Clowning Around in Lent

Taking a break from pretending everything is great.

Bryan J. / 3.8.22

This post is about clowns and Lent. Phobic readers are advised to proceed with caution:

Episode 205 of This American Life premiered back in 2002, featuring an interview of Cuervo Man, from the tequilla brand, Jose Cuervo. It’s quite the interview, an insight into the life of a man who is paid to party on behalf of a liquor brand. Cuervo Man’s real name was Ryan McDonough, a Princeton English major whose life-of-the-party skills turned out to be more marketable than his degree. At one point in 2002, Ryan McDonough was doing 150 events a year on behalf of the liquor brand around New York City. Ryan would show up at bars with a car trunk full of promotional t-shirts and koozies and host an evening bacchanal with free shots and revelry on the company dime. Cuervo introduced him as a “party catalyst,” and Hodgeman called him both a “corporate jester … a satyr, the half-man, half-beast consort of Dionysus, god of drunken revelry.” One of his regular acts involved a speedo swimsuit and a toilet plunger stuck to his bald head.

It’s a job that sounds, well, exhausting. Being the life of the party every other night for a year at a time? For years at a time? It’s so much booze and so much manufactured revelry. It sounds unhealthy, or at the very least, unsustainable. McDonough shared that the job exacerbated an already-apparent drinking problem. He was kicked out of a hotel for throwing a table out of his room. He blacked out at one party while on the clock, and cursed out a patron at another. Toward the end of his stint as Cuervo Man, McDonough was forced to sober up, finishing his 150 events without drinking a drop of the swill he was paid to shill. A recent rebroadcast of the episode included the update that Ryan McDonough was still sober 18 years after he had quit the job. It sounds like enough liquor and partying for one lifetime.

This episode of TAL came to mind this week after stumbling across a fantastic painting worth our consideration. It’s called “Ash Wednesday,” and it’s by Carl Speitzwig from around 1860. Artistically, it’s a great painting, but the subject matter seems a bit on the (red, honking) nose. It is a painting of a clown in jail.

Carl Spitzweg, “Ash Wednesday” (1860)

Let’s set aside our collective joy at the fact that there exists this wonderful, historic, theologically saturated painting of a clown in jail. We all loathe clowns and clowning, of course. I join you in your joy that this clown has been locked behind bars. On a basic fear-and-survival level, this painting speaks comfort to me. Carl Spitzweg and I are friends in our mutual clown hatred.

Another, less charitable, takeaway from the painting would be to see it as a reflection of a Lenten stereotype. Which is to say, for those who have little love for the season, Lent can certainly be dismissed as a silly season where we “lock away our inner clown,” or “put fun in jail for a bit.” That certainly doesn’t resonate with the “invitation to a Holy Lent” that many of us recently received. In practice, Lent is rarely ever that rough.

But when you consider the church calendar, a different, better interpretation emerges. “Ash Wednesday” is a painting about revelry gone awry on Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras. Whatever tomfoolery the clown had accomplished on the Tuesday prior has caught up with him on the following Wednesday. He’s alone in his jail cell with a pitcher of water. The Clown’s arms are crossed in dissatisfaction, and his head is tilted down in pensive reflection. He certainly appears to be in a place of meditation instead of merrymaking.

Those with a good eye, however, will notice that the clown is not alone. Spetzweg has the clown illuminated with light from the barred window above. The heavens, it seems, have not left the clown behind. There is an invitation for the clown to engage in holy introspection from his jail cell and perhaps have an encounter with the divine. God, on this clown’s very serious Ash Wednesday, has not abandoned him.

Speitzwig’s jailed clown and Cuervo Man are insights into the human condition, one that Covid and European wars have spent the past two years reminding us. Revelry and merrymaking are for a season, but beyond that, we’re in an unhealthy way. Partying every day can’t make every day a party. There is such a thing as “too much ‘up’.’” These are truths that are wise and good, but not necessarily welcome. As Smokey Robinson reminds us, “Now they’re some sad things known to man / But ain’t too much sadder than / The tears of a clown when there’s no one around.”

For the twelve or thirteen percent of the year we call Lent, you are given permission to take a reasonable and healthy break from pretending everything is great. No need to put on the clown makeup — just grab some ash and smear a cross on your forehead. We know God doesn’t take it personally when we fast from eating the good food he provides for us. He’s not in heaven yelling down “I gave you cantaloupes, why won’t you eat them, you ungrateful sinners?” In fact, fasting is something God commends: he is OK with us experiencing a taste of what life would be like without His daily provision so that we would grow in appreciation and gratitude. It stands to reason God isn’t mad if we don’t party about Jesus’s death and resurrection for a few weeks that we might pantomime, with trepidation, a world without grace in it.

Lent is not in the Bible, and there’s no obligation to practice it from Jesus (or Paul, Peter, or even James for that matter). In the Anglican and Episcopal liturgy, pastors extend the invitation to observe a Holy Lent “on behalf of the church,” not on behalf of God. But just because it’s not in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s not healthy. It’s a gift from God that we don’t have to be perpetual party catalysts, unable to bring our hurts and our needs and wants to God for fear of committing a party foul. It’s a gift from God that we are never without his attention, even when we find ourselves in prison cells, literal or metaphorical.

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