The readings today include apocalyptic sections of Daniel and Mark, so given the opening of this new film 2012 (which I have not seen, and don't particularly intend to see), I thought my reflection for today might bring those two together. Here goes...
Merry Christmas! I see that we already have a Christmas tree out in the lobby, but how many of you have seen Christmas decorations up at stores or heard Christmas music on the radio? I started hearing it before Halloween. According to this new movie 2012 the Mayans apparently say the end is coming in three years, and I think that by then, stores are going to start Christmas sales on the 4th of July. In the past few weeks, how many of you have said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, the semester is almost over!”? Personally, I don’t want it to be that close, because I have a lot of work to do between now and the end. We see something of that sense of anticipation this week in the readings: sun being darkened, stars falling, heavens and earth being shaken. In other words, the world as we know it is falling apart. We still have a few weeks to go before the end of the liturgical year, but we are already hearing readings that seem to be directly pointing at the end of things. The technical term for thinking about “the last things” is eschatology, so we might say that these readings are eschatological. Preachers throughout history have just loved these texts, usually pointing to current events to convince people that the end is almost here. War here, famine there, the end must be close. There have ALWAYS been wars and famines going on, I’m sad to say, so current events is not the best yardstick. Even the earliest generation of Christians seemed to believe pretty soundly that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, and it’s easy to see why from the content of the gospel: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Both the first reading and the gospel point to a select group who will endure the end: those whose names are written in the book, says the first, and the elect, says the gospel. Of course, people of all times have been at pains to show that they are among the elect, usually showing at the same time who is NOT among the elect. Some group took it upon themselves some years ago to calculate exactly what percentage of people are going to be condemned, and suffice it to say it’s pretty high, 87-point-something percent, if my memory serves. Anybody want to guess whether that group was in the 87 percent or the 13 percent?
What do we do with readings like this when, a couple of millennia after they were written, the end still hasn’t come? Well, there’s eschatology and then there’s eschatology. I did find it interesting that with all this buzz about this movie 2012 coming out this weekend, a professor of archaeology or some such thing pointed out that the Mayans didn’t see this as the end of the world, but the end of the age, the end of a particular arche, a particular power structure. That, I think, is the sense of what we see in this gospel; right around the time Mark’s gospel was written, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. For the Jews of that time, this was huge, the “end of the world,” rather like that country song after 9/11, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, or all those action scenes in the end-of-the-world movies that Hollywood keeps pumping out: the White House blowing up in Independence Day, the frozen Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow, the fall of the Eiffel Tower in G.I. Joe, and so on. The world looks different after this has happened, because what we thought was stable, sturdy, eternal is shown to be vulnerable. At the same time as these massive catastrophes change the world, that’s also what the life and ministry of Jesus is about, in a completely different way: the outsider, the weak, the unworthy is paradoxically shown to be the place where God is to be found. Thinking back to the “percentages” of who will be saved, who did Jesus spend his time with? The power elite? The well-connected? The really religious folks? Try the unclean, the outsiders, the unworthy, the repentant. So, this age is dying, even if it is a slow and painful death. Unfortunately, instead of this vision of who God is infiltrating our model of power politics, we have allowed it to norm our sense of what God is. The first reading speaks of Michael, and of course we usually get an image of an angel with a sword or a spear, reenacting a power that, while bigger than earthly powers, is the same kind of control: the biggest of the big sticks. In the early Church, Michael was an image for Jesus: Michael means “who is like unto God?” And who is like God, who shows us what God is like? Jesus, who has neither sword nor spear, but only the earth-shaking model of crucified love. God is to be found in the unstable places of history, and while life generally works for all of us who are here, we know well how large a proportion of the world can’t say the same. Despite the death grip of the old age on control and manipulation, the business-as-usual power politics that favors the powerful and the well-placed is giving way to a new era in the ministry of Jesus, who points to the nobodies of his world as signs of the reign of God, a scandal to the reign of power. That’s the already and the not yet; the promise has been made, and we believe that promise is trustworthy, so we can live in a new world and also await its full enactment. The death knell of this arrangement of power and injustice has been sounded in the new reality that is the coming of Jesus, who defies all the power politics of the world, who is born into obscurity and poverty and dies in pain and disgrace.
Since you are all anticipating the end of the semester, and the readings are anticipating the end of the liturgical year, and 2009 is anticipating the year 2012 (why didn’t they wait three years?!), allow me to anticipate a bit and bring the eschatology of this week’s readings into conversation with a reflection on the Nativity, the initiation of the end of the age. Thomas Merton wrote an essay in the early 60’s entitled, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” a reflection on the Nativity, when there was “no room” (in the inn) for the coming of the new vision.
“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.
“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.
“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 must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom 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 eschatology 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.”