Sunday, December 23, 2012

The End of the World as We Know It: The Mayan Apocalypse, Newtown, and T. S. Eliot

[Sermon for Advent IV 2012, Holy Trinity East Melbourne]

So - apparently it's not the end of the world after all. The Mayans - or rather some dodgy interpreters of ancient Mayan texts - had that wrong, and there is no apocalypse this year. Or is there?

In fact there are, arguably, little apocalypses every day; every global calamity and every local tragedy means the world has ended for someone. This past week like many others I have been paying attention to the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, geographically so distant and yet somehow so close; and yet we also know that there are many less spectacular or at least less well-publicized Newtowns of neglect or misfortune or cruelty, some close to home and some that will simply never reach the interest of mass media.

Advent has certainly its own apocalyptic flavour; the end of the world with a second coming of Christ is one of its traditional themes. But with just two days left to go, we may tend to shift focus away from the apocalyptic threads in ancient prophetic expectations of deliverance and the confronting demands of John the Baptist. Hearing Micah today speak of the promise of what will come forth from Bethlehem, and of the expectant Mary's encounter with Elizabeth, we surely find ourselves leaning across the fence from the expectant, apocalyptic talk of Advent into the joy of Christmas.

The Christmas season as generally observed, even in a religious mode, looks away from upheaval and the disturbance of endings, to all that is calm and bright about the new beginning of the Incarnation. It celebrates a benign and divine continuity in the world; the birth of a child is universally accessible and worthy of celebration, and the story offers many an assurance of the stability of the world with its predictable cycles.

But we may wonder how the Christmas story will be heard in Newtown, Connecticut this year. Perhaps for some it will be too difficult, or will at least seem deeply ironic to be celebrating the potential of birth when so many little children have lost all that hope might have ascribed to them.

One famous and more recent imagining of the Christmas story is T. S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi. In it the narrator, one of the eastern sages, looks back from later life and describes what he had seen in Bethlehem in disturbing terms:

            All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Eliot's poetic imagining about the difficult meaning of the birth is not itself a pure invention; one of the other famous stories that will follow Christmas is that of the Presentation; at that time, just the turn of a page forward in Luke's Gospel from today's Gospel, the ageing Simeon tells Mary not only of Jesus' greatness but that sorrow would pierce her heart like a sharp sword.

Part of what is important about this story, now unfolding in this morning's Gospel with the story of the Visitation, is indeed what makes it like all other births; but part is what makes it unlike others. Indeed we need it to be unlike other births; if we are content with the givens of life, that suggests not only that we were privileged in our own lives, but complacent regarding the lives of others who need not mere affirmation but need pain and suffering to end.

Inevitably we hope for a Christmas, a year, a life, a world, that is free from Newtowns; we would rather the deep and dreamless sleep of our imagined Bethlehem. But it is to our Newtowns that Jesus comes, and to the real Bethlehem, which in ancient and modern times alike has lost its own children too.

For in truth the birth of Jesus is the end of the world; the incarnation of God in Christ is an apocalyptic event and must be the beginning of the end at least. This is not obvious; as Eliot's magus and old Simeon both sense, Jesus' coming is first and foremost beginning of his own end, the start of the purpose for which he came; not to force us into an apocalypse of compliant goodness, but helplessly to bear a cross and to accept a fate alongside innocent sufferers. Only by hearing and following him, first to Bethlehem but then to Jerusalem, can those who believe in him understand how the reign of violence and injustice really has begun to end, and then work with him to complete that ending, and to build the new world he promises.

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