Whichever Way You Turn: A Different Take on Advent and Christmas

There is a Sufi saying that goes something like this:  Whichever way you turn, there is the face of God.  This has to be understood within the context of a basic Islamic prayer ritual, the call to prayer five times a day. Now like any devout Moslem the Sufi will turn toward Mecca during that time of formal prayer.  It is a spatial orientation which has both historical roots and symbolic importance.  A human being becomes involved with many things in the course of his/her day both in body and in mind.  So it is good and important to “reorient” human attention toward the Ultimate Reality.  The Moslem does this five times a day by turning his body toward Mecca and his mind and heart toward God.  The Sufi does this also, of course, but his inner dynamic is to be “turned” in that “direction” at all times and all places.  In fact, when pushed to its final realization, there is no more “turning” because there is no more of the ego “I”—it is totally taken over by the “I” of God.  There is no more “the face of God” because the Ultimate Reality is no longer a dualistic “thou” out there. Again, from the Sufis:  When we reach perfect servanthood, it is God himself who says “I.”  As Abhishiktananda would say,  the Sufi, in his “turning” transcends the “nama-rupa,” the forms and names, of his religious path—not by doing away with them but by penetrating their inner meaning.

 

In Christianity our “turning” is primarily “temporal.”  In Advent we are invited to turn “toward the future,” toward the so-called Second Coming.  I say “so-called” because the nature of the Second Coming is a real bone of contention within Christianity.  Fundamentalists and conservative Christians seem to hold to a literal meaning when history ends at some moment in time and Jesus returns and so on following the Biblical language.  Those who read these texts with more nuance and recognize its symbolic language, its mythopoetic quality,  still look toward the future, but this time we might call it an Absolute Future, a moment when there will be a summation of all history in the person of the Risen Christ.  A time of fulfillment if you will—we have a partial realization of God now; in the “future” comes a “fullness.” So it is a season of hope, of expectation, of yearning and reaching for that Future. But the deeply contemplative person will still be puzzled and bothered by this language—it seems to place the reality of Christ somewhere “out there”.  Listen a bit to Abhishiktananda:

 

“Advent…in which I took such delight twenty or thirty years

ago, now says so little to me, even though its poetry contains

infinite echoes, far beyond the disappointing words.  Who is

coming? And from where?  In order to experience Advent as in

time past, I should have to be able to remove myself from the

blazing Presence, and dream that it was still ‘coming’.  Not a

‘waiting’, but an awakening should constitute a Christian

liturgy.”

 

The deeply contemplative experience is to abide continually in the Absolute Divine Presence, and so the Christian contemplative struggles to make sense of this “turn” toward the future of any kind.  What are we to do?  What are we to make of all this?  The “turning” is perhaps an “awakening.”

 

The other great “turning” that the Christian is invited to is toward the so-called First Coming, the feast of Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation.    Here too the language is problematic and even covered over with all kinds of extraneous symbols, myths and “decorations.”  Thus, Santa Claus, gift giving, Christmas trees, etc., etc., have nothing to do with this but now it is inextricably connected to it.  So it complicates this “turning” back to that moment in time.  But if we strip away all the “nama-rupa,” all the symbology, all the extraneous stuff, we find ourselves turning toward the Mystery of God in this person of Jesus Christ.  What we are to make of this will depend on our theology concerning the reality of Jesus, and this thicket we are not going to enter in this particular posting.  Suffice it to say that Abhishiktananda, to take a crucial example, changed quite radically in his understanding of the Christ event toward the end of his life.  Some in the Church would even say that it was no longer “orthodox.”  Be that as it may, what is important is that we are continually answering that question that Jesus himself asked in the Gospels:  “Who do men say that I am?”

What is truly interesting is how the Eastern Church handles this material.  It certainly admits the language and the symbology of the Second Coming, but it almost seems to downplay the Nativity, Christmas Day.  It’s big liturgical moment is Epiphany, where you have this mythopoetic depiction of the Three Wise Men coming to be in the Presence of God in the person of this child.  “Epiphany” really means a manifestation—in fact the three feasts of Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus are termed a Theophany: a manifestation of God.  So the Eastern Christian is invited to turn toward this manifestation of God, and in the hesychast tradition that becomes one with a turning toward the heart in which God is one with us.

 

Another interesting thing:  the New Testament writings are very unequal and divided over the emphasis they place on these “Comings.”  For example, Paul has significant Second Coming language but he seems not to care at all about the First Coming.  If we had only his letters, there would be no Christmas!  Among the Gospels, Mark and John both lack First Coming language and almost totally absent in Second Coming language except in a very nuanced and hidden way.  On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke have rich details in both cases.  So these accounts do vary in the emphasis they place on which “turning” is important.  This is not to say that we can pick and choose, but that there is a difference in emphasis, and a contemplative may find himself/herself more at home with John, like Abhishiktananda did.

 

One final point: my favorite turning: the thief nailed to the cross next to Jesus turns to him and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”(Luke 23: 42-43)  This is perhaps the truest, most fundamental turning.  It is done by a person who has no resources, no self-image left, no “goodness,” no merit, no “good works,” no value, no status, no religious identity, no spiritual practice—except this one: he “turns.”  And he turns toward Jesus, and that is ok and not some kind of crude dualism or superficial piety.  He turns toward Jesus because in history, in time and place, we need to turn somewhere, and Jesus is given to us, the “Gift of Godness” that manifests the Presence of God within us regardless of our condition in time and place.  When we recognize that in our hearts, we can say with our Sufi friends:  Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God.

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