Let me state for the record that I hate clowns. I am not afraid of them, I just can’t stand them. Ok, I said it.
What is more horrific than clowns? Clown Stations of the Cross! Not quite as bad as clown Masses, but pretty close.
From the Evangelist:
Twenty years ago, a few clowns decided to change from making people laugh to making them cry.
With the help of a transitional deacon who had been nurturing the idea of a clown ministry, “The Way of the Cross in the Company of Clowns” was born.
They perform around the Albany Diocese only during Lent, with a poignant look at the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus, and during Advent, when they celebrate the birth of Jesus.
“People loved it,” Jack Ablett said of the early performances. He and his wife Rita are among the original founders of the ministry at St. Patrick’s parish in Ravena.
“The initial [three] clowns had all trained at Hudson Valley Community College,” in Troy, she explained. “Coincidentally, they were all parishioners at St. Patrick’s. They had been talking about using their clowning talents in some kind of ministry. At that time, we had a transitional deacon at our parish, and he had written a script for the Way of the Cross with clowns as the participants.”
The little troupe began their ministry in their own parish; within a few years, however, they were filling requests to perform in nearby parishes.
Over the years, the ministry has revised the script, added music and lighting, included mimes, and expanded the number of clowns, who range from children to senior citizens.
Initially, the group performed only on Friday evenings during Lent, the traditional day for Stations of the Cross.
By 1993, however, they were so overwhelmed with requests for performances that they decided to start performing on Wednesdays as well.
The premise of the story is that one clown, Marmelduke, is sad because he can’t make people laugh anymore. As a result, he has lost his faith, and his friends have deserted him. A spirit comes to him and convinces him to follow Jesus through His passion and death.
As the journey winds its way through the Stations in a darkened church, the clown begins to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. At the last Station, his sadness turns to rejoicing, and as other clowns reflect his conversion.
“People usually are crying by the end of the performance and often, so are the clowns,” Mrs. Ablett said.
Recalling a recent performance in front of developmentally disabled young adults, she said, “While we were getting ready for the performance, the group assembled themselves around a large crucifix at one end of the church. As we went out to begin, the church was all dark, except for a light highlighting the group. There they were, all assembled around the cross, waiting to watch us perform the Way of the Cross. We all began weeping when we saw them. There wasn’t a dry eye in the church.
“There is so much joy in this ministry. We give a lot to those that come to watch us perform. On the other hand, we all get so much out of performing. When you see the look on people’s faces at the end of the Stations, and feel the joy and love that is there, you know that the prayer of the Stations has been deeply felt and absorbed. It really touches people’s hearts.”
Another article from the Evangelist:
A sad-faced clown sits on a white bench, eyes downcast.
“Say hello to Marmeldook,” a narrator’s voice instructs, beginning a presentation unique to the Albany Diocese: The “Way of the Cross in the Company of Clowns.”
The Clown Ministry Associates — a group of 20 Catholics from around the Diocese — have been performing the Way of the Cross since 1987. That was when three professional clowns and a transitional deacon at St. Patrick’s parish in Ravena got together to find a way to use clowning in a “spiritual vein.”
From all over
The deacon (who, like many of the group, prefers that his name not be used) used his talents at music and drama to write the first script for the “Way of the Cross in the Company of Clowns.” With the help of another man with a background in radio theater, the group revised its script, and requests began to pour in for the presentation.
Today, the Associates range from 10-year-olds to grandparents, and they hail from and perform at churches all over the Diocese twice a week during Lent. Two members of the group are deacons.
Young members who leave for college are presented with the farewell gift of a clown’s derby hat and white gloves, and many squeeze in a performance or two when they’re home on vacation.
“It’s kind of a humble group,” explained Jack Ablett, a founding member of Clown Ministry. “We do it out of love for Christ.”
Story of Christ
The presentation’s storyline follows Marmeldook, a sad clown who has lost his friends and his faith, through a journey along the Stations of the Cross with a spirit who enlightens him.
