Merton and Christmas

There is a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Christmas Gospel by Thomas Merton.  It comes in essay form, and it can be found in one of his lesser known books: Raids on the Unspeakable.  The title of the essay is: “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room.”  With his usual acuteness Merton reflects on the Christmas Gospel and hits a bullseye on two important points.  First of all, he realizes that the narrative is a mythopoetic presentation and not just a collection of historical details that may or may not be significant.  No, every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial,  and every image in the narrative resonates with deep meaning–there are no “throw-away lines.”  Secondly, he also, in a brilliant theological move, reflects on the eschatological character of the Christmas Gospel.  The Christmas Gospel is NOT primarily a reflection on some past event, but rather it is an announcement of the beginning of The Great End.  The Christmas Gospel proclaims that the time of fulfillment has arrived, the fullness of time has come.  Therefore it is also the time of decision; the time of repentance.  Note that  after the Christmas narrative, the Gospel jumps to take us  out into the wilderness where John the Baptist is preaching repentance,  and Jesus as an adult goes out into the wilderness to be tempted.

Merton latches on to one seemingly very insignificant statement in the narrative:  There was no room for them in the inn.  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…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 the turbulent crowds, the message can be heard only with difficulty.

So the inn was 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.  One of the purposes of the census was to discover those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.  As Merton points out, the Bible had not taken kindly to a census when God was the ruler of Israel (2Sam24).  Truly the Son of God had emptied himself to take on humanity, but not simply to fall into a faceless mass, a crowd.  It is a sign that he is born outside that crowd.  But who can read that sign?

Another detail of the Christmas Gospel of significance: the tidings of great joy are not announced in the crowded inn.  Merton:  “In the crowd news becomes merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the 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 for the true tidings, the “Good News,” “the Great Joy.”  So the Great Joy is announced in silence, loneliness, and darkness, to shepherds living in the fields and apparently unmoved by the rumors or the massing of the crowds.  And the Great Joy is not to be confused with all the little joys that are offered by a consumer culture to those who “have.”

Even though the “whole world” is ordered to be inscribed, the shepherds do not seem to be affected.  They remain outside the agitation and untouched by the vast movement.  “They are therefore quite otherwise signed….  They are the remnant, the people of no account, who are therefore chosen–the anawim.”

So there was no room for Him to be born in the inn.  The time of the End is the time of “no room.”  No room for nature.  No room for a human being in his/her own heart.  No room for quiet, for solitude.  No room for thought.  No room for awareness, for attention.  People are worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, filled with gadgets and stuff.  A human being finds no space to rest within his own heart but is constantly driven out–he simply becomes part of “the crowd.”

Merton: “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…. those who are discredited who are denied 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 whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”

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