Christmas in June.
Okay first off, my wife Amanda launched her blog yesterday, and it is unbelievably good. Feel free to ignore me and click here right now–you won’t be disappointed.
This is the third and final post inspired by my recent reading of Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable. As my honest and good friends have told me these last few days, they both really liked them and found them to be, um, less than accessible. I hear that. My general policy is that if I keep it interesting for me, hopefully it will be interesting for you. As a person who operates under an almost brutal desire to get the language right in a weekend sermon, I hope to use the blog for thoughts that are more unfinished, more in process–life between sermons (if such a thing exists). But I do also hope to offer some thoughts in the coming days that will be a little bit shorter, a little bit more practical, and perhaps a little bit less essay-ish. Either way, thanks for your indulgence–I’m clearly having a good time, at least.
Today I wanted to pass along an actual essay from Merton’s book, my favorite on the whole (not surprising, since it really is more of a sermon, I think). I hope I’m not violating any sort of copyright blah-blah-blah–my hope would be that in passing along one short piece it would make you interested in the others, a point I will happily make if people from the Merton estate come after me with guns (after I point out the irony that Merton people would come after anyone with guns). Alongside Frederick Buechner’s “The Birth” from his collected sermons in The Magnificent Defeat, it’s the most moving reflection on the Christmas narrative I can recall. And of course being in the midst of teaching Revelation right now, I certainly took note of his excellent use of John’s apocalypse here. I found it to be both prophetic and powerful. I hope you enjoy!
The Time of the End is the Time of No Room
Merton’s Note: In its Biblical sense, the expression, “The End” does not necessarily mean only the “violent, sudden bad end.” Biblical eschatology must not be confused with the vague and anxious eschatology of human foreboding. We live in an age of two superimposed eschatologies: that of secular anxieties and hopes, and that of revealed fulfillment. Sometimes the first is merely mistaken for the second, and sometimes it results from the complete denial and despair of the second. In point of fact the pathological fear of the violent end which, when sufficiently aroused, actually becomes a thinly disguised hope for the violent end, provides something of the climate of confusion and despair in which the more profound hopes of Biblical eschatology are realized- for everyone is forced to confront the possibility, and to accept or reject them. This definitive confrontation is precisely what Biblical eschatology announces to us. In speaking of “the time of the End,” we should be clear that for the author, there is no question of prognostication or Apocalypse- only a sober statement about the climate of our time, a time of finality and of fulfillment.
When the perfect and ultimate message, the joy which is The Great Joy, explodes silently upon the world, there is no longer any room for sadness. Therefore no circumstance in the Christmas Gospel. however trivial it may seem, is to be left out of The Great Joy. In the special and heavenly light which shines around the coming of the Word into the world, all ordinary things are transfigured. In the mystery of Peace which is proclaimed to a world that cannot believe in peace, a world of suspicion, hatred and distrust, even the rejection of the Prince of Peace takes on something of the color and atmosphere of peace.
So there was no room at the inn? True! But that is simply the mentioned in passing, in a matter of fact sort of way, as the Evangelist points to what he really meant us to see- the picture of pure peace, pure joy: “She wrapped her first born Son in swaddling clothes and laid him in the manger” (Luke 2:7). By now we know it well, and yet we all might still be questioning it- except that a reason was given for an act that might otherwise have seemed strange: “there was no room for them at the inn.” Well, then, they obviously found some other place!
But when we read the Gospels and come to know them thoroughly, we realize there are other reasons why it was necessary that there be no room at the inn, and why there had to be some other place. In fact, the inn was the last place in the world for the birth of the Lord.
The Evangelists, preparing us for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come. Now is the time of final decision, the time of mercy, the “acceptable time,” the time of settlement, the time of the end. It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come. But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world. The time of the end is the time of massed armies, “wars and rumors of wars,” of huge crowds moving this way and that, of “men withering away for fear”, of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction. The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty. Yet it is heard by those who are aware that the display of power, hubris and destruction is part of the kerygma. That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power. Thus it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with a sign of power, aligned with power, and destroyed with it.
Why then was the inn crowded? Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the “whole world” in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power. The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.
The Bible had not been friendly to a census in the days when God was the ruler of Israel ( 2 Samuel 24). The numbering of the people of God by an alien emperor and their full consent to it was itself an eschatological sign, preparing those who could understand it to meet judgment with repentance. After all, in the Apocalyptic literature of the Bible, this “summoning together” or convocation of the powers of the earth to do battle is the great sign of “the end.” For then, “the demon spirits that work wonders go out to the Kings all over the world to muster then for battle on the great Day of God Almighty” (Revelation 16:14). And “the Beasts and the Kings of the earth and their armies gathered to make war upon him who was mounted on the horse and his army” (Revelation 19:19). Then all the birds of prey gather from all sides in response to the angel’s cry: “Gather for God’s great banquet, and eat the bodies of Kings, commanders and mighty men, of horses and their riders…” (Revelation 19:18).
It was therefore impossible that the Word should lose Himself by being born into shapeless and passive mass. He had indeed emptied Himself, taken the form of God’s servant, man. But he did not empty Himself to the point of becoming mass man, faceless man. It was therefore right that there should be no room for him in a crowd that had been called together as an eschatological sign. That there was no room for Him is a sign of the end.
