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April: Fools for Christ

510 S. Farwell St., Eau Claire WI 54701 • 715.835.3734 Map to the Cathedral

April:  Fools for Christ

~Fr. Michael

April has a peculiar tradition.  We make jokes and play pranks on April first, because it’s “April Fool’s Day”.  Most people suppose this is just a silly recent phenomenon, maybe something that some joke shop somewhere invented to increase sales.  But, it’s actually very old, and like many things in our culture that are very old, its history begins with the Church.  April the first is kept as a feast of fools all over Europe as well as in the Americas.  In France, Italy, and the Low Countries, it’s referred to as ‘April Fish Day’ and pranks often revolve around fish jokes.  England and France have huge charity appeals on April Fool’s Day that revolve around workplace pranks or public jokes that people can sponsor.  So where did all this come from?  Once upon a time, the Church kept the only calendar that everyone used, so, feast days (which were days off work) and festivals were based on important religious festivals.  For most of European Christian history, the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 marked the new year, and the Church sponsored a week long feast to ring in the new year that provided a welcome break from the privations of Lent.  Each day of the week came with a special blessing for the year ahead, and at the end of the week, on April first, was the day the ‘fools’ were blessed:  All Fool’s Day.  There is, of course, some argument about  variations on this in different times and places.  Some suggest that as the New Year was moved to the Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus on January 1 (one week after Christmas) the people who maintained their celebrations on April first were ridiculed and mocked as fools.  Some suggest that the end of the New Year’s feast meant a return to the sack-cloth and ashes of Lent, and the practice of being ‘fools for Christ’ as Holy Week and Easter approached.

There is literary evidence of the latter.  Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ from 1392 contain a reference to April Fools, as do several other noteworthy books of the next hundred years.  It seems that the idea of being a fool, or playing a fool had religious connotations of humility and piety.  There is also a considerable set of cultural traditions around being a ‘Fool for Christ’ that have not survived much to modern America.  From the earliest years of Christianity, particularly in the Byzantine Empire, and later in Russian Orthodoxy, being a Fool was a kind of holy vocation.  A “Fool for Christ” would strive to live a sort of mendicant, beggar  lifestyle; they would do silly or outrageous things that were meant to shock people out of dependence or excessive love of worldly things; and they were often seen as a sort of prophetic voice, especially when they challenged the powers that be in the their communities.

The idea is that the Christian vocation is at direct odds with the way the world does things, and so the world is bound to see the Christian faith as foolishness.  This idea is articulated in the Bible by St. Paul, who states the theme over and over again, but nowhere so clearly as in the First Letter to the Corinthians:  

"For 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)

"For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness." (1 Corinthians 3:19).

As Christians, we are called to do foolish things all the time.  We do them because Jesus shows us that through them, we are brought into the wisdom of God, which is entirely different from the ‘Everyone for themselves’ mentality that we’ve been taught by other people.  We do foolish things like give without counting the cost, visiting and spending time with people that our society counts as throwaways, helping people to get well or better, even though we might risk sickness or poverty for ourselves.  We do them because Jesus showed us that they are the best way to really enjoy the gift of life that we all share; and the way to really learn to be ourselves, full of a humility and joy that has been the puzzlement of people who were ‘in it for themselves’ ever since the Jesus first pioneered the path. 

This Lent, this Holy Week, this Eastertide, maybe God is calling you to try a little foolishness.