Christmas Without the Eggnog

A little Christmas reflection here.  Lots of good ones out there; one of my favorites from long ago was Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  It is not the sentimental story that many  have made it out to be.  But my all time favorite and, in my opinion, the best Christmas reflection of all time is Merton’s essay in a little known book, Raids on the Unspeakable:  “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.” Merton lifts the meaning of Christmas  from a kind of mushy “never, neverland” setting where people decorate trees, drink eggnog and buy gifts, etc.  Lots of temporary good feeling with a slight reference to some vague religious sentiments.  But Merton also lifts the meaning of Christmas from theological objectification where Christmas is an event “out there” long time ago, and then you try to draw various meanings from it.  Meister  Eckhart in the 14th Century already said that it matters little to worship Christ being born in Bethlehem if Christ is not born in your heart.

Merton’s reflection turns on one phrase in the Nativity narrative:  “There was no room for them in the inn.”  And In a stroke of genius he melds the Advent theme with the Nativity narrative.  

Here is a beginning excerpt  from that essay:

“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, quality, 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 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.”

And then Merton turns sharply and more explicitly to the Nativity narrative itself:

“Is this pessimism?  Is this the unforgivable sin of admitting what everybody 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?  

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 voice 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 others: 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 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.”

At the end of the essay Merton recalls us to the Joy of Christmas, the Joy which we sing of (“Joy to the world”),  which joy is not that as the world gives; the Great Joy which suffuses the Nativity scene is not the vacuous ephemeral joy proposed by the world, which in fact does not take away our pervasive anxiety, our frantic loneliness, our buried despair.    Rather, the Great Joy is the first taste of that unspeakable actuality which is beyond all our conceptions.  It will truly seem foolish to so many of us!

Merton wrote this reflection in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam nightmare and in the midst of the tensions and strife of the Civil Rights struggle.  A lot has changed since then, and yet spiritually speaking it is more pertinent than ever.  To borrow from Thoreau:  “Most men lead lives of quiet despair.”  Well, today it is anything but quiet!  And those of our contemporaries who wallow in excess make Merton’s remarks look very current.  Recently I saw these two news stories….at first I thought this must be Onion material, but no it is real!  The first one is about Sam Altman, one of the big names in AI. He has amassed about 100 million dollars worth of properties in Hawaii, Napa, San Francisco, and Big Sur, and here he is in his own words:

“Altman told the founders of the startup Shypmate that, ‘I prep for survival,’ and warned of either a ‘lethal synthetic virus,’ AI attacking humans, or nuclear war.

‘I try not to think about it too much,’ Altman told the founders in 2016. ‘But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.’”

Source: The New Yorker via Business Insider 

And then there is the well-known Mark Zuckerberg and you can read about his project in Hawaii with its enormous self-sufficient underground bunker and with multi mansions costing more than any other private dwelling ever:

And then there is this quote from Business Insider:

“LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman once told the New Yorker he estimates more than half of Silicon Valley billionaires have invested in some type of ‘apocalypse insurance,’ like an underground bunker.”

Now I am not going to dwell on these examples; they are just extreme symptoms of a whole culture poisoned by greed, paranoia, power, lust, etc.  It’s as bad as ancient Rome, just more high tech!  Interesting and paradoxical that the accumulation of great wealth leads to great fear and great insecurity….the opposite of what your average poor person thinks….!

In any case, what I really want to get to with these examples is to highlight an incredible contrast with the Nativity scene.  The vulnerability of the Holy Family in contrast to the “walls” and security these people need.  We will discover the Divine Presence only in our own   vulnerability, our own personal poverty, our own namelessness.  The Angel came THAT night not to the mansions and fortresses of that society, but to “outsiders,” the shepherds tending their flocks.  The Great Joy was announced not to the “makers & shakers” of society but to those who symbolically represent all whose only resource is the Divine Presence.