Speak of the Devil: an Easter homily

3PictureThreeBearsThree bears talk about someone over three bowls, three chairs, and three beds, and the perpetrator herself shows up in the last bed. This dramatic irony, along with the literary rule of three, seems to hold the many iterations of the famous fairy tale together. So far, so good. But after the bears discover the girl (or in some versions, the old woman) in the third bed, the iterations go their separate ways. She runs through the woods, gets rescued by her mom, or gets impaled on a steeple. She could fly to the moon, for all we care. Ultimately, it’s the irony that counts – the discovery of the anecdote’s subject in bed mid-anecdote. The Three Bears demonstrates that reality intrudes on anecdote or, conversely, that anecdote invokes reality.

The idiom “speak of the Devil” speaks of the former, I think. A friend walks in while we’re talking about him: reality intrudes on anecdote. It’s one of life’s stock ironies. But in the past, “speak of the Devil” spoke of the latter. Our current idiom is short for the medieval adage “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Because anecdote can invoke reality, adherents of this superstition tried not to mention you-know-who.

Three witches, courtesy of you-know-who, invoke Macbeth much as the bears’ conversation invokes Goldilocks. They even employ the three bears’ three-times-three:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm’s wound up. (1.3.33 – 35)

This “wound up,” or fully prepared, charm bears out our adage more than our idiom since the charm purports to summon its object. As soon as the witches say it, in walks Macbeth for the first time. The witches seem to have anticipated even Macbeth’s first words, which reflect the witches’ earlier “foul is fair” irony: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36).

At least three Bible stories feature someone walking in on an anecdote about him or her. (I’m using “anecdote” not only in the sense of a story but also in the sense of a story in a story, such as Pilar’s anecdotes in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov.) The least complicated of the three may be the first in time: Elisha’s servant is regaling the king with stories about his master’s exploits, one of which involves a woman whose young son the prophet has raised from the dead. In the middle of his anecdote, she and her son walk in. Speak of the Devil. Based on this irony, presumably, the king grants the woman’s request to have her land restored (2 Kings 8:1 – 8). Even a king will honor irony’s authority.

The second story, from the book of Esther, is juicier because the irony’s doubled, maybe tripled. Haman walks in on a conversation between the king and his attendant, who have been discussing whether any honor has been done to Mordecai, the Jew, who stopped an assassination attempt on the king. None, O king.

The king asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, thinking he has interrupted a conversation about himself, suggests that the king have a high official lead the honoree over the capital’s streets. Haman has come to the king for permission to hang Mordecai, but he ends up lugging Mordecai around the city instead. And that rule of three again: Mordecai is wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, and is crowned with the king’s diadem (Esther 6:1 – 11).

From Haman’s perspective, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Anecdotes, then, can turn out to be examinations of how they may involve the reader or hearer. Haman’s ironic misreading reminds one of Carly Simon’s telescoping refrain: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The subject of You’re So Vain is, and is not, its subject. A story about reality intruding on a story can, perhaps, have it both ways. Certainly a story about reality intruding on a story suggests that a “real reality” may come tearing through the paper at any moment.

And maybe the invocatory power of narrative explains the universality of the “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear” adage. Heinz-like, Wikipedia lists fifty-seven varieties of the adage. Each variety is from a different culture and in a different language or dialect. In these adages, the Devil isn’t always the Devil; he might be a donkey or a wolf or even a child, acknowledged now to be legitimate thanks to her incursion into her own story’s telling.

My favorite’s the Yiddish, the last language of this alphabetized list. I like how the Yiddish version combines irony with Esther-like disparagement. It’s best introduced here with a phony anecdote about an anecdote. Imagine Ida and Martin Morgenstern of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame discussing their daughter Rhoda. In walks Rhoda. Her parents, seated, turn their heads to her, and then back to each other. Ida says, “Eh, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.”

Which brings me to my third, and last, subject-bites-story Bible story. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are Jesus’ disciples, and they are sad. He was crucified. He failed to liberate Israel. Their women said they saw a vision of angels, who had said he was alive.

As they talk about this, Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus. They catch him up on their conversation.

“How dull you are!” he answers. “Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26, REB).

So foul and fair a day they have not seen.

For the remaining miles, he talks about the scriptures that refer to him. They reach Emmaus, he makes as if to go on, but they beg him to stick around for supper. He breaks the bread, blesses it, and they finally recognize him. He immediately disappears, and they immediately return to Jerusalem.

But wait: this subject-bites-story story morphs into a subject-bites-the-subject-bites-story story. Back in Jerusalem, the two men tell the other disciples about how Jesus “had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As they do, “there he was, standing among them” (Luke 24:35 – 36). Jesus walks in on a story about Jesus walking in on a story about Jesus.

This kind of insistence on the present is the message of Easter. The gospel’s implied third interruption is always now. Anecdote invokes reality, and reality intrudes on anecdote.

When we break bread together, Jesus walks in on our anecdote. Here’s Jesus’ own version of the “speak of the Devil” adage: “For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, REB).

Indeed, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.

Easter is many Christians’ second Passover – the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, after all – during which they prepare a place at the table for Elijah, just in case this year he comes.

Who’s at the door?

Couldn’t resist. Happy Easter.


The illustration is by Peter Newell and is found in Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907. The painting is Caravaggio’s Cena in Emmaus.


  1. Thank you Peter for this. Most interesting. If memory serves, isn’t this ‘rule of three’ linked to synchronicity? Much there is that moves in the deeps.

  2. I guess Jung explained what was always going on with the rule of three, with the bards, storytellers, and writers speaking for the collective unconscious. I had never associated the rule of three with Jung, but it’s helpful for me. “Much there is that moves in the deeps” – yes!

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