And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and singing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:13).
What was it like for those shepherds to hear the song of the heavenly angels in Bethlehem at midnight on that first Christmas?
There are joyful moments or peaceful moments in which time almost loses its relevance. There are moments of stillness, moments of rest, moments in which we feel held by the embrace of eternity.
And then time presses on. The moment passes. The great poet T.S. Eliot reflects on those moments in which “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” It was almost within our reach! We can try to go back to it, try to recreate the moment, but it will never be the same.
I love reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Every Good Friday I recite aloud his Four Quartets. Almost every December, I re-read his play Murder in the Cathedral, which tells the tale of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom. At many moments in both works, Eliot ponders these mysteries of time, eternity, human freedom, and redemption.
In both works, Eliot ponders “the still point.”
In Burnt Nornton (the first of his Four Quartets) he speaks of a moment in which all is “reconciled among the stars.” I have little doubt that he is speaking of the Incarnation, and of that Christmas mystery in which the stars themselves paid homage to the newborn King of the Universe.
Eliot puts it this way:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point; there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Likewise in Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot offers the image of time as a turning wheel. The wheel ever turns. Some of us want to take control of it, but we cannot. In the play, Becket faces four tempters. To the first he flatly says, “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.”
Are we then helpless victims, whipped around by the wheel of time? Do we just passively accept things as they come? No, freedom is neither seizing control nor passively abdicating. It is something else:
You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
These are actually the words of the fourth tempter to Thomas Becket – quoting Becket’s own words and mocking him. He has easily dismissed the other temptations, but this one sickens him – to do the right deed (martyrdom) but for the wrong reason. Finally, he finds freedom in total surrender, abiding in the still point:
I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.
Now my good Angel, whom God appoints
To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points.
Becket discovers the very freedom of Mary’s fiat – “Let it be done to me according to your Word.” In one sense, Mary is incredibly active, asking the angel how this can be and pondering these Christmas mysteries in her heart. In another sense, she is totally passive – totally receptive of God’s Word, so much so that he becomes flesh in her. She adds nothing, subtracts nothing, and alters nothing. Eliot appeals to Mary’s fiat in Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets. It is “the hardly, barely prayable prayer of the one Annunciation.”
I loved merry-go-rounds as a child. I loved having a strong uncle whip us around as fast as he could – even though I knew I would start feeling sick. I curiously moved to the middle of the merry-go round – a much different experience. At the outside, I had to clutch at the rails with all my six-year-old strength. At the center, I could stand unaided – though I still might grow dizzy. Were I somehow smaller, I could truly stand at the still point, noticing the movement without being swept away by it.
It is humility that makes us small enough to stand at the still point. Humility is neither an achievement nor a product of old age. There can be young saints and old fools. T.S. Eliot reminds us:
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The Father knowns our fear, and he knows our frenzy. We get all spun up, and resist receptivity and rest. We get stuck in the past, trying to recapture a moment that is gone, and missing the moment of the present. Yet always the invitation is there – the invitation of the angel Gabriel at Nazareth, the invitation of the angel to the Shepherds at Bethlehem, and the invitation of our own guardian angel right here and now.
May we echo Mary’s fiat, again and again. We will likely drift from the still point. Then we will feel whipped around by truly challenging times. We may try to take control, pushing Jesus from the center.
The stillness of Christmas night is an invitation into the stillness of God’s eternity. Granted, we are not fully ready for it. The very time that imprisons us is the time in which we will be redeemed. But when we notice we are drifting, we can surrender again and again, until at last we find our true home in the still point of God’s eternal rest.