras and April Fool’s Day, where we are allowed to let down our guard, to play, bend or break the rules. Today we recognize the fool as clowns, jester, comedians, pranksters, mavericks – who live outside social norms but bring us fresh perspectives on life.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to recognize that Jesus is a fool. His teachings and actions turn traditional rules inside out. As God’s divine son, he lowered himself to take on human flesh. To those without a relationship to Jesus, his life story is bizarre, even crazy. A son of God who willingly goes to death, death on a cross – the worst possible form of execution that existed in his day? Our faith is rooted in this spiritual foolishness – but our dominate traditions have made us austere, proper – quick to condemn people who don’t believe or practice the faith the way it’s been established.
The early church is full of tales of holy men and women who practiced holy foolishness to help draw people to the true power of the gospel – to copy Jesus in self-emptying, revealing the foolishness of God, mightier than human wisdom – as a sort of Christian mantra.
The patron saint of holy fools is St. Simeon Salos of Emress. He retreated to the Syrian Desert in the 6th century to devote his life to prayer; living on nothing but lentils it is said. A few decades later, Simeon returned to town a completely different man. He became a Fool for Christ. He tied a dead dog to his waist and entered town dragging the carcass. During the church services, he threw nuts at the clergy and blew out the candles. In the circus, he wrapped his arms around the dancing-girls and went skipping and dancing across the arena. In the streets, he tripped people up, developed a theatrical limp, and dragged himself around on his buttocks. In the bath-house, he ran naked into the crowded women's section. On solemn fasting days he feasted riotously, consuming vast amounts of beans – with predictable and hilarious results. He publicly ate sausage on Good Friday. In his lifetime, Simeon was regarded as a madman, as an unholy scandal.
The seemingly nutty monk also helped people in the town, though never when someone else might notice and never taking credit. Simeon’s saintly deeds were done in secret. And no one could dispute that Simeon was very holy person, even the priests he pelted with nuts on Sunday. Somehow also was known for his extraordinary piety and healings. People started to talk about his acts of kindness – and about his strange and powerful miracles. There was the poor mule driver whose vinegar Simeon turned into wine so that he could start a successful tavern. There was the rich man who was saved from death when Simeon threw a lucky triple six at dice. And there was the young man Simeon punched on the jaw to save him from an affair with a married woman. Simeon just poked fun at every attempt people made to feel themselves “holier than thou.”
Certain prophets of the Old Testament who exhibited signs of strange behavior are considered by some scholars to be predecessors of "Fools for Christ". The prophet Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for about three years, predicting a forthcoming captivity. The prophet Ezekiel lay before a stone, which symbolized beleaguered Jerusalem, and though God instructed him to eat bread baked on human waste, ultimately used cow dung instead (Ezekiel 4:9-15). Hosea married a harlot to symbolize the infidelity of Israel before God (Hosea 3). Or Jeremiah, who not only hid his underwear in a rock but then went back to retrieve it after a “long time” (Jeremiah 13). Jeremiah apparently didn’t mind parting with under garments, but he couldn’t be separated from the cattle yoke he had fastened to his shoulders until another prophet broke it off (Jeremiah 27 and 28)
To paraphrase Jim Forest, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, “Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’?... We need to think long and hard about sanity and tradition, and convention: words most of us cling to with a steel grip. Does fear of being regarded by others as insane or crazy confine me in a cage of ‘responsible’ behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love?
John the Baptist, another holy fool, eating wild locusts and honey while wearing camel hear, did not say ‘I must cease to exist’ –but instead he said, ‘I must decrease,’ meaning, “I must become very little, transparent – so that Christ has room to live and shine within me.” This is the essence of being a fool. John was saying, “I’m the voice, He’s the Word. I’m the lamp, He’s the Light. I’m the heart, He’s the Love. I’m the wood, He’s the Fire!”
Who in the world today tries to live this way? We live in a world that relishes achievement, prominence, fame. Everybody wants to be “somebody” –but Jesus calls us to be “nobody” in the sense that he can imprint His Love and Image clearly upon our hearts and shine forth from our lives. Such self-emptying for the sake of love is something Jesus carried to the Cross. It is something completely opposite of the values of today’s world. In the beatitudes Jesus teaches the reversal of blessedness in the kingdom of God – Jesus lifts up the ordinary, overlooked people of his day. He doesn’t say, blessed are the wealthy, the scholars, blessed are those who do whatever it takes to get ahead, blessed are those who have memorized passages of scripture, blessed are those whose lives are problem free.
Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted…these are the fools for God, who live the kingdom values and stand against the social norms of empire that promote “money and might make right.”
The Fool reminds us: God is not scandalized by our humor and silly jokes, or being compared to a groundhog. God, however, is scandalized by our lack of compassion, unwillingness to forgive, and lack of care for each other. So:
An elderly couple was attending church services. About halfway through she leans over and says to her husband. "I just let out a silent fart. What do you think I should do?" He replies, "Put a new battery in your hearing aid."
Are we offended by laughing in church? The fool asks us: why aren’t we offended by how little we love. Jesus risked everything for us -- Will we challenge all that is in us, to be shocked back into life – and listen to that holy fool of a prophet Micah, who says, You know what God wants. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly, underscore humbly – with your God.