1st April 2012

I’ve never been to Russia in my life. But I know that one of the iconic buildings of Moscow, one that is illustrated in all the tourist brochures, is St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was built during the reign of Ivan the Terrible and it’s situated on Red Square, so you can’t possibly miss it. If you’ve seen pictures of the cathedral (even better, if you’ve visited it), you’ll know that it is an amazing confection of multi-coloured onion domes and interlocked chapels. And its bizarre architecture is actually highly appropriate, for the man it commemorates, a Russian saint who died in around 1550, was – in the very best sense of the word – a “Holy Fool”.

Now, the “Holy Fool” is a well-known character in the Eastern Christian tradition – indeed, it already existed a thousand years before St. Basil. Such a fool is a person who behaves in ways which seem ridiculous or provocative to most people but which are in fact deliberately designed – even divinely inspired – to make them think. And Basil certainly fitted this pattern: he went around naked and weighed down with chains; he stole from shops and gave to the poor in order to shame the miserly and help those in need; on one occasion he started throwing loaves of bread around Red Square to humiliate a baker who had added lime to his flour. Yet Basil also fearlessly rebuked Ivan the Terrible for not paying attention in church, and for his violent behaviour towards the innocent. Not many other people could do that, and live.

Our British tradition of “foolishness” is somewhat different and seems to have nothing to do with the Church. It tends to make us think of court jesters wearing zany clothes and silly hats with bells on: something like medieval incarnations of Ken Dodd complete with his “tickling stick”. Yet it is still clear that these fools did more than simply entertain: at times they advised or even rebuked their employers and, at best, they were regarded as people who possessed an intuitive understanding of reality which bypassed normal human thought and logic. Shakespeare includes the Fool in several of his plays, including “King Lear”, “Twelfth Night” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; in each case they offer the audience a wry commentary on the other characters and their foibles.

In the Bible, some of the Old Testament prophets exemplify the same kind of wisdom, masquerading as absurdity. For example, Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for about three years, predicting a forthcoming captivity for the Egyptians. Ezekiel built a model city out of clay and then destroyed it, as a symbol of a forthcoming siege of Jerusalem; he also lay on his side for many months, bound to his bed by ropes, as a metaphor for the city’s sin. Hosea married a prostitute to illustrate Israel’s spiritual infidelity to God. We might even put John the Baptist, preaching in the desert, eating strange food and wearing unusual clothing, into this category of holy people. But these prophets were not, as we might at first imagine, self-centred exhibitionists. They wanted onlookers to see past their extravagant visual aids, return to God and abandon their evil ways. If normal, rational preaching would not work, perhaps divine foolishness was the only sensible approach.

And so we come to Jesus. And we want to ask the question: “Was he a fool for God? Or – to put it more bluntly – was he simply plain stupid?” For on Palm Sunday and on into Holy Week, we see Jesus doing acts which can only upset people and lead to his arrest. For he enters Roman-occupied Jerusalem in a shambolic parody of a conquering King with pretences to the throne. He criticises the Pharisees and calls them all sorts of rude names. He upsets the merchant classes by charging through the Temple market like a whirlwind. And he tells the disciples that the mighty Temple itself will be smashed into ruins. All these acts and statements are highly provocative; indeed, Jesus seems to make a virtue of standing into danger and rubbing everybody up the wrong way. So why does he do it? Does he have a death wish, a suicidal desire for self-destruction? That’s certainly what it looks like!

I have to say that Jesus’ apparently foolish acts, though extreme, do seem to follow naturally from his teaching up to this point. For, time and time again, he has stood the traditional values of society on their heads. In a series of memorable epigrams, Jesus has said that “the first are the last and the last shall be first”; that people who seek to exalt themselves will be humbled while the meek will inherit the earth; that it is people who amass earthly riches while neglecting their souls who are truly destitute; and that we will only find true life and freedom if we are prepared to lose them for God’s sake. And Jesus has suited his actions to his words, going out of his way to welcome outcast lepers, prostitutes, tax-gatherers and foreigners, while telling wealthy and confident people of high-status how hard it is for them to enter the Kingdom of God.

You see, I don’t think that Jesus was a fool: I believe he was quite clear about what he was doing, from the moment he “set his face” towards Jerusalem and incurred the amazement of his disciples who knew that such a journey could only have one conclusion. But Jesus believed that his mission was to fearlessly obey God and speak his truth; and – although he may not have recognised this at the outset – by now he also knew that it included his death at Calvary. I’m sure that Jesus didn’t relish the prospect of suffering and death; his prayer in Gethsemane clearly reveals that. But, ultimately, Christ’s commitment to God and his love for the world compelled him to go forward: living, speaking, and dying in order to bring life and hope to this sad and troubled world. If that was what Jesus had set out to achieve, then he was no fool at all.

Now all this, of course, happened two thousand years ago. So what – apart from our thankfulness that Jesus did obey his Father – might it mean for us today? I think an answer can be taken from the words of St. Paul, who not only calls himself a “madman” and a “fool” for apparently wasting his life in the service of Christ, but recognises that the very Gospel message he proclaims is one that appears ridiculous or even offensive to those who do not share his faith. Paul’s focussed dedication to Christ has caused educated people to doubt his intellectual integrity and led his kinsmen and fellow-citizens to set him outside normal civic discourse; even folk in the churches find his intensity hard to cope with. Yet these are all crosses which Paul gladly bears; it is better to be a fool for Jesus than to achieve the adulation of society.

For Christian history is littered with the memories of people who have done apparently foolish things in Christ’s name: missionaries who have thrown up a promising career and buried themselves in the back of beyond, or ministers who have eschewed the popularity of a fashionable pulpit to serve a poor community in the inner city. There are politicians who have rejected senior office by uncompromisingly standing up for justice and the rights of the oppressed, economists who have resisted the blandishments of the free market to advocate Fair Trade, social commentators who have dared to express unpopular opinions as latter-day prophets, local activists who have resisted planning proposals that will wreck their communities, persecuted believers who have refused to bow to the most extreme pressures. It is these people’s Christian faith which has inspired them act as they have and, although there are some folk who undoubtedly enjoy being known as mavericks, many of them have found following Christ’s way to be costly, frustrating and painful.

As Christians, we claim to be citizens of Christ’s topsy-turvy Kingdom. This should surely mean that we embrace a set of values which are very different to what most folk would consider normal or even sensible. We know all too well that we ought to be extravagantly generous, totally accepting, unfeignedly loving, unflinchingly honest, utterly indifferent to reputation and status, and unconcerned whether we live or die. But sadly most of us – and I include myself – have accepted society’s norms rather than challenging them. We have replaced divine foolishness with quiet respectability: so our neighbours no longer scratch their heads in puzzlement and ask, “What on earth is it that makes them tick?”

For such foolishness ought to be our trademark –by which I do not mean stupidity, but a willingness to bear the cross and follow the apparently senseless path of Christ. For we are disciples of man which a modern hymn calls “a scarecrow hoisted high”, “a nonsense pointing nowhere” and “a clown of sorrows”. And we need to be willing to play the fool when necessary in order to subvert and expose the self-important so-called wisdom of the world, an action which may cost us dearly. Yet, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, that is the way of Christ who, by enduring the shame of the cross, is not only seated joyfully seated beside God’s throne but has brought many children to glory. A course of action which once seemed utterly ridiculous has now been revealed as perfect sense; the divine fool is shown to be the wisest person of all.