A Fool’s Love

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                                     Dec. 23, 2018

Luke 1:46-55                                                                       Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

When Mary found out that she was pregnant, she left her town and headed straight to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth. Surely Elizabeth would understand because Mary had heard that Elizabeth, in her old age, was also pregnant. Mary concluded that only God could have worked that miracle! Mary was in shock, not quite sure what to believe about her own situation. She desperately needed the assurance and support of Elizabeth.

When she arrived, Elizabeth greeted her with words of blessing: “Cousin Mary—as soon as I heard your voice, my baby kicked! You are truly a blessing for me. You must also know that you will be a blessing for others, as will be the child that you are carrying.”

Mary was astonished yet again. How could Elizabeth know that she was pregnant? And then her words began to spill forth: “I had the strangest dream. A messenger told me that I had found favour with God and that I would be blessed with a son who would become a great ruler. My child would be of God and his kingdom would be without end. But Joseph…oh dear Joseph. How in the world am I going to tell him all of this?”

Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah for 3 months while they tried to figure out the meaning of both of their pregnancies and how to break the news to dear Joseph. Gradually, Mary gained courage and confidence, fully believing that God had chosen a simple, poor young girl to give birth to a humble carpenter’s boy who would turn the world upside down. Justice would indeed begin to flow like a river, where the rich would give enough so that the poor could have enough.

When this story of Jesus’ birth was first told in Luke’s version, it must have scandalized the audiences. The central characters are two pregnant women—one too old to have children and the other too single to conceive. The story sidelines their male partners. Elizabeth’s husband has been rendered mute and Mary’s betrothed is barely mentioned. A post-menopausal mother is carrying John the Baptist, the one who comes to prepare the way for the Messiah, and an unwed mother is carrying Emmanuel—God with us. And then, even before Mary returned to Joseph, she began to speak words of revolution. What a ludicrous and dangerous way to begin the Gospel of Luke!

We hear these familiar stories with comfort and warmth, but the medieval church heard these stories very differently than we do today. Beginning in the 12th century, the European church observed the Feast of Fools as part of the Christmas celebrations. People would act out Mary’s song, the Magnificat, by subverting the pretensions and the hierarchies of the church. Low-level church leaders were allowed to assume the leadership positions of bishops and cantors for the day. Some were carried away with this subversion:

lay brothers and servants put on the vestments inside out, held the books upside down…wore spectacles with rounds of orange peel instead of glasses…blew the ashes from the censers on each other’s face and hands, and instead of the proper liturgy chanted confused and inarticulate gibberish.[1]

Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night” was inspired by the Feast of Fools.

As you can imagine, not every church leader was pleased with this annual spoof, and it was eventually banned in the 15th century. But why would the Feast of Fools have been allowed for over 300 years? There are at least three explanations. It seemed to take seriously both the ludicrous and subversive nature of Luke’s Christmas story. It levelled the power balance between rulers and the people, clergy and the laity and it allowed the people an emotional outlet of harmless fun. In addition, fools seem to be able to see things from a different angle. Their favourite targets are those who show even a speck of pretension.

We take some things a bit too seriously—at least I do. We fuss over details and forget the purpose. We begin to value proper form over content; propriety over self-giving love. Someone I know recently spent some intense time reflecting on her life and she came out of this time a changed person. One of the things that would be different was how she would approach Christmas. She told me that she was no longer going to race around getting everything perfectly in place for the holidays. Her own sense of well-being was more important than completing all of her holiday rituals. She would do what she could without sacrificing her own inner peace and joy—without sacrificing what this season is all about.

In a nutshell, Christmas is about God’s love incarnate. In the 1500’s, when the Feast of Fools was beginning to be banned and Shakespeare wrote the Twelfth Night, St. John of the Cross was writing about God’s love:

When you looked at me

Your eyes imprinted your grace in me;

For this you loved me ardently;

And thus my eyes deserved

To adore what they beheld in you.

…And let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty.

Love, for John of the Cross, meant an opening to the other—to give something of ourselves to the other and to see something of ourselves in the other. To love someone deeply means to be completely vulnerable and open about all of our shadows and failures. When we can laugh, as only a fool can, at our inability to be perfect, we will find a humble release of grace for the failures of ourselves and of others. The word for love in Anishinabe is Zaagidwin, which means opening. “I love you,” in Anishinabe means, “You open me up.”

May we have the courage to be fully open and allow others to look upon our lowliness, as Mary sang in her song. May we love with the naked vulnerability of a babe without any pretension. May we also set aside our desire for a perfect Christmas and, with a fool’s love, hold lightly whatever comes our way.

[1] E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage (London: Oxford University Press, 1903), 1:317-318, as quoted in Max Harris, Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), p. 140.