Christmas, Paradise, and All That

The Coming…the First Coming, the Second Coming, the Coming…is The Awakening. The language of “The Coming” points to the Awakening. Christmas, when seen deeply, is an awareness and a celebration of the possibility of The Awakening—and for us Christians this begins with the story of Jesus.

I walk into the environs of a huge retail store where almost any item can be bought and which is completely decorated for Christmas. On the PA system they are playing the Ode to Joy. Marvelous. What a mixture, a concoction of the sublime and the superficial, of the beautiful and the crass, of consumerism and the spirit, of light and darkness. This is what the New Testament calls The World. The Awakening takes place within this World. It is the Light that is in the World, but the World cannot see it, cannot recognize it because The World is largely about something else altogether. Next they play “Gloria in Excelsis….” So it goes. The Christmas Narrative in the 2 Gospels is about the “hiddenness” of this Light in the World, of this Light in our hearts which also are a concoction of so many things. Its symbolic and mythic discourse does not take away from the historicity of this one person, Jesus Christ, whose poverty, hiddenness, vulnerability all point to the Real which is at the core of our hearts. Only when the Awakening is realized, even gradually, do we even begin to sense that Light, and then it might have all kinds of different Names ( like in Islam: Mercy, Compassion, Freedom, etc.)

In Christian theology the eschaton, the Second Coming, is the culmination of the First Coming which we celebrate at Christmas. The Second Coming is also elaborated and presented to us in a multitude of symbols and myths, but it all has to do with The Awakening. The eschaton, the “beyond time,” which we cannot directly apprehend through our rational, discursive faculties or through our self-centered ego identity, which we inevitably but uselessly try to imagine in terms of the values and symbols of the present, this eschaton, the “last hour,” is truly this present moment (John 5:25)—so teaches Abhishiktananda. As he puts it: The eschaton, the Second Coming, is my discovery of my own true identity within the mystery of God. This is the Awakening. The eschaton is already here in the present moment.” So it is with The Awakening.

Christmas is a profound mixture of the trivial, the crass and the unspeakably deep, the Mystery. It is fraught with symbols of The Awakening. But it is also mostly filled with a more primitive undeveloped religiosity where “God comes to us from the ‘outside.’” So it is with our usual understanding of Christmas and so it is with much of our religious services. And so we celebrate this “coming”—and why not? For too many of us it is the God who stands “over and against us,” somewhere “out there beyond,” who then comes in the person of Jesus Christ. We celebrate this moment each Christmas and the atmosphere is filled with good cheer, gift giving, warm fellow-feeling, etc. These are but shadows of shadows, so far removed from the really Real, but still there is no need to disparage this because they are also all little, feeble but true signs of The Awakening that beckons to us every moment. (When Uncle Scrooge in Dickens’ story converts from his isolated ego-centered identity to a communion with Tiny Tim and his family we see a hint of that Awakening!) And ultimately this Awakening, for us Christians, is very much tied to the person of Jesus Christ.

So at Christmas we Christians celebrate the Coming of Jesus Christ –but the Gospel of John, the deepest Gospel, and the Gospel of Mark, and the Letters of Paul all ignore this celebration! They all point to the meaning of the Awakening without the symbolism and mythological tropes of the Nativity narratives—but they have their own symbolic discourse. As usual, Abhishiktananda zeroes in on the main point: “And whoever penetrates within himself to the supreme mystery, in Christ, has passed into God, from death to life, from darkness to light, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me’(Gal 2:20).” Most Christians take these words in a very watered-down way, like some ethical “do-goodism,” “be like Jesus,” etc. But with The Awakening we will realize our deepest identity in these words.

