As a mother, I’m often on the lookout for books that capture ideas in ways that children can immediately apprehend. I’ve found few books that capture the idea of vocation–its joys and burdens, its brilliant light and its darker shadows–than Tomie DePaola’s The Clown of God, a retelling of an old French tale set in DePaola’s illustrated Renaissance Italy.
The story introduces a poor orphan who is a capable juggler and survives by begging. He eventually manages to get hired onto a traveling troupe, and, donning the white makeup of a clown, brings pleasure to ever-increasing numbers of people, including ones great and powerful, with his magnificent performances. His signature act is juggling a collection of rainbow-colored balls, adding color after color, until the final, golden ball — “The Sun in the Heavens” — soars with the rest.
One afternoon, at the height of his fame, Giovanni meets two Franciscan monks along the road who tell him that his work is the work of God, which Giovanni doesn’t really seem to take to heart.
Giovanni ages, as does his capacity to enthrall the crowds. Diminished to the rags and dependency of his youth, Giovanni returns to his home town and ducks inside a church. It is Christmas Eve, and the church is packed with people bringing gifts to the Christ child, who is depicted as a rather somber statue. Giovanni decides to perform his signature act for the dour-faced statue, and this time, his performance is enriched by worship, even if the juggling routine is the same.
I will not tell the rest of the story here, lest I spoil the ending for those who may not be familiar with it. The below link is a lovely 10-minute film of the story book, with the text of the book and DePaola’s rich illustrations quietly animated:
That Giovanni’s tale finds its denouement at Christmastime is fitting. The gift Giovanni brings to Jesus is a gift that Jesus once gave to him, and Giovanni’s gift finds it true rest — its best expression — when it is performed for Jesus and finally placed in his hands. Giovanni finds his true rest there as well. All along, Jesus was the audience that Giovanni longed to please.
All Advent we have been journeying, like magi, driven with longing for this King, the God-Man who arrived newborn, fragile, and dependent. We bring him our gifts; we bring him ourselves, dressed as we are in the costumes of our occupations, adorned with hope and fear.
Our Savior has come; come, let us adore him.