‘A Raging Mirth’

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A student gave me G. K. Chesterton’s Poems, a handsome book (New York, John Lane). In it are love, war, religious and miscellaneous poems, ballads, and “Rhymes for the Times.” Its most famous poem is probably “Lepanto.” The most intriguing is “Antichrist, or The Reunion of Christendom, an Ode.”

The religious poems are often about Christmas, a favorite theme of Chesterton’s. As my own Christmas reflection, I single out “A Child of the Snows.” Such a title gives me pause when I think of my friends in Australia for whom Christmas is not snowy, nor is it for my California family. But wintery Christmas scenes are common for many.

The poem begins. We hear a “hymn” that we that will never be “heard again.” The nights are very dark. Yet this “dark is alive with rain.” With rain, the night is not dead. Rain causes life. Living in “sleet and snow” makes us aware of “where the great fires are.” This is not hell, with its own brand of fires, that we are looking at.

At the center of the earth, we find fire and heat. Here we do not find fire but rather “a raging mirth.” This line is mindful of the end of Orthodoxy. There, we discovered that the one thing that Christ held back from us was His “mirth.” He held it back, not because He did not have it, but that, for now, we could not bear it.

On such a night we recall the “Ancient Inn,” where the Child is found. We follow the feet “where all souls meet.” Fra Angelico’s painting in the National Gallery shows streams and streams of people processing to the Crib, the Inn, where Mary, Joseph, and the Child are found. Where or what exactly is this? It is the “Inn at the End of the World.”

Here is another powerful Chestertonian image. The Inn at the End of the World was in a short essay of a town in France that I once saw in Chesterton. And, of course, it is in the last lines of Dickens, where we shall meet in serious joy as we drink from the great flagons at this Inn at the End of the World. I have always loved that Inn, I must confess. I do think that is where our steps are taking us. But this is the first time that I have seen it identified with the “Ancient Inn” where the Child was born. Where else could it be?

Reminiscent of Nietzsche, we are next reminded that the “gods lie dead.” Mass readings during the last days of the liturgical year often refer to the end of the world. The Sun will be darkened. Here “the flame of the sun is flown.”  The classical gods lie “cold.” All their good, as Chesterton said, is saved in Christianity. The ancient world’s sanity is found in the worship of those who walk in procession. They saved what could be saved. Christmas transforms their Winter Feast.

Where these “gods lie dead,” what do we find? “A Child comes forth alone.” He does not come from the pagan gods. He is an “only-begotten Son.” His origin is not ultimately from mortal men, though He becomes flesh and dwells among us, “born of the Virgin, Mary.”

“A raging mirth” is found at the center of the world. That mirth is the real fire found there. The Inn at the End of the World is located at the “Ancient Inn.” There the Child came forth “alone.” But He was not alone. He was from the Father. He was Logos, Word. We are all made in His image and likeness.

Christmas, Chesterton insisted, is the Feast of the Home, Our Home. On Christmas Eve, we should lock our doors and be with our family, with those we love and who love us. The Child who came forth “alone” always spoke of His father as “My Father.” He told us to address Him as “Our Father.” But if the gods were dead, the Father is alive. He gives life and light that was to shine in a darkness, which comprehended it not.

The dark is alive with rain. The hymn of the angels will “never be heard again.” Glory to God in the highest. On earth, we are not yet at the highest. Yet, we are to drink from the great flagons in the Inn at the End of the World, with its “raging mirth.” Once we know of the Child who is alone and His sacrifice, we are no longer called servants but friends. That is what this “Ancient Inn” brought about. Those in the “Inn at the End of the World”– stretch out to receive the “raging mirth.” This, too, is what Christmas is about.

Fr. James V. Schall

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The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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