Saturday, November 14, 2015

Horror in Paris & Playing on the doorstep of Eternity

I write very much against the news of today with the tragic events in Paris rattling remorselessly against the gospel for tomorrow...

33d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Mark 13:1-8;

On a Friday evening you go out for dinner, a meal and some wine at some small street corner restaurant.  All is well, the world continues in its ordered way. Until, that is, men with automatic weapons suddenly enter and open fire at random.  The ordered civilised world you are familiar with is suddenly transformed into mayhem and a portal to hell.  I have in mind, of course, the horrific attacks in Paris in the last 24 hours.

We are near the end of our liturgical year and this is the time of the year when the church requires us to direct our attention to what we may call the end-times.  It is a kind of reality check on human life, our projects and ambitions, civilization itself.  As the church year wraps up, the end-times remind us that the universe has a scope and a purpose far beyond our comprehension and most daring speculation.

Of course to think about the end-time is to check the way we are beguiled by illusion.  We tend to fend off the prospect of our own demise and instead see the continuation of life all about us and landmarks and signs and symbols which suggest permanence.  We see the sweep of the ridges above our city, trace the familiar line of Flagstaff; we fondly admire our much loved buildings, particularly our cathedral – and forget that a million years prior to us and a million years hence, none of these things were or will be.  Our place in eternity is minimal.

There is nothing new in thinking this.  We know this, it’s just that we tend to dismiss the thought as disturbing.  But the idea of remembering our mortality, the memento mori symbolised by a skull or an hour glass, is an ancient discipline.  That wonderful Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, practised it and even had himself painted wearing his shroud.  More modern manifestations of a similar awareness may be the numerous contemporary films on the themes of the apocalypse – global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, plague, and cosmic destruction.  We entertain ourselves with thoughts of our own destruction; but maybe beneath the entertainment is a deeper and primordial intuition.

Jesus taps into this as he leaves the temple which is going to be the backdrop of his passion.  His disciples admire the great architectural statement of this vast edifice and he brings them back down to earth with a thump and tells them of things to come that they would rather not hear.   

The world that seems so powerful, so certain, so fixed and enduring suddenly starts to change as he unfolds for them what is sometimes called “the little apocalypse”: telling them about the mystery of the future and of the last things.  There is a tradition in the Old Testament of apocalypse – for instance the curious visions in Daniel and it has been said that apocalypse is ‘the literature of the dispossessed’, meaning a coded literature for people who are oppressed and are forced to look for hope and vindication in a future beyond what they can imagine.  In the New Testament the Book of Revelation is exactly that.

Now this Sunday, with one of the great cities of our world in mourning, as we contemplate the fragility and finitude of all things, the vision of apocalypse does not lessen the horror of what has been done in Paris; it may not diminish other horrors of the past or those yet to come; it will not diminish the grief of loss and anguish; but apocalypse spurs us into compassion and love – because we are in the space that is given to us and this is where we play our part.  

The thought calls to mind the mystic Thomas Merton in The Sign of Jonas, where Merton remarks:
“Sooner or later the world must burn, and all things in it – all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, ….  Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left – for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.
   And here I sit writing a diary.
But love laughs at the end of the world because love is the door to eternity and he who loves God is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but love.”  (Thomas Merton, 1915-1968. The Sign of Jonas)

That is why we are here this morning.  We hold the dead, the maimed, the suffering of Paris, the bloodied ruins of restaurants and concert hall, and as we offer the bread and the wine we are joined with Christ in the great love offering that transforms the world and us … in the Eucharist we are playing on the doorstep of eternity.

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