Holy Thursday and the Carnivalesque

Holy Thursday and the Carnivalesque March 24, 2016


Holy week begins with an aura of pomp and victory, as Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem, to the sound of Hosannas. But this worldly glory is brief, transitory. The Gospel makes this uncomfortably clear, as we the crowd who shout “blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord” are the same who will shout “crucify him, crucify him.” In so short a time, everything is upset, the wild hopes of the disciples shattered, the image of glory dimmed.

In this year of our lord, our Christian rituals have been around a while, and we enter into them dutifully, preparing the correct emotions for the correct times. Holy Thursday we enter with solemnity. We are about to descend to the tragic, the time of mourning, but we know we will emerge into the high comic, the time of feasting.

But when we turn to the Gospel accounts of the day before Christ’s crucifixion, what we find is not solemnity but confusion, sometimes to the point of absurdity. This is not surprising, because the long mythos of salvation history leading up to the culmination of Christ’s earthly mission has been punctuated by the bizarre, even the buffoonish. From the very beginning, there is a running motif of human folly. Silly Adam and Eve risk everything for a bit of fruit. The Tower of Babel is the work of grandiose buffons. After surviving an apocalyptic flood, the first thing Noah does is figure out how to make wine, then pass out naked in his tent. Lot offers to sell his daughters to rapists. Esau sells is birthright for lentils. Lentils. Think about that for a minute. Samson comes off as a sex-mad muscular oaf. David does everything an epic hero is supposed to do – murder a lot, and take people’s wives – and is chastened for it. Consider the trepidations of the prophets, the sulks of Jonah.

And through it all, the women of the Old Testament are nothing like the modest dutiful maidens one would expect. Sarah laughs at an angel; Rachel steals her father’s household gods; Rebekah deceives her husband; Ruth crawls into a man’s bed; Esther risks death by defying the king’s decree; Judith cuts off a general’s head.

The motif running through the Old Testament is that we humans are fools and scoundrels, yet God is very interested in us, and willing to be involved in our folly – and he works through the most rebellious among us.

The procession of divine will through human history is one of constant disruption, reversal of expectations.

The events of Holy Thursday, from the initiation of the Eucharist, to the arrest of Jesus, we are accustomed to taking seriously. But to read the account in the Gospels is to enter into a strange world of reversals, riddles, and even a kind of clownishness. Imagine how confused the disciples must have been, when Jesus radically altered the Passover ritual. Why would he call the bread his body? Why would he call the wine his blood? Mixing flesh and blood was forbidden by Jewish law, and yet here is Jesus, claiming to do just this, profaning the holy Passover. The apostles do not object. They seem to be fascinated. What will Jesus do next? Perhaps, they imagine, Jesus is about to use his mighty powers to overthrow Roman rule and establish his kingdom – and thus, apparently having learned nothing from the Sermon on the Mount, they begin to quarrel over who will be the greatest. How perplexed they must have been when he knelt to wash their feet at this time. The apostles have managed to acquire swords, even though it was forbidden by the occupying Roman forces for Jews to carry arms; there is something incongruous about their apparent hope that with these two swords they will raise the country against the Empire. Then instead of leading them out to war, Jesus leads them to a garden, to pray, and they are bored, and fall asleep during his deepest anguish. Then out comes the mob to arrest Jesus, and Peter in his manly prowess cuts off a servant’s ear, and Jesus heals it, and Mark is nearly caught, but gets away and runs off naked.

Depictions of the life of Jesus, in film, vacillate between the sentimental and the gory. But the events of Holy Thursday would probably best be depicted in a Coen Brothers film. Absurd expectations, cocksure males, ridiculous injuries, strange banter,  overturned expectations, and a naked kid scampering off along the edges of things.

Then also despair.

And note this: Jesus’ followers, when telling their stories, could have decided to cut out all the parts in in which they behave like confused and power-hungry buffoons, but clearly they and others who passed on and recorded their memories considered these parts necessary. St. Peter clearly could have commanded everyone: “don’t talk about the part where I was an idiot. And could you maybe cut that bit…you know, the one with the rooster crowing?”

They could have revised the part where Jesus chooses to appear to Mary Magdalene first, or at least decided not to mention that initially they didn’t believe her.

The narrative of these holy days could have been rewritten, casting the apostles as wise and holy and obedient. But instead we find them confused, addled, even stupid. Even faithless. And those who might have been expected to hide away, timidly – the women disciples of Jesus – stayed by his side. And the writers of the Gospel accounts understood that this truth, too, needed to be recorded.

Apparently this divinely inspired text is supposed to suggest to readers not simply the austere and the solemn, but also something that can best be described as the carnivalesque: a spirit of disorder, upheaval, even license.

The idea of the carnivalesque was developed by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, to describe a motif in both culture and literature. The term refers originally to the celebrations of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, feasting before fasting, “carne vale” a “farewell to meat.”

For Bakhtin, the time of carnival is a time in which the usual structures of society are reversed, the world is turned upside down. Carnival is marked by free expression, eccentric behavior, licit misalliances, even licensed sacrilege. Costumes and masks allow for change in identity. Masters become slaves – the Son of God washes the feet of mere mortal sinners. Beggars become kings. The custom at some medieval carnivals was to elect a “pope of fools” – and yet, the first pope behaved very much a fool in his own day. The sacred is mingled with the profane – as, perhaps, it may have seemed to the apostles that Jesus was profaning their Passover tradition. But the sacred was already mingled with the profane when the Logos became incarnate flesh. Christianity is carnival.

Carnival is about participation, not about spectacle, which is why our contemporary secular  “carnivals” have none of the religious or ritual significance of the great medieval festivals. And carnival is necessary for the health of civilization, because the forced structures and laws of an ordered civilization are burdensome and exhausting to us. We need release, especially from artificial human laws, human interpretations. The order of human civilization is not identical with the heavenly kingdom.

Carnival is central to comedy, which shatters the petrified power-structures that hold us in place, and allows for the renewal of life – which is why comedy ends, usually, with a marriage feast. And comedy is of all the art forms best suited to understanding salvation history, as the divine surprises us again and again by working vitally amidst human folly and frailty.  And this cycle has been repeated through church history, when at every turn we have imagined that we have it all down pat, and been surprised again at how wrong we were, when we believed we were certain.

Imagine the surprise in the early church when it turned out to be no longer only for the Jews.  When it turned out to be for everyone. “Here Comes Everybody” – to quote that most carnivalesque of writers, James Joyce.

And so the church has grown wider, richer, embracing more and more of human experience, continuing to surprise us with possibility.


image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8c/The_capture_of_Christ_mg_1674.jpg


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