So there is the Coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus, and the trajectory of that life that ends in a hideous death on the cross and then the “explosion”(as Abhishiktananda loved to call it) of the Resurrection, where all Names, all forms, all symbols, all that we can ever recognize explode and we are left with the really Real in its naked Presence and where there is no longer even any “ego I” left to say “Ah, here I stand before God.” No, there can no longer be any of that left, for to borrow from Augustine, God is closer to me than I am to myself. And in the Old Testament it was said that “No one can see God and live” (Exodus). So do not think that you can truly see God in the Nativity scene and still “live”—meaning to really see God there will also be the end of that ego-centered identity and existence. Do not think you will also see God, the true God, in the life of Jesus, and expect that ego-identity to live. What you probably will see is merely a projection of your own religious fantasies, distortions, shortcomings, limitations, etc all dressed up with the word “God.” But the Living God, the Absolute Mystery which Jesus addressed as Abba (and Abhishiktananda was so right in seeing in this the closest Semitic equivalent to Advaita) will only be seen when that ego-centered existence “dies” and is reborn as a completely new reality, “not one, not two” with God. And of course no one can even pretend to see the Living God in the Crucified One—there is no concept, no image, no name, no word, no idea, no notion, no symbol that can take us through that gate. Truly it will be harder for a camel to go through the eye of that needle…! But there will be the Resurrection, and so we become aware of The Awakening in our own hearts.

So this whole life of Jesus, this Coming, is an opening to our Awakening. And what do we awaken to? Here again we run into a lot of symbolic discourse. But there is one Biblical word that sums it all up: Paradise! Neither the word nor the notion appears often in the Bible but it is a very important term. The Christian monastic fathers saw the monk’s life as a “return to Paradise.” This is where human beings begin, where their life consists in this unspeakable intimacy with God—in Semitic terms this appears in the beginning of Genesis as a Garden, referring to a life awake to the advaita of the Absolute Presence within the human heart. This is the whole point of human life. But the word appears in its final and utter nakedness in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus speaks to the thief crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Paradise is everywhere and always. You are never NOT in Paradise, but the Awakening must take place to realize that. I know, I know that is just a bit too glib, too easy to say. When you are not experiencing excruciating pain or sitting in a concentration camp, mouthing words like that is just a bit too easy. Spiritual talk can be very cheap. However, these words must be said, must be repeated…even at great peril of misunderstanding…simply because they are true…perhaps the only Truth that matters. Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima spoke this way; so did Abhishiktananda. There can be different nuances of our elaboration and understanding of Paradise, but for Father Zosima it was filled with an atmosphere of endless forgiveness and boundless mercy and taking upon oneself the faults and flaws and misery of others in absolute joy. It is also the Perfect Joy of St. Francis. This is the Paradise Life. This is the result of The Awakening.

One last thought. As we turn toward that Awakening to the Reality of the Eternal Paradise of the heart, we are still very much in a world mixed with a lot of darkness, contingency and confusion. Nothing is here permanent, and it does not take great philosophers to point out that human life is marked by anxiety, by dread, by fear, deep down—this causes human beings to do all the crazy things they tend to do. And caused by what? Ultimately it is a fear of losing, or better,
of having taken away who we are. We are always afraid of losing something of who we think we are. Someone or something will come/happen that will negate who we are. We are ultimately afraid of not even being. And death is perhaps the greatest of these thieves! The ego-centered self is very well aware of its own fraility and its own tendency to collapse into nothingness so it is always in a state of anxiety and dread even as it dresses in wealth and power. But Jesus pointed out to us that we mistakenly worry about the “moth and rust” that can eat away this contingent reality or the thief that can come and steal it. Such an identity is a “false treasure.” When we are Awake to the Eternal Paradise Life of the heart, when no longer “I” live but the Risen Christ lives in me, there is no one that can do anything or say anything to take that away, there is no event that can “steal” that from me. Such is the freedom of the Awake Ones, from some of the Desert Fathers to St. Francis and so many others. Only this unchains us from the determinisms and the confusions of the world. If I “hoard” an identity that needs to be defended, protected, built-up (like the Tower of Babel), that very “I” will end in confusion and eventual nothingness—a life “outside of Paradise.”

Fascinating that maybe the best paradigm of Christian Awakening, St. Francis, was also one of the great advocates of meditating on the Christmas narratives of the Gospel in all their simplicity. This was not a childish thing, a regression to an infantile religiosity of folk tales, etc. No, it was an intuitive sense of the seeds of the Great Awakening that are planted in this Gospel of the Nativity. For Abhishiktananda, it is more in the beginning words of the Gospel of John. So different strokes for different folks! But in either case we have come a long, long way from “I Dream of a White Christmas.”

A Blessed Christmas to all!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.