Nor are the tidings of great joy announced in the crowded inn. In the massed crowd there are always new tidings of joy and disaster. Where each new announcement is the greatest of announcements, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare, every day’s danger demands the ultimate sacrifice, all news and all judgment is reduced to zero. News becomes merely a new noise that went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and meaningless rumor. News? There is so much news that there is no room left the true tidings, the “Good News,” The Great Joy.
Even though, “the whole world” is ordered to be inscribed, they do not seem to be affected. Doubtless they have registered, as Joseph and Mary will register, but they remain outside the agitation, and untouched by the vast movement, the massing of hundreds of thousands of people everywhere in the towns and cities.
They are therefore quite otherwise signed. They are designated, surrounded by a great light, they receive the message of The Great Joy, and they believe it with joy. They see the Shekinah over them, recognize themselves for what they are. They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen- the anawim. And they obey the light. Nor was anything else asked of them.
They go and they see not a prophet, not a spirit, but the Flesh in which the glory of the Lord will be revealed and by which all men will be delivered from the power that is in the world, the power that seeks to destroy the world because the world is God’s creation, the power that mimics creation, and in doing so, pillages and exhausts the resources of a bounteous God-given earth.
We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power, and acceleration.
The primordial blessing, “increase and multiply,” has suddenly become a hemorrhage of terror. We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, numbered, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by the information, drugged by entertainment, surfeited with everything, nauseated with the human race and with ourselves, nauseated with life.
As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.
As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.
In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.
Those that lament the fact that there is no room for God must also be called to account for this. Have they perhaps added to the general crush by preaching a solid marble God that makes man alien to himself, a God that settles himself grimly like an implacable object in the inner heart of man and drives man out of himself in despair?
The time of the end is the time of demons who occupy the heart (pretending to be gods) so that man himself finds no room for himself in himself. He finds no space to rest in his own heart, not because it is full, but because it is void. Yet if he knew that the void itself, when hovered over by the Spirit, is an abyss of creativity…. He cannot believe it. There is no room for belief.
There is no room for him in the massed crowds of the eschatological society, the society of the end, in which all those for whom there is no room are thrown together, thrust, pitched out bodily into a whirlpool of empty forms, human specters, swirling aimlessly through their cities, all wishing they had never been born.
In the time of the end there is no longer room for the desire to go on living. The time of the end is the time when men call upon the mountains to fall upon them, because they wish they did not exist.
Why? Because they are part of a proliferation of life that is not fully alive, it is programmed for death. A life that has not been chosen, and can hardly be accepted, has no more room for hope. Yet it must pretend to go on hoping. It is haunted by the demon of emptiness. And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs, the concentration camps, the race riots, the racist murders, and all the other crimes of mass society.
Is this pessimism? Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody else really feels? Is it pessimism to diagnose cancer as cancer? Or should one simply go on pretending that everything is getting better every day, because the time of the end is also- for some at any rate- the time of great prosperity? (“The Kings of the earth have joined in her idolatry and the traders of the earth have grown rich from her excessive luxury” (Revelation 18:3).
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for who there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.
For those who are stubborn enough, devoted enough to power, there remains this last apocalyptic myth of machinery propagating its own kind in the eschatological wilderness of space- while on earth the bombs make room!
But the other: they remain imprisoned in other hopes, and in more pedestrian despairs, despairs and hopes which are held down to earth, down to street level, and to the pavement only: desire to be at least half-human, to taste a little human joy, to do a fairly decent job, to do a fairly decent job of productive work, to come home to the family….desires for which there is no room. It is in these that He hides Himself, for whom there is no room.
The time of the end? All right: when?
That is not the question.
To say it is the time of the end is to answer all the questions, for if it is the time of the end, and of great tribulation, then it is certainly and above all the time of The Great Joy. It is the time to “lift up your heads for your redemption is at hand.” It is the time when the promise will be manifestly fulfilled, and no longer kept secret from anyone. It is the time for the joy that is given not as the world gives, and that no man can take away.
For the true eschatological banquet is not that of the birds on the bodies of the slain. It is the feast of the living, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. The true eschatological convocation is not the crowding of armies on the field of battle, but the summons of The Great Joy, the cry of deliverance: “Come out of her my people that you may not share in her sins and suffer from her plagues!” (Revelation 18:4). The cry of the time of the end was uttered also in the beginning by Lot in Sodom, to his sons-in-laws: “Come, get out of this city, for the Lord will destroy it. But he seemed to them to be jesting” (Genesis 19:14).
To leave the city of death and imprisonment is surely not bad news except to those who have so identified themselves with their captivity that they can conceive no other reality and no other condition. In such a case, there is nothing but tribulation: for while to stay in captivity is tragic, to break away from it is unthinkable- and so more tragic still.
What is needed then is the grace and courage to see that to see that “The Great Tribulation” and “The Great Joy” are really inseparable, and that the “Tribulation” becomes “Joy” when it is seen as the Victory of Life over Death.
True, there is a sense in which there is no room for Joy in this tribulation. To say there is “no room” for The Great Joy in the tribulation of “the end” is to say that the Evangelical joy must not be confused with the joys proposed by the world in the time of the end- and, we must admit it, these are no longer convincing as joys. They become now stoic duties and sacrifices to be offered without question for ends that cannot be descried just now, since there is too much smoke and the visibility is rather poor. In the last analysis, the “joy” proposed by the time of the end is simply the satisfaction and the relief of getting it all over with….
That is the demonic temptation of “the end.” For eschactology is not finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.
But can we believe it? (“He seemed to them to be jesting!”)