Feast of Fools

But many that are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:30)

For over a thousand years, Christians in various European countries celebrated something called the Feast of Fools, a rude parody of a standard religious festival. The event was held on January 1, the date otherwise reserved for the Feast of the Circumcision. For this bit of foolery, the world as most people knew it was briefly turned upside down. Amid general highjinks and occasional blasphemous excess, a young boy would be decked out in ecclesiastical robes and go through an elaborate ceremony consecrating him as a pope, archbishop or other high church official. The mock festival probably had its roots in the Roman Saturnalia, which was held at the time of the winter solstice and was also characterized by a generous amount of license and revelry. A mock king was chosen by lot, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and was allowed to rule over the festival until he was killed at its conclusion.

The Roman soldiers who presided over Jesus’ execution were undoubtedly steeped in the traditions of the Saturnalia. A nobody from the hinterlands of Judea would be their mock king. The soldiers stripped him, dressed him in a purple robe and crown of thorns and hailed him as King of the Jews. Then they beat him before nailing him to a cross. Pontus Pilate, the Roman governor, had been inclined to let Jesus go. But even though it was within his power to do so, he was anxious to placate the locals, who wanted Jesus dead. The chief priests and elders knew precisely how to get their way: "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar." And Jesus did nothing to help his own cause. When Pilate asked him directly, “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

It is often assumed that if Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, he must have meant the next one. However, it should be remembered that he was speaking in the Roman praetorium, the headquarters of the military governor in Jerusalem, with all its imperial trappings. When Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, it is likely that he was referring to what St. Paul called the “principalities and powers” of the Roman world. With the kingdom of God, the upside-down world that we know is turned right-side up. The Roman soldiers took a nobody from the hinterlands, dressed him up in a purple robe and crown of thorns and mocked him as king of the Jews. But this was no slave or criminal. It turns out that this improbable King of the Jews was exactly who he was accused of being, and it took a Roman centurion to recognize the truth. According to gospel account, after Jesus died the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Seeing this, the centurion exclaimed, “Truly this was the son of God!”

John 19:12
John 18: 33, 36
Matthew 27:54

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