The “Greatest Show on Earth” closed its doors last Sunday. After 146 years of traipsing across the country on a mile-long train, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus offered its last show on Long Island. Financial woes and changing tastes in entertainment are assigned as the cause. Being the target of fervent animal rights protesters also took its toll. The company could no longer make enough money to support its 300 cast and crew members.
I remember being taken to see the circus at Madison Square Garden as a child. I was excited to buy a souvenir flashlight that was on a red plastic cord. When the lights went down, we all twirled our flashlights in the darkness to make a starry universe inside the Garden, a cosmos that was throbbing and close. I had been to see a few Broadway shows, but I had never seen anything like the circus. There were three rings with something spectacular happening in each ring. Wild animals, jugglers, dogs on ponies. Entranced, I wasn’t sure where to look. It was the Ringmaster that helped direct our eyes, drawing our attention to the next death-defying act. “And in the center ring, ladies and gentlemen…” As I got older I always enjoyed watching footage on the local news of the elephant walk from Queens where the train dropped them off through midtown Manhattan until they reached the Garden. It seemed impossible that these massive animals would walk in a line and willingly hold onto the tail of the elephant in front of them with its trunk, such a delicate connection between these graceful mammoths.
But now all of that is gone. Will it only live on in our cultural parlance? Will our children and grandchildren even know what we mean when we speak of “a big tent.” Will they realize that when someone says they “tossed their hat in the ring,” that ring belonged to the circus? Or “flying without a net” and “walking a tightrope?” And what about, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Even one of Stephen Sondheim’s most famous songs Send in the Clowns refers to the moment when an act has failed and only the clowns can come in to save the show!
Has ever something grabbed our hearts and minds like the circus? Well, maybe the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the story of God’s entering into human history as seen in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That is indeed a great story, worthy of our attention and imagination. But that was God and the circus was humans taming the untamed and attempting impossible feats. Even in the last show, two acrobats attempted a four-somersault jump, completed successfully only three times in the history of the circus. They were not able to do it on Sunday, but people rose to their feet as the pair embraced in the net. As humans, we need to keep bumping up against the impossible, because it keeps becoming real.
The last thing the ringmaster said to the audience on Sunday was this:
Ladies and Gentlemen, keep the circus alive inside you!