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Laughter at LentBy Anthony Baker
It’s Ash Wednesday morning as I write these words, and in a few hours I will hear myself and others invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” What are we denying and negating, when we choose to take on the Christian habit of repentance?
One of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters is the aging and corpulent Sir John Falstaff, who appears in several plays, and who was born “about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something a round belly.” He sermonizes on the merits of sherry, endlessly guzzles “small beer” for which he refuses to pay, trades insults with the slumming Prince Hal, robs pilgrims en route to Canterbury, and indulges in all the sins on offer at Mistress Quickly’s tavern in East Cheap. While his expansive lifestyle exacerbates the expansion of his waistline (an association that he and Hal seem to never tire of riffing upon), he ruminates throughout his scenes on the theme of repentance. His is obsessed with the parable of Lazarus and Dives—Dives being the adopted name for the rich “glutton” in Luke who winds up forgotten in hell. He is equally taken with the story of the Prodigal, and once even has it painted around his room at the inn. He tends to take on these themes when he is reminded of his own death, which he associates with “diminishing,” or losing flesh: “Do I not dwindle? Why, my skin hangs about me like an old lady’s loose gown. . . . Well, I’ll repent, and that suddenly, while I am in some liking. I shall be out of heart shortly,” he adds, punning on the term as a synonym for both desire and breath, “and then I shall have no strength to repent.”
The trouble, though, that Shakespeare has created for himself with the figure of Falstaff is that his audience loves the jovial, prodigal glutton too much. There is an old story that the playwright even wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor because Queen Elizabeth requested “a play about Falstaff in Love.” At the end of the second part of Henry the Fourth, the Epilogue promises to bring him back for the sequel, so long as he doesn’t “die of sweat” first. Which, in fact, he does.
Perhaps Shakespeare and Falstaff are aware of the deep instability at the core of the discipline of repentance. Do we diminish though self-denial? Is it an action of character impoverishment? Falstaff “owes God a death,” but none of us, let alone Falstaff, wants to see him “give his life over” if that means becoming less than Falstaff. Falstaff is afraid of repentance, and for our part, we worry that he will stop being afraid and actually repent.
But Shakespeare is also inviting us to laugh at Falstaff’s association of repentance with dwindling, which imagines repentance as an act to take up when the abundance of life is on the wane. The humor works because we in the audience have at least a half-conscious awareness (what John Henry Newman called our “illative sense”) that repentance is not what Falstaff is afraid it is, a conclusion of our various and unique performances of the human script, but rather the beginnings of a true “expansion.” Repentance is the daily practice of “giving over” of ourselves to God that leads to actual abundance, true excess. Not the excesses of Eastcheap, but the deeper, more joyous excesses of love, of companionship beyond betrayals, of a pleasure that is not halted by “the chimes at midnight,” as Falstaff knows his will be.
The joke, ultimately, is that Falstaff insists on replacing the greater for the less. “Small beer” for new wine. The heavenly banquet for the Elizabethan version of a table at the Golden Corral. He fears losing the poor fare in front of him, and so locks himself out of the true feast.
With his voluminous knight, Shakespeare invites us to laugh at our own tendency to fear repentance too much to notice that we are replacing abundance for simulacra. This is the laughter of Lent, when we take a moment to notice how funny we really are, and imagine a life of nourishment beyond the “small beer” of which we’ve grown so accustomed.
Are there aspects of repentance that frighten you?
What parts of your life are you reluctant to “give over” to God?
Can you imagine the things you love and fear to lose turning even more lovely in God’s hands?
Anthony Baker joined the seminary faculty in 2004. He teaches classes in both historical theology (focusing on a figure, an era, or a school of thought) and constructive theology (the building of persuasive arguments about God and creation). He is the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology, as well as various articles in Modern Theology, Political Theology, The Journal of Anglican Studies, Anglican Theological Review, and other journals and collections.
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