Advent & Christmas

We are about to begin another Advent and Christmas season.  There is something peculiar about this season.  In normal secular society it simply doesn’t exist—there is only the “Christmas shopping season,” where cardboard angels in supermarkets announce the good news of lower prices.  But even in Christian circles there is something odd about how Advent and Christmas become this conflation of an eschatological  message–“Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the world”– and a memorial or celebration of the historical moment in the past of the nativity of Jesus.

And the latter dynamic itself is so often done in such a sentimental fashion as to eviscerate any sense of the great mystery behind it and in it.  We are left with the “Baby Jesus” and the creche/nativity scene and some nice carols.  I hate to put it this way, but some of us do not relate well to this stuff; and actually a whole large segment of Christianity never made a big deal out of the nativity itself.  In the Christian East, Christmas is not the big liturgical day that it is in the West—what is more significant is Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord, in other words the manifestation and the recognition of the reality of who Jesus is and the implications of all that.  Be that as it may, in the Medieval West and with some remarkable saints begins the dubious process that ends up in a kind of pure sentimentality and  feeling and emotion by the nineteenth century in most of Europe.  Also all kinds of traditions become attached to this feast, and so the celebration of Christmas is done with a lot of gusto in most of Europe.  Incidentally, the feast was celebrated with flourish quite well even as the Europeans were butchering each other–afterall they sang Christmas carols in the trenches of WWI, and in Germany during the Nazi reign Germans made a big deal of Christmas celebrations.  When these traditions arrived in the U.S., they became quickly transformed into agents of capitalist consumerism, covered over with a veneer of the old sentimentality of “Baby Jesus” and with a dash of a “I Dream of a White Christmas,”  and a sip of egg nog,  etc.  The average Joe Believer/Mary Church-Goer has no chance of being liberated into something deeper, more profound, more challenging because the average priest/minister simply recycles his old homilies and the same sentimental messages each year—though of course couched in proper religious language.  But make no mistake about it—the real revolutionary, shattering reality is left untouched, unnoticed….  Interestingly enough Dickens, in 19th Century England, tried to penetrate the “façade” of this kind of Christmas in his story A Christmas Carol, where he depicts the radical transformation on Christmas night  of the greedy, despairing Ebeneezer Scrooge, icon of unfettered 19th century capitalism.  What is especially interesting is that Dickens has no recourse to the “Baby Jesus”–instead he has Scrooge see his own life from several different perspectives, including Death.  Now Dickens is not really very successful in what he is trying to do because he is still too enmeshed in the 19th century sensibility of sentimentality, but the try is worthy of praise.  Another commendable example can be found in Thomas Merton, in his little-known book entitled “Raids on the Unspeakable,” in which there is a short meditation simply on one scriptural line: “There was no room for them in the inn.”  The title of the essay is “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room.”  This is as good as you can go with the traditional language, but go further we must.

But now we have gotten way ahead of ourselves.  Let us return to our consideration of Advent itself.  Its eschatological message presents its own problems.  Each year we hear the same message:  Christ will come again, a Second Coming, an End of the World, etc.  Lots and lots of theological issues underlying all this.  Fundamentalists and literalists become fixated by this kind of language as if that were the essence of their faith.  Most others however simply become kind of numb to this language as it gets repeated over and over, year after year….  Already among medieval spiritual writers there is an attempt to put this language into a larger spiritual context, so they put it all together in this one phrase:  The Christ Who Comes or The God Who Comes.  First, Christ came into history through the Incarnation and the Nativity celebrated at Christmas; then Christ comes daily into our hearts and into the Real Presence of the Eucharist(mostly Catholic belief); then there is the Christ who will come in the future to bring it all to fulfillment and conclusion.  As I said above, lots of theological issues here to be sure.  Not the least of which is the status of what we call the Old Testament; nor the meaning of that little term, “comes.”  Exactly what does THAT mean?  A few mystics have balked at this language.  This kind of language is so characteristic of the West in its tendency to “externalize” God as a reality “somewhere” out there and so then He “comes” “here”–whatever that means.  This does not resonate well to those who have imbibed deeply of the Asian mystical traditions or even of certain strains of Christian mysticism.

At this point let me quote from Abhishiktananda:

To a monk friend of his in France he wrote in 1960:  “We are now in the middle of advent, that time which is so dear to you.  I admit to being a little weary of these liturgical years coming again and again, which promise so much and leave you apparently where you were before.  So the Jewish prophets, who always foretold wrath for tomorrow, used to paint the day following in shades of eschatological triumph.  As age increases, I get tired of waiting for that to come.  The John of the Gospel is no longer the John of Patmos (i.e. of the Book of Revelation): everything happens within (John 14), and as our sages here say:  It is already here, just realize it.”

And to a friend who was a Carmelite nun in India and who was dreading another Christmas with her fellow nuns, he wrote in 1970:  “Your Christmas will be an interior exile.  How well I understand you!  That is why as a rule I try to spend Christmas and Easter in silence and solitude.  With you this is not a lack of ‘incarnation,’ but simply a difference of approach and calling.  Quite simply accept that you are different, or rather that your sisters should be different; prepare the creches in all simplicity.  It can’t be helped; contact with the depth and the atmosphere of ‘depth’ in which contact with Vedanta makes us live, inevitably uproots us.  Advent, for example, 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(blogger’s emphasis, not the author’s!)….  Add to that the fact that the poetry of the liturgy anesthetizes  Christians who are too often happy to repeat each year, ‘He will come and will not delay,’ while the poor look in vain for bread, shelter and respect.  Advent is the cry of the poor, humiliated and frustrated,…who are WAITING for me, the Christian, to come to their help….”

And finally just a year before he died he writes to his sister:  “A good and holy Christmas—but Christmas is every day, when you have discovered the non-time of your own origin!  Each moment is the dawn of eternity in the explosion of the joy of Being.”

There is an awful lot packed in these words.  Just a few of the many points:

A. Without directly saying so, Abhishiktananda calls into question our reading of certain scriptural language—all that eschatological language of “waiting” and “coming,” both in the Old Testament and in the Gospels and in the Letters and in Revelation (by the way, has anyone really read the macabre goriness of the language in that book?).  He is quite right to challenge it because there are certain strains of Christian theology and spirituality that have made this a “big deal.”  We are termed the “Advent People” who are always waiting for God.  But what if all that language is mythic in the deepest sense of the term?  Referring to something quite else?  Anyone who has even glimpsed their intimacy with the Mystery of God will find the language of “waiting” and “coming” too lame to sustain their experience in the world of language.

B.  Following that up, anyone who has encountered India’s call to interiority; anyone who has been touched by the nