I thought you all might enjoy this Shakespeare-based homily that I’m preaching for my long-suffering parishioners this weekend. Full disclosure, I stole a lot from Chesterton. If you’re interested in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is a truly fascinating holiday, Jonathan McDonald’s piece is well worth reading.
Today is the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He, along with the Blessed Virgin, is the only saint whose actual birthday we celebrate. The other saints are all celebrated on the anniversary of their death. John’s birth was miraculous, though, and closely connected with that of Christ. The Scriptures tell us that John was six months older than his cousin Jesus, so you always know that on the Nativity of St. John, Christmas is only six months away. Start making your wish list for all the toys you want.
This day also occurs very near the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. It’s the subject of Shakespeare’s great play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the events of that play occur on the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John. The plot for that play is fairly simple: a group of normal, sane people meet some fairies and things get funny.
G.K. Chesterton says it’s a study of a spirit that unites mankind. “The sentiment of such a play,” he says, “can be summed up in one sentence. It is the mysticism of happiness.” What he means is that, in life, we should never forget that we live in a borderland in which we may find ourselves very quickly and easily in a heavenly atmosphere, not only through being serious and profound but also by being extravagantly happy.
In the Catholic Church, one of the things I appreciate is that we do know how to talk about sorrow and how to find God through suffering. Let me tell you, I have visited people in the nursing home, and I encounter them when they’re in a very difficult phase of life. In the midst of physical weakness and limitation, they are struggling to recollect their lives, to remember who they once were but understanding that they are losing the battle with each passing day. They know they are leaving pieces of themselves behind and as we talk they cry. These moments are profoundly heartbreaking and I don’t know how anyone could handle them if we didn’t know that Christ suffers right along with us, and that through suffering the spirit can be strengthened. It is very important that we see how God is at work even in our darkest moments.
But what about happiness? We all want to be happy, but it’s almost as if, when we are we can’t help but feel guilty about it. Like we’re doing something wrong, or we don’t deserve it, or it isn’t the most spiritual way to live. This may sound way too simple, but God wants you to be happy. The saints are happy, and even when the Church is penitential and serious, she is happy.
Chesterton claims that people misunderstand Shakespeare’s comedies because they are themselves so profoundly unhappy. They believe that religion must be dour and serious and puritan. But happiness, true happiness, points us to a very important fact. The happiness of this life is a participation in the happiness of the life to come.
That is perhaps where the misunderstanding comes from. Happiness is not a frivolity that distracts us from heaven. It is a gift from God to lead us to heaven. Take joy in your life, your children, your family, your friends, your hobbies. Take a vacation, drink good coffee, go to a play, this is the joy of the saints. St. Francis de Sales says, “A sad saint would be a sorry saint.”
Because happiness comes from heaven, we find it by diving deeper and deeper into the life of faith. This is Shakespeare’s whole point with Midsummer Night’s Dream, that when heavenly happiness overtakes us we are drawn more and more into the life of the world to come. I think that, when we look at American society right now, we see a lot of sad people who have rejected God. They are bitter, and depressed, and lost. Our celebrities seem profoundly unhappy, our politicians spend all their time bickering, suicide rates are epidemic, divorce and loneliness are destroying the lives of so many. In chasing a false happiness that pulls them away from heaven, they have been misled and cheated out of the joyful life that every person deserves.
For us to be happy, we must re-integrate our faith with our daily lives, to see that both the natural world and the supernatural world are intertwined, that both are real.
John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and God must increase.” John is the waning of the old light, Jesus is the rising sun. From here on the days grow shorter as John decreases until right at Christmas and the birth of Christ when the light begins to increase. This eclipse of his own personality made John profoundly happy, because in it he was able to leave behind earthly concerns and seek out a heavenly reality. The only way to discover your purpose in life is to reflect the light of your creator. This is how we are drawn into the communion of saints and find that each one of us is a lamp burning brightly.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s the sound of little feet and elves peek into a normal, human house. “Suppose we are the realities and they the shadows,” they wonder. When it comes to earth or heaven, which is real? Maybe it’s both. This is the sacramental reality, to inhabit the borderland where God’s grace infuses every part of our lives and draws us steadily onwards to true happiness.