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 searched for a half an hour. Nothing. It was getting close to 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 simple piety and his desire for another shot of whiskey. We laugh - or at least smile - because we recognize similar contradictory things 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 in time. God - a simple, unchangeable spirit - takes on corruptible human flesh. 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 Chesterton said that Christianity is based on a joke, he does not mean that it is a made up story. No, it is a true story, based on real historical events, but the story involves the bringing together of opposites in a surprising, unexpected way. In order to be a Christian, a person needs a sense of humor. You can define a sense of humor as the ability to see through things, to get the point.

Now, I admit I don't have the greatest sense of humor. Sometimes other people are laughing and I am scratching my head trying to figure out what is so funny. Still, I hope that I can get the point behind Christmas. If I don't, it is not God's fault. He made the world transparent. But you and I need a sense of humor, that ability to see the reality behind visible things.

For some people a mountain is just a mountain and a sunset is just a sunset. They are content to analyze them as natural phenomena. But, really, there is a lot more to a mountain or a sunset! They can speak to us of beauty, majesty and glory - if we have a sense of poetry, which is first cousin to a sense of humor.

God created the world as a sort of jest. He does not *need* the world. In the same way, a joke or a jest is never strictly necessary - but it is a very good thing. Christmas is greatest jest of all. God did not need to become a man in order to save us, but what a beautiful jest it is!

If Christmas can make us laugh - or at least smile, we can start to see our own lives differently. We can laugh at ourselves and not take things so seriously. Last summer, when he was interviewed on German television, Pope Benedict talked about the importance of a sense of humor. During the interview the Holy Father made this this comment: "Humour 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 don't take themselves too heavy and seriously."

A girl from New York gave a lovely testimony to this. **Her name is Dawn Eden and she has written a remarkable book called The Thrill of the Chaste. The word is not "chase" as in pursuing someone, but "chaste", c-h-a-s-t-e, which refers to the reverence a person has for the gift of sexuality. The author is far from being Little Miss Muffet; Dawn is a thirty-something woman with a career in journalism. She quite honestly describes how in her twenties she used sex to try to escape loneliness, always hoping to hold a man long enough so they would become committed to each other. It did not work. It only brought her greater loneliness and cynicism. Dawn tells how she began to feel the world was a bitter joke and the joke was on her.

Brought up in a nominally Jewish home, Dawn had become an agnostic. Still, she was interested in the most famous Jew - Jesus. She had read the Gospels and considered him a good person. In October of 1999 everything changed - she recognized that Jesus was more than a man; he is truly God's Son. From that point her world became different. She realized that to follow Jesus meant she had to try to live what he said about the sacredness of sex. In her book The Thrill of the Chaste, she humorously and poignantly describes the challenge of living Jesus' words. She admits there is still loneliness and frustration, but it is different. Here is how she puts it:**

"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 is indeed a joke - and I'm in on it."

I think Dawn has captured some of the humor that Pope Benedict talked about. To see our lives as God's joke should make us smile - especially when we realize he wants us to be in on the joke.

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 come near 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.


**Note for fellow homilists: For the Children's Christmas Mass you might want to replace the part inside the ** with this:

A girl from New York gave a lovely testimony to this. Her name is Dawn Eden. She was brought up in a nominally Jewish home and 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. Dawn has written a poignant book about her experiences trying to live Jesus' teachings. The book is titled The Thrill of the Chaste. In it she admits she still sometimes feels lonely and frustrated, but now it is different. This is what she said:

Spanish 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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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...

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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Report on Diego's operations - with pictures (pdf file)

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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