Maundy Thursday and April Fools

I can see from a quick Google search (or Topeka search, for today) that I’m hardly the only blogger to reflect on the coincidence (Providence?) of April Fools and Maundy Thursday falling on the same day. My first thought, earlier this morning, was that it seemed rather inappropriate, because April Fools is a day for fun and humorous pranks, and Maundy Thursday is celebrated with solemnity.

I started imagining, though, what that Last Supper might have been like if April Fools Day had been celebrated back in Jesus’ time (and the two days coincided as they do this year). Think what comments one might have heard in that upper room.

There’s no servant to wash our feet. What is this, some kind of April Fool joke?

Jesus is acting like he’s going to start washing our feet. Now that’s really taking the prank too far!

Did Jesus just say he’s going away, and we can’t follow him? Must be some kind of April Fool’s joke.

Yeah, right. One of us is really going to betray our rabbi. Where does he come up with these ideas?

Jesus just said the bread is his body and the wine is his blood! If that’s an April Fool’s joke, it’s not in very good taste.

Many of us have trouble imagining Jesus making any kind of joke, let alone jokes related to the holy matters connected with the Last Supper. Since humor is closely tied to the cultural context of the person using it (and preferably of the hearers also), and because much of it is non-verbal (e.g. tone of voice), it’s hard to recognize or appreciate instances of Jesus using humor in the Gospels.

But if Jesus was a normal, emotionally healthy human – and Christians believe he was – then he had a good sense of humor. He also would have had the wisdom to use it appropriately, and I very much doubt he joked about his own death. But it’s often not easy to know when someone else is joking – especially someone like my father-in-law who could say the most outrageous things with a perfectly straight face. If something sounds ridiculous, it’s easy enough to think it might be part of an elaborate joke, especially on a day set aside for extravagant humor.

In hindsight it’s easy to blame the disciples for their slowness to understand what Jesus was telling them. But before Jesus’ death and resurrection, before the coming of the Holy Spirit to live among Jesus’ followers and to help them understand what a universe-shaking event had taken place, Jesus’ shocking words to his disciples must have seemed almost too unbelievable to take seriously. (After all, his own family had concluded that he must be insane.)

My husband will have the opportunity to lead Maundy Thursday worship this evening, for the first time in five years. It will be a tenebrae service, ending with the church in darkness and all of us leaving in silence, as the disciples fled in darkness and confusion from the garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest. Whatever they might have thought of his words earlier in the evening, by then they knew that the matter had become deadly serious. And Peter’s pledge to die before denying Jesus might as well have been said in jest for all the effect it had.

In the end, God would have the last laugh. But between the night of the arrest and the morning of the resurrection, the whole thing must have seemed like a cosmic joke gone very badly.

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