The lesson from Isaiah at Midnight Mass on Christmas reads, “Thou has increased their joy and given them great gladness.” I am often struck by the fact that in Christianity joy and gladness are not so much a product of our own activities but something much more, something that happens when all that the Greeks might have meant by “happiness” is already fully present. Joy, even the fullest, can be “increased,” while “great gladness” is not earned but given. However noble and worthy it is to “earn” something, and it is, however much we want our happiness to be precisely “ours,” not someone else’s, still the promise of Isaiah does not portend something we might have expected.
When Christianity applied these wondrous lines to the Incarnation of the Son of God, or rather, when Christianity came to understand that this joy and gladness are what was meant by the events in Bethlehem, we realize that here we had something we could not have had the slightest advanced notice about. Nevertheless here we have something that addresses what it is we really want if we could want it. Again, we realize that the roots of unbelief in Christianity are really not that it does not promise us enough, but rather that it promises us too much. We are, in truth, in our unbelief, sad and doubtful beings who turn away because we are given more than we desired.
A passage from the prologue to John’s Gospel, read at the mid-day Mass on Christmas, says that we shall receive “grace upon grace,” almost as if to hint that we have no real idea about what is really best for us. And it is just as well that we don’t, for otherwise we should undoubtedly choose something so much less than we are in fact given. We would think, in theory, that because we choose something, it is really, and for that very reason, better than something given to us, even if we too eventually have to choose what is given to us, grace upon grace. But it is not so. What is best is what is given to us, unexpectedly.
In my more playful moments, I have often thought that, among the intellectual journals, Mad magazine came closer to right intellectual order, to what is, than say Reason or Mind or Thought. Mad begins with the derangement of reason and laughs at it, in the name of reason, wild reason in Mad’s case. Chesterton was not too far away from the same sort of paradox when he pointed out that the mind which starts out to be completely and systematically natural, usually ends up, by itself, to be most unnatural. This result, Chesterton thought, was not a theoretical proposition, but just an observation of what intellectuals hold.
Actually, all of this sort of musing was occasioned by some lines in Saint Augustine’s City of God, which I came across the other day while preparing for class. The passage reads: “If proof is needed how much human nature loves to know and hates to be mistaken, recall that there is not a man who would not rather be sad but sane than glad but mad.” I am sure that Alfred E. Neuman and his friends at Mad would find Augustine a totally compatible character in this sentiment.
To be sure, it should be added that I read this passage out loud in class, to ask my ever amusing and good student Miss Kline whether she would prefer to be “sad but sane” or “glad but mad”? Naturally, to the delight of the class, she chose “mad but glad.” So we all laughed and proved Augustine’s paradox, for you cannot laugh at Miss Kline’s wit without seeing the truth of Augustine’s remark about what we really prefer.
Of course, there is a certain sadness to life, as Augustine often recounted. Yet, it is ultimately, gladness that we are about. In his autobiography, Josef Pieper recounted his first meeting as a young men with Romano Guardini. In 1920, or so, Pieper had gone to a kind of youth encampment in Berg Rothenfels. He wrote:
And then, primarily through getting to know Romano Guardini, we encountered a hitherto unsuspected dimension of spiritual reality and proceeded to seize hold of it with passionate intensity. We came to understand what a “sacred sign” is in reality, and that, beyond all the stifling crassness of moralistic and doctrinaire talk, something real takes place in the sacramental/cultic celebration of the mysteries, something that, otherwise, can only be spoken about.
At Christmas, what actually takes place in the Masses, the sacramental celebration, is real. The “reality” of this cultic event is itself the result of the Incarnation of the Son of God as a Child of Bethlehem.
This most unlikely Christmas event, then, suggests that our philosophies are sad because they are not sane enough. What Christmas contains is what we hope for, what it is we are given, the increase of joy, grace upon grace. Our gladness is, to the world, a kind of madness because the world cannot conceive what has been given through no invention or contribution of our own. “Madness” if you will, joy, saneness, as I prefer to call it, is the freedom and understanding to see that joy is indeed what we are for, in the highest things, in the depths of the Christmas mystery.
Editor’s note: this column originally appeared in the December 1987 issue of Crisis Magazine.