This past semester at Aquinas College in Nashville, I have had the joy of teaching a whole course on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. A few weeks ago we were discussing the moral dilemma faced by Frodo and Sam when, on separate occasions, in order to avoid the accursed Ring being captured by the Enemy, they choose to put it on, a thing to be avoided at (almost) all costs. I tell my students that this choice presents us with a moral dilemma because it seems that the hobbits are putting on the Ring (an evil act) to prevent the Ring from being taken by the Enemy (an evil consequence that will follow if the evil act is not committed). What, I asked my students, should we do if we find ourselves facing a choice between two evils? In answer, one of my students quipped that Americans face such a choice every four years. The class laughed heartily, as did I.
It was a witty comment, to be sure, but why, I wonder, did we all find such a tragic truth about our present pseudo-democracy so funny? Why is it hilarious that we are presented with a conjurer’s trick every election enabling us to choose, once the preliminary circus and shenanigans are over, between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber? Shouldn’t we be crying, rather than laughing, at such a pathetic state of affairs? The answer to such a question is to be found in the presence of irony, specifically in the ironic distance that exists between the high ideal of democracy to which we all in theory subscribe and its absolute absence in the form of it we actually experience.
The delightful paradox is that comedy often expresses and exposes a tragedy, exorcising its evil from our hearts and thereby sanctifying the very tragedy itself through the presence of the ironic comedy. We laugh at the evil we see and thereby somehow conquer it.
Surprisingly perhaps, there is something of the spirit of Christmas in this paradox. The joy and laughter at the birth of the Baby is all the more delightful because it delivers us from evil. The innocence makes us laugh because it delivers us from guilt. The babe taken up in the arms of His Mother brings us joy because He takes up arms against the Devil. The smallness of the Child delights us because his smallness defeats the greatness of the World. The joy and laughter help us make sense of the suffering and tears. The levitas lightens and enlightens the gravitas. It was, for instance, not merely for laughs that Chesterton tells us that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly whereas the Devil fell because of the force of his own gravity. With this spark of epigrammatic brilliance, Chesterton makes the crucial connection between humour and humility. Angels and saints can laugh at the Devil, whereas the Devil can only vent his fury at the angels and saints. The Devil takes himself too seriously to get the joke.
We have laugher in our hearts and joy in our souls at Christmastime because the Divine Comedy makes sense of the Infernal Tragedy and is its antidote, dispelling the poison of pride with the humour of humility. It’s all too good not to be true! Or, as Chesterton says, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds but in the best of all impossible worlds.
If this is so, why are we not walking around with a permanent smile on our faces? Why do we spend so much of our time bemoaning our lot in life and bewailing the state of the world? Why do we ignore the candle and see only the darkness surrounding it? Why doesn’t the joy of Christmas and the laughter on the lips of the Christ Child and the delight in the heart of His Mother keep us in a state of perpetual contentment?
The answer is that Christmas is not enough. Birth is not enough. Being loved, as a baby is loved, is not enough. The Baby is not merely born to live. He is also born to die. Enshrined and enshrouded in his nativity is His mortality. The Comedy of birth points to the tragedy of death. To live is to die because to love is to die, the latter being a dying to self for the good of the other. And yet, and here’s another delightful paradox, the refusal to love is a refusal to live. Living and loving are synonymous. Therefore, paradoxically, living and dying are mystically synonymous. Bethlehem points to Golgotha. The Manger points to the Cross.
As we had no choice about being born, so we have no choice about having to die. Like Frodo and Sam, we face a choice between two evils. They are the two evils that are placed either side of the Cross of Christ. They are the evil cross of death on which the good thief hangs, and the evil cross of death on which the bad thief hangs. Dismas or despair? We have no choice but to bear our crosses, as Frodo and Sam had no real choice but to bear the Ring. We must bear them on the via dolorosa, which is our life’s journey, to our own particular Mount Doom or Golgotha, which is our own particular death at journey’s end.
It is true that to choose to bear the Ring, or the Cross, is to choose suffering, but the paradox is that the hobbits would not have escaped from suffering if they had cast the Ring away. Its power would still be on them. Similarly, if we choose to cast of the yoke of our own crosses, those given to us, we will only replace them with heavier and worse crosses, those we give to ourselves.
The joy of Bethlehem points through purgatorial sorrow to the glory of paradise. This is why the Comedy of Christmas brings laughter, even in this vale of tears and its veil of fears. It sees the life in death, the life after death, and, joy of joys, the Life, born in Bethlehem, that puts an end to Death in the Love-Life of the Resurrection. May the Babe of Bethlehem be praised in the Name and Glory of the Resurrected Christ!
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