Clowns for Christ: The Joy of Realizing You’re Not a Lion Tamer

Clown Chris (1920-1080)

When I was about three, I saw a time-accelerated film sequence on television featuring a clown applying his makeup. The clip started with a normal man who in seconds was transformed into a creepy monster with a malevolent smile and a red nose. It sent me running into the kitchen in tears.

Years later, however, I acquired a different perspective. My parents brought my sister and me to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where we saw clowns juggling bowling pins, rolling out of a miniature car, and performing low-level acrobatics. Their ludicrous antics and buffoonery made us laugh hysterically. For weeks, we emulated them. With a combination of love and disdain, I suppose you can say I have a complicated relationship with clowns.

Who, after all, wants to be a clown? Covered in makeup, with enormous shoes, they awkwardly fumble and fall. Their performances are sprinkled around the important acts—the heroic feats that bring applause. By contrast, clowns are humble, awkward, and peripheral. Children view them with a mixture of sympathy and delight, with gratitude and pity. Displaying a teardrop and a smile, clowns surround the sensational moments of circus life with humanness, meekness, and hope. And in this way, they illustrate our Christian calling and identity.

Few portions of Scripture make this point better than the Beatitudes. To satisfy our hunger for applause, Jesus offers poverty and meekness. He elevates tear-filled mourners to the exalted position of blessed ones. He extols hungering and thirsting for righteousness over impressive feats of strength. And as the crowning gift, Jesus promises persecution. In short, he’s not celebrating the awe-inspiring achievements of the lion tamer, strong man, or acrobat; he’s smiling grace upon the clowns.

But, let’s be honest, we don’t want to be clownlike. I don’t. Sometimes I feel like Canio, the lead clown in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 Opera Pagliacci (Clowns). You may recall the famous aria of that performance, “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”). With an aching heart, Canio must display a happy face—he must wear his mask. Here the clown is lamenting the fact that his lover is having an affair. Nevertheless, he must go on stage, go to work, and be a clown. His anguish sets the stage for one of the most emotional Italian arias.

The late, great Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, was responsible for making “Vesti la giubba” famous, selling over 1 million copies of his three recordings. You can see the text here:

Act! While in delirium,

I no longer know what I say,

or what I do!

And yet it’s necessary. Force yourself!

Bah! Are you even a man?

You are a clown!

Put on your costume and powder your face.

The people are paying, and they want to laugh here…

Laugh, clown,

at your broken love!

Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

But don’t just read the words. You can listen to any of his three turn-of-the-century recordings yourself:

  • 1902 – at the beginning
  • 1904 – at 2:16
  • 1907 (and perhaps the best) – at 4:48

At 5:15, Caruso (playing Canio) says the line, “Tu se Pagliacco”—You are a clown!—and the pathos accompanying the word “Pagliacco”—clown—is breathtaking. He is talking to himself, and it seems there is a double meaning—you are simultaneously acting the role of a clown (putting on the mask) and you are, in fact, a clown (you are living with a mask). Both realizations are agonizing.

Caruso’s vocal acrobatics from 6:21 to 6:33—the climax of the aria where he sings, “Ridi Pagliacco!”—Laugh, clown!—are stunning. He takes a breath at 6:20 and then, with emotion that comes only from a Neapolitan tenor with the sort of poor and destitute background that he had, sings for 11 full seconds at the top of his lungs, all in one breath. It’s an amazing feat that has set the standard for all other tenors.

Now, if you’ve followed me this far, you owe it to yourself to watch one more clip. Here’s a video of Luciano Pavarotti singing “Vesti la giubba.” Even though he doesn’t manifest quite the same breath control as Caruso, Pavarotti’s performance is still spellbinding. I can’t watch it without getting choked up. The climax begins at 1:57.

How incredibly sad when Canio asks himself, “Are you even a man?” Despite the grief that poisons his heart—betrayed and alone—he must apply his makeup and laugh. He must veil his soul with the smiling mask that hides his brokenness, the facade that becomes his prison. Canio’s clown costume is his dungeon, isolating him from others, even from the liberating light of God’s presence, from the hope and healing that bring comfort and redemption.

The reason I love clowns and disdain them at the same time is because I identify with them. Averse to the clownlike experiences of life—the poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting—I will do anything to avoid the mortifying trajectory into brokenness. Really, who wants to carry a cross and walk the path of crucifixion? This is clownlike, or, as Paul the Apostle puts it, “foolishness” (1 Cor. 4:10). Something within us recoils from such humility, preferring instead to possess the strength and commanding presence of the lion tamer or the strong man.

However, it turns out that this is the way of salvation. We are called to embrace our clownlike calling in this world. It is not, as you might suppose, a way of hiding but a way of being truly seen. Being a clown for Christ is the way to remove the mask of pride. In so doing we show the world that our sufficiency does not consist in ourselves—in our ability to win the day. It’s not our power to ascend above the struggle and strain of life, but rather our decision to trust the One who empowers us through suffering. “When I am weak,” Paul says, “then I am truly strong.”

This counterintuitive pattern is the way of salvation for one reason—because the eternal God took on flesh, in the fullness of time died on a cross for our sins, and was raised triumphantly. In these movements of unfathomable humility and brokenness—followed by consummate victory—Jesus “put on the costume” (Vesti la giubba) so that clowns like us could be delivered from alienation and grief. In our calling to put on the costume of meekness, mourning, and mercy—and the other blessed virtues outlined in the Beatitudes—we find true liberation, healing, and eternal hope.

What does the church need today? Not more lion tamers! We need more clowns. If I can borrow a line from Judy Collins’ classic song, Send in the Clowns: “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns.”

Chris Castaldo, PhD, is Lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville and author of the new book, The Upside Down Kingdom, from Crossway.

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