Fools, feasts, and games of thrones

Text: Luke 1:26-56 (the miraculous conception of Jesus)

“You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” Every December, we hear these words of Mary as she prepares to give birth to Jesus. Her words connect Christmas not just to birth and light, but also to hopes that justice might be visited upon the rich and good things might come to the poor.

When Luke wrote the story of Mary’s pregnancy, the world had about 200 million people. Most of them lived in extreme poverty and were ruled by despotic kings. The most powerful of the latter was the Roman Emperor, who ruled over Palestine and the rest of the Mediterranean. But scattered over the world were hundreds of other kings with realms large and small and who lorded it over 99% of the population.

Today, most countries are republics. But today’s seven and half billion people are still divided into rich elites — the so-called one percent — and the 99% of us who have much less wealth and power.

For this reason, we may identify with Mary’s wish that the mighty be deposed from their thrones and the lowly raised to high places. We may also feel discouraged that oppression continues 2,000 years later even as we may be inspired by her words to continue our struggles for justice.

Sometimes, it seems rulers will never be deposed from their thrones. Then there are times when it becomes commonplace. One hundred years ago as World War One moved to its close, many monarchies in Europe fell. In 1917, a revolution in Russia deposed the Czar. In 1918, defeat deposed the emperors of Austro-Hungary and Turkey and revolution deposed the Kaiser in Germany.

The British monarchy survived the devastation of World War I, but today it has little power.

Two weeks ago, Netflix released the second season of “The Crown,” a soap opera about the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the British Royal Family. Season Two covers the years 1956 to 1963; and as with Season One, I loved it.

Besides family drama, “The Crown” highlights issues like the independence struggles of British colonies in Africa; the decline in the authority of the Church of England; and the dissolution of old moral rules in the face of social development.

But despite the persistence of constitutional monarchy in Canada and Britain, those who struggle to depose the mighty from their “thrones” today usually target the authoritarian leaders of republics like Russia, China, and the United States. Unhappily, they can be just as hard to depose as old-styled monarchs.

So, it was with relief that many of us got news on Tuesday that the U.S. President’s preferred candidate for a Senate seat in Alabama, Roy Moore, had been defeated. Not only is he credibly accused of sexual misconduct and assault of teenagers, he opposes the rights of Muslims, LGTBQ people, and women. Still, despite his lamentable character and bigoted views, Moore lost just by 1.5% of the vote.

Moore got virtually no votes from Black people, but a big majority of the white vote. The latter reflects the support Moore received from the U.S. President and the white evangelical church.

I am glad that Moore narrowly lost the race even as I am disheartened by the willingness of many church leaders in the U.S. to support people like him.

Their hypocrisy may lead to a crisis in the church. The magazine “Christianity Today” is one of the evangelical voices that has come out against support for the U.S. President, Moore and others like them.

“Christianity Today” was founded by televangelist Billy Graham in 1956. Today, Billy Graham’s ministry is led by his son, Franklin Graham, who is one of the leading cheerleaders for the current U.S. Administration and its anti-Muslim policies. This makes me even more grateful that the editors of “Christianity Today” have taken a principled stand against leaders like the U.S. President and Roy Moore.

Billy Graham showed up in an episode of this season’s “The Crown.” During a televised crusade in Britain in the late 1950s, Graham caught the eye of the Queen, who then invited him to preach at a Royal Chapel. This episode highlighted the loneliness of the Queen in her role as Head of the Church of England.

After the Reformation of the 1500s, British monarchs took on the role played by the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.

In Medieval Europe, the Pope was the most powerful monarch in Europe. In those years, the retelling of Mary’s story and her song of love and justice inspired an Advent celebration called the Feast of Fools. In this Feast, ordinary people play-acted as the Pope and his archbishops. When Mary’s words “You have brought down the powerful from their thrones” were read, the crowd threw these mock leaders off their thrones.

Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has a scene in which Quasimodo plays the Pope in a “Feast of Fools” celebration in Paris, including in the 1996 Disney animated film version.

These staged rebellions illustrate the desire of common people to see Mary’s prediction of the humiliation of the rich come true; and the sad reality that Mary’s hoped-for social revolution has yet to happen.

Today some of us still foolishly listen to Mary’s words and seek love and justice on the path of Christ the King.

Christ’s path has always been a foolish one, I believe. Christ comes to us as the helpless baby who as an adult is killed by the Roman Empire after a brief ministry of healing and teaching.

Happily, this path helps idols like nationalism and racism die within us. This frees us to rise to a new life closer to the God who is Love. God’s Love calls to us from the manger at Christmas and from the cross at Easter. It inspires us to be holy fools who seek justice in a world of misleaders.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s birth with great joy in a Feast of Fools. But it won’t be play-acting. It will reflect the reality that sovereignty doesn’t rest with monarchs, popes, or authoritarian despots. It rests with God and the inner Christ that flickers within each of us.

Our Prince of Peace might be a helpless newborn and our King might have been killed on a cross. But Christ is a King who is reborn in our hearts, at Christmas as at any time. Not only does new life in Christ give us the courage to struggle for peace with justice. It gives us the victory right here, right now.

Advent is nearly over. Christmas is almost here. So as holy fools, let us now finish our journey to Bethlehem in joy.

Amen.

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