That Sacred Jest

(Homily for Christmas)

Bottom line: A jest (joke) is the bringing together of opposites in an expected way. Christmas is the greatest jest and God wants us to be in on it.

Merry Christmas! Don't be afraid to say it.. Merry Christmas!

The story is told about a priest who spent weeks preparing his Christmas homily. By Christmas eve he had it carefully written out. But the priest was nervous and - as was his custom - he took a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves. Well, this Christmas homily was a big one, so he took a second shot, and a third. He went into his bedroom to get dressed and when he came back to his study, the priest could not find the text of his homily. He began searching in all the desk drawers and shelves, but it was nowhere in sight. He even went through the waste paper basket. After searching for half an hour, he became frantic. It was time for the Christmas eve Mass. He knew he could not give the homily without the text in front of him. Finally, in desperation the priest lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed, "Lord, help me find my homily. If you do, I will never drink another drop of whiskey." When he looked down, there, right in front of him - as if by a miracle - he saw the homily. He lifted his eyes back up to heaven and said, "Never mind, Lord. I found it myself."

Now, I won't tell you if that priest was me...but I wanted to begin with a humorous story because it ties in with the theme of this Christmas homily. The English writer, G.K. Chesterton referred to Christmas as a "sacred jest." A jest is a quick, playful joke. A joke involves bringing opposites together in an unexpected way. The little story, which I told, contained the contradiction between the priest's eagerness to receive something from God, but his hesitation to give anything up. We laugh - or at least smile - because we recognize similar contradictions inside ourselves.

Christmas brings together the greatest of all opposites: God, who surrenders his power to become a helpless infant. The One who lives in the freedom of eternity binds himself to a specific time and place. God - a simple, unchangeable spirit - takes on corruptible human flesh. And, as we hear in our Scripture readings, He who is pure light has entered our world of darkness and gloom - to bring us hope and joy. This is greatest jest of all. Chesterton expressed it in a memorable rhyme:

And on that sacred jest
the whole of Christianity doth rest.

When we say Christmas is a jest or a joke, it requires some explanation. We are used to bad jokes, jokes that offend or hurt others. When we say that something is joke, we are usually referring to bad jokes. But there are also jokes that are healthy and good, jokes which not only make us laugh, but also make us feel good about ourselves and others. Christmas is that kind of joke or, as Chesterton calls it, a sacred jest.

Like a game, a joke is never necessary in a strict sense. Unlike food or shelter, a person can live without ever laughing at a joke. (It is difficult, but judging by their faces, it seems like some people have never laughed at joke.) Well, even though a joke isn't strictly necessary, it can be a very good thing. In the same way God did not need to create the world, but he did - and he pronounced it good. Likewise, in order to save us, God did not need to become a tiny baby, but he did - and the angels sang, Glory to God in the highest.

To be a Christian requires a certain sense of humor. We have to be able to see the oddness in our world - and in our own lives. And to laugh or at least smile at our existence. Pope Benedict spoke about this when he was interviewed on television last summer. During the interview the Holy Father made this this comment: "Humor is very important to me. I'm not one for making many jokes, but life shouldn't be taken too seriously. There is an old saying: angels can fly because they know how to take themselves lightly."

If Christmas can cause us to laugh, or at least smile, we are on our way to making sense out of our lives. Last week I read a book which helped me smile about life. The book is called The Thrill of the Chaste. It was written by a young woman from New York named Dawn Eden. She was brought up aware that she had a Jewish heritage, but later became an agnostic. Still, she was interested in the most famous Jew of all - Jesus. She had read the Gospels and considered him a good person, but in October of 1999 everything changed. She recognized that Jesus is more than a mere man; he is truly God's Son. In her book Dawn describes her experiences trying to live Jesus' teachings. She admits she still sometimes feels lonely and frustrated, but now it is different. Here is what she said:

"I've realized that there is a difference between the loneliness and frustration I feel now and the kind I felt from my teens through my early thirties, before I had faith. Back then, I believed that life was a joke, and the joke was on me. Now, I realize that life as a chaste single woman is indeed a joke - and I'm in on it."

What a difference! Dawn is saying that by taking that step of faith (by God's grace) a person can see their life differently. I'd like to recommend the book to you. I explain more in the bulletin. I can't say more here because it is not a book for children, but for adults. I think Dawn has captured some of the humor that Pope Benedict talked about. Our lives are a divine jest - not a bad joke, not a joke on us, but a jest that God wants us to understand. He wants us to be in on the jest, to get the punch line. There is only one way we can get the punch line: by doing what Dawn Eden and countless others have done, by making the leap of faith.

Tonight we celebrate the most delightful joke of all, the sacred jest of Christmas. I believe you and I want to be in on it. We want to get the punch line, to know the purpose of our lives. As we approach the manger, why don't we ask him for a good sense of humor - the ability to see the point, to take part in that sacred jest? I invite you to come to Bethlehem to laugh - or at least to smile - before the Infant God.

To help us have that smile, that inner joy, I would like to conclude with a Christmas poem written by G.K. Chesterton. It describes how God became homeless so that you and I might find our true home in him:

    There fared a mother driven forth
    Out of an inn to roam;
    In the place where she was homeless
    All men are at home.
    The crazy stable close at hand,
    With shaking timber and shifting sand,
    Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
    Than the square stones of Rome.

    For men are homesick in their homes,
    And strangers under the sun,
    And they lay their heads in a foreign land
    Whenever the day is done...

    To an open house in the evening
    Home shall all men come,
    To an older place than Eden
    And a taller town than Rome.
    To the end of the way of the wandering star,
    To the things that cannot be and that are,
    To the place where God was homeless
    And all men are at home.

**********

Spanish Version

Earlier Version

From the archives (Christmas Homilies):

2014: There is More
2013: Forgiving God
2012: Why Jesus Was Born
2011: The Gift of Freedom
2010: Let Him Come In
2009: When We Were Gone Astray
2008: The Tiny Footsteps of Jesus
2007: No More Fear and Hiding
2006: That Sacred Jest
2005: An Ivory Horn
2004: A Christmas Poem
2003: The Weakness of God
2002: The Word
2001: The Abundance of God
2000: I Am One of You Now
1999: Bigger on the Inside
1998: How to Receive a Gift
1997: Someone is Knocking at the Door
1996: The Gift We All Desire

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)

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Bulletin (35th Anniversary thank-you's, Simbang Gabi, Recommendations: Nativity Story and Thrill of the Chaste, Upcoming Events)

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Wonderful Christmas reflection from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

It is not a matter of revving ourselves up to experience again the wonder of the Christ Mass. There is no point in trying to recapitulate Christmas as you knew it when you were, say, seven years old. That way lies sentimentalities unbounded. The alternative is the way of contemplation, of demanding of oneself the disciplined quiet to explore, and be explored by, the astonishment of God become one of us that we may become one with God...

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Washington state priest brings natural family planning to Peru's highlands Catholic News Agency article about the Mary Bloom Center by Benjamin Mann

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