“Nothing is right,” declares Marmeldook at the beginning. “I am in total darkness.”
In response, the spirit invites the clown to meet his friend: Jesus, “the author of truth.” Carrying a lighted candelabra, the spirit leads Marmeldook from Station to Station in a darkened church, explaining Jesus’ struggles as they relate to the clown’s life.
Halfway through the journey, Marmeldook takes the lead, learning to interpret Jesus’ life himself. By the presentation’s end, the sad clown has learned to rejoice in the empty cross at the Resurrection, and joyful clowns mime and play before descending on the audience with hugs and stickers.
Since the clowns’ Way of the Cross began, they have added female lead characters who alternate with the males, a “Greek chorus” of mimes who act out Marmeldook’s feelings and silent mimes who hold crosses that represent the Stations.
The latter change took place because many later-built churches where the troupe performed didn’t have Stations of the Cross. The crosses held by the clowns read simply, “fallen” (for “Jesus falls the first time”) or “a woman dares” (for “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus”).
Some things haven’t changed: To this day, Rev. John Mealey’s voice is heard on the tape that introduces the clowns; Father Mealey died in 1997.
While clowns are seen as symbols of humor, the Clown Ministry Associates take a page from Emmett Kelly. “It isn’t essentially a humorous thing,” said Rita Ablett, a founding member of the group. “It isn’t about clowns — it’s about people.”
The only humor in the clowns’ performance is at the beginning, when two happy clowns try to cheer up Marmeldook, and in some of the sad clown’s questions to the spirit. At one Station, for example, the spirit explains that Jesus told the women of Jerusalem, “Do not weep for me, but for yourselves and for your children.”
“How can you weep for your own sins when a lot of them are fun?” Marmeldook replies. Then the spirit reminds him that God understands that and can help him, one day at a time.
Journey to Calvary
Instead of jokes and pratfalls, the plot invites the audience to struggle along with Marmeldook. At the 12th Station, “sacrificed,” where Jesus dies on the cross, Marmeldook says, “I would like to kneel down here.”
“Let the whole world kneel down here,” says the spirit, and the audience follows suit.
At the following Station, Marmeldook ponders what Mary must be thinking as she holds her son’s body as, in the background, the “Ave Maria” plays. During a recent presentation at St. Ambrose Church in Latham, the church was silent except for the sound of an elderly woman blowing her nose, moved to tears.
The idea for the clowns’ Way of the Cross is controversial, and the group has encountered some criticism over the years. A recent presentation at St. Paul’s Church in Rock City Falls (a mission of St. Joseph’s in Greenfield Center) was besieged by the media after a single protester asked Catholics to picket there.
However, the Abletts noted that those who come to the clowns’ presentation find they have nothing to protest. “If that gentleman [who protested] had come, he would have realized this is not a fun thing,” Mr. Ablett explained.
The group shrugs off any criticism. “I feel we’re doing the Lord’s work, and the Lord will protect us,” Mrs. Ablett declared.
As a matter of fact, the pair noted, one man leaving St. Paul’s after their “controversial” presentation was quoted as saying tearfully, “May God forgive me if I had not come tonight….I did not want to come.”
The performers remain devoted to taking part in the Way of the Cross. “I wanted to go to Florida this year, but we hang around in the winter just to do this,” said Mr. Ablett with a smile. “It’s the love of it, I guess.”
Their audience seemed to agree. After the performance at St. Ambrose, one parishioner said with some embarrassment, “It’s the first time I ever paid attention to the Stations of the Cross!”
Everyone seemed to take to heart the message that ends the clowns’ presentation. The spirit says to Marmeldook: “Go now, and be of good cheer.”
Did you notice the line is the second article about many of the churches where they perform not having stations of the cross? I have been fortunate to have never seen a Catholic church without stations of the cross on the walls.