Fr. Andrew Armond – Palm Sunday, April 10, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, I had to travel to Houston and back for a funeral, and so I had a lot of time alone in the car to listen to podcasts. I listened to one about a woman in Pacifica, California, who woke up one morning and her backyard was gone. The cliff supporting her small, quaint seaside home had silently sunk into the sea while she slept. Erosion of those cliffs is always ongoing, but has accelerated in recent years due to sea level rise and more violent waters caused by climate change.
The same program told a few more stories of what it called “apocalypse creep,” the idea that we are that proverbial frog in the water that doesn’t notice that it’s slowly warming until it’s boiling. There was the story of Truckee, California, a resort town known as a prime fishing spot, until it wasn’t–the river simply dried up because of the heat generated by massive forest fires.
Or the story of Miami, Florida, a city that may cease to exist as we know it in 50 years, already experiencing what the locals call “Sunny Day Flooding,” in which water seeps up from the drainage system and floods neighborhood streets on–you guessed it–perfectly sunny days, with not a cloud in the sky.
And then I listened to a story about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, about the very dubious beginnings of the Second Chechen War in 1999, and how those beginnings continue to animate Putin’s understanding of foreign policy to this day, including his violent and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
As I was listening, I kept thinking of the phrase “this world, this demented inn” from Thomas Merton’s 1966 essay “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.” On its surface, this is an essay about the Inn that had no room for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph–and it is often preached, therefore, in the Advent and Christmas season. But it is also an essay about the END–the apocalyptic times in which Merton found himself in the 1960s, and in which we continue to find ourselves today.
The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” literally, a “revelation” or “something revealed.” And so it is easy to see how our times are apocalyptic. We see what is behind the veil, the polite and polished veneer of human society. We see the greed, hatred, and ugliness UNDER the surface brought TO the surface, coming in the form of the climate emergency, and now coming in the form of what seems like a very old type of war, for dominance and territory and superiority. And we see it in our own country, fractured seemingly beyond repair by political and ideological loyalties.
And so Merton’s words in 1966 are striking in their contemporary relevance. “Into this world,” he says, “this demented inn in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited . . . His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied status of persons, who are tortured, bombed and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
This world has never and will never make room for Jesus Christ. It will always push him to the margins, it will always push him out, it will always stop up its ears so that it doesn’t have to hear his voice, which calls us to repentance, which calls us to the love of God and neighbor, and which, in the midst of the world’s violence and chaos, calls us to rejoice in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
And so we pray with the Psalmist that God would restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negev: that though we often go out into the fields shouldering heavy burdens, anxious for the future, we will reap with songs of joy.
I watched a video this week of the Negev desert, the very same one mentioned in our Psalm for today, in 2014, after the rains had returned to the mountains. I saw families, children, dogs, waiting, waiting, waiting; then a trickle, then a stream, then the thunderous sound of the water crashing down from the mountains into the dry creekbeds. That cycle of drought and flood has been going on for thousands of years there. And you can even grow crops in the Negev, if you prepare the ground beforehand, before the waters come, when it seems that everything is dead and lifeless and nothing will ever grow again. It can, and it will.
As Isaiah says, The Lord makes a way in the sea; the Lord makes a new thing; the Lord makes a way in the wilderness and rivers to flow in the desert. God overflows the banks of our expectations.
Mary of Bethany is the prophet of this kind of faith, for she seems to anticipate the death and burial of Jesus. Though not perhaps THE apocalypse, it is AN apocalypse, for her and for those around Jesus as he begins the path to the cross. It is an ending, and it is an unveiling. We will see the drama play out, as Judas, Peter, Pilate, and others demonstrate what was always under the surface being revealed: fear, tension, anxiety, betrayal. The world that had no room for him at his birth will also have no room for him at his death. And yet Mary anoints Jesus. She prepares his body for his death.
As John tells the story, it is about a week before Passover, Jesus’s final Passover. On the very next day after this quiet and intimate time with his good friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, Jesus will ride on a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds wave palm branches at him. The Hosannas are coming, and the shouts of anger and betrayal are coming, and the suffering and death of Jesus are coming.
Mary ministers to Jesus. She creates an atmosphere of peace and calm; she is generous in anointing the Lord, with the rivers of perfume overflowing, scenting the whole house.
This is a scene of joy and gratitude even in the midst of the anxiety and fear Jesus must have been feeling on his way to the Cross. A river of Grace, a pure gift, and an offering that Jesus graciously receives, quieting the objecting voice of Judas with a simple “Leave her alone.”
Within the anxiety and fear of our own apocalyptic times, like Mary, we offer our selves in joy and gratitude to the Lord who is always making a new way, who is always surprising us with water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. For we know that out of Death, new life will come. Even out of the mess that we have made of this planet, of this world, and the various messes of our own lives, God will bring forth–no, IS bringing forth–new life, beyond what we could have imagined.
As we prepare for Holy Week, it is important to remember that the Sacred Triduum–the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter–are meant to be our own offering of costly perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus. We walk with him to the Cross because he asks us to take up our Cross and follow him. And that walk has an emotional toll. It reminds us of all the ways in which our world is being crucified still. And yet it is also a reminder that, if the world is being crucified still, it is also being resurrected still, well on its way to the final joyful consummation of all things.
Thomas Merton concludes his essay with the Great Hope of God’s renewing promise: “if it is the time of the end, and of great tribulation, then it is certainly and above all the time of The Great Joy,” he says, “the time to lift up your heads, for your redemption is at hand.” The true apocalypse “is not the crowding of armies on the field of battle, but the summons of the The Great Joy, the cry of deliverance.”
Mary of Bethany knew this, and so she makes room for Jesus in the midst of this world, this demented inn. May we do the same, during these most holy weeks of the church year, and always.