A Feast of Fools

A sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Advent based  on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:39-55

Sermon Audio

This 3rd Sunday in Advent we celebrate the joy that Christ brings to us. So far we have lit the candles of expectation, hope, and joy as we walk closer and closer to where the Christ child will be seen among us on Christmas day. And we wait with joyful anticipation for the promises of God to take on flesh and dwell among us. Full of grace and truth.

These words from Mary are among my favorite words in the entire bible. They are at once humble and ecstatic, reflective and joyous, contemplative and prophetic, beautiful and dangerous. Mary does not use these words to imagine a world where the powerful will be brought low and the hungry will be filled.

Rather, through these words, she proclaims her confidence in God’s power to do all of this. Through her child, Mary is sure these things are already taking place. That God is already at work flipping the entire world upside-down.

These words from Mary reveal an amazing trust in the power of God. Mary is asked to be the one chosen to deliver the savior to his people, and she gives herself over to God completely and joyfully.

How foolish does this seem? A teenage girl chosen by God to bring the long-awaited Messiah into the world.

Shouldn’t this Prince of Peace be placed into a crib decked in gold rather than into a cattle trough full of hay? Shouldn’t this King of kings be born into a royal household rather than to a teenage peasant? Wrapped in a purple blanket fit for majesty rather than the scraps of cloth that Mary finds lying around in a barn somewhere?

Yes, God is doing a new thing among us, but how silently and surprisingly this wondrous gift is given to us. God does not enter the world with trumpets blaring but with the sound of sheep bleating and donkeys braying.

Isn’t it foolish of God to come into the world this way?

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The Feast of Fools was a festival celebrated as early back as the time of Jesus’ birth.

Every year in December, all the way up to about the 16th Century, people paraded into the streets to share in a bit of social unheaval by mocking the established order of their day.

The Feast of Fools was a week-long upending of everything normal. Participants would consecrate a Pope of Fools in a ridiculous ceremony fit for a scene from Alice In Wonderland.

There was an Archbishop of Dolts, and an Abbot of Unreason. These temporarily appointed people would wear their vestments inside out—their hats on backwards—singing loud songs and dancing in the streets. They performed ceremonies that mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church while others wore masks and disguises. They walked around the centers of town pretending to read books upside-down, they chanted gibberish instead of proper liturgy, and they rode down the city streets on donkeys.

The Feast of Fools and all the joyous and blasphemous practices of it were condemned by the Medieval Catholic church as heresy, and many Catholic writers throughout the centuries have tried to deny that it ever existed. In 1431 at the Counsel of Basil the Feast of Fools was finally forbidden under the severest of penalties.

The Feast of Fools was a drama played out every year for all in Europe to see. It was a way for the common people to let off a little steam and upend the social conventions of the day. Picture the Daily Show with John Stewart or the Colbert Report performed in the center of towns and villages across England.

The Feast of Fools, for just one week in December, envisioned an upside-down kingdom in a topsy-turvy world with all the rigid rules of the Church thrown out. Where, in the words of Mary, “the powerful will be brought down low and the lowly will be uplifted. Where the rich walk away empty and the hungry are filled.”

What an upside-down idea. The Feast of Fools. What an absurd festival.

One of the customs during the Feast of Fools was practiced during the second Vespers service of the week when the second verse from the Magnificat was sung. That verse has the line “God has put down the mighty from their seat”. Right then the Precentor of Fools, would have his royal staff stripped away from him by a peasant in the crowd.

The Feast of Fools was a way to imagine the upside-down Kingdom. And it was celebrated defiantly by the underside of society to remember and enact these words from Mary.

God will scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

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Mary traveled to the house of her cousin Elizabeth to celebrate the joyous news that she would conceive a son.

As the angel told her of this wondrous occurrence, Mary had questions. “How can this be?” “How will this happen?” You can imagine all that might have been swirling around in her head right then. But that was months ago. Mary was now with child.

As Mary visits Elizabeth, she has no more doubt. There are no “Why me?” questions any longer. Instead of questioning God’s wisdom or doubting that all this can really be true, Mary gives herself fully to God, and with joy and amazement for all that God is doing through her, she rejoices with all that she has inside of her.

Mary must have thought that all of this is quite absurd. God will be born into the world though her. Who can wrap their mind around that?! It’s a foolish and joyous and dangerous and amazing thought.

Here we have two women, Elizabeth and Mary. One too old and one too young, both tasked by God to deliver into the world two people who would change it forever.

These two pregnant women come together to celebrate the new promises of God as well as the exciting promises of pregnancy—both with big secrets told to them by messengers of God.

A baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary approaches. Blessings are shared. They both are astonished. Picture them singing. Imagine them swapping stories of the ups and downs of pregnancy. The morning sickness and all the uncomfortable sleeping positions they’ve tried, the surprising amounts of food they eat—my God, the hunger!

Mary and Elizabeth rejoice together in their shared motherhood, both conceiving under ridiculous circumstances, the anticipation of raising a child, the everyday miracle of bringing a whole ‘nother person into the world.

Just that idea is crazy enough, but a Messiah and his Messenger! Imagine their wonder. Imagine the expectation. The amazement of it all.  What kind of imagination does God have to send the Messiah into the world like this? Who would chose it to happen this way? A King born into the world through a poor peasant girl who has, up to this point, lived an entirely ordinary life.

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Mary is a thoroughly marginalized person in her culture. Female, young, unwed, and now pregnant with a baby that her fiancée is sure isn’t his.

Mary is in a dangerous situation for any woman at any point in history—even in these days. But in her day, Mary was in a serious amount of trouble. She really could be stoned. And Joseph might be the one to throw the first stone.

Knowing how dangerous her situation is, Mary takes off for her cousin’s house. Somewhere where she could hide for most of her pregnancy. There she might be safe.

You’d think a girl in Mary’s situation would be scared. Out of her mind in panic. But her words convey a person who is confident in the promises of God and confident in her role as a bearer of God’s coming Messiah.

Mary proclaims that she is blessed, that God is doing a wondrous thing through her. Mary raises her voice in song and she proclaims loudly that it is through her that God will save her people. Mary’s words are stunning and loud and wild and they show her immense faith in God. She says that God is enlarging her soul—that her soul is even making God bigger. God is becoming bigger because of her.

Through her child, she sings, God will change the world. Flip it upside-down. God will break down the social structures that have kept the rich full and the poor empty, the powerful on thrones and the lowly sleeping on dirt floors. Through her child, all the world will be transformed and upended.

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The Feast of Fools became a literal acting out of Mary’s words. It celebrated the subversive vision of how the world would be if Mary’s words were ever enacted—if the desires of God were ever to be realized in the world.

In Zimbabwe, one name for God that Christians use translates into English as “The One Who Turns Things Upside Down”.

Mary’s words paint a vision of a world turned on end by a God who invades it and announces through Jesus that the ways of the world need to be toppled over. That what the world raises up needs to pulled down and what the world pulls down needs to be raised up. 

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This Advent season, as we move closer and closer to the Christ-child, we, like Mary, are invited to enter into the foolishness of God’s promises. To enact the story of our God.

God is still unfolding this story of continuous creation, redemption, and salvation to us through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who filled Mary and Elizabeth with joy and song. The same Holy Spirit who confronted Mary with the stunning and miraculous news that a Savior would be born unto her meets us here in this season of Advent and confronts with the joyful and foolish news that there’s a child among us who is here to change the world as well as our hearts—who will deliver the people from darkness and carry them into light. Who will right the wrongs of the world and free the lowly from oppression.

What we celebrate during Advent and what we hope for at Christmas is nothing short of miraculous, and what we practice during Advent is the birthing of God’s desires into creation.

German theologian, Meister Eckhart, once wrote that we are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born into the world.

We are all Mary’s, called by God to do the important work of making Christ known to the broken and hurting world around us. A world chasing after the wrong kind of power. Like, Mary, this Advent, may we too magnify the glory of God and may God be magnified by us.

May we expect God to do something mighty and miraculous in us, among us, through us, and with us.

What a foolish and joyous and magnificent thought!

Maybe Advent is a Feast of Fools.

Alleluia! Amen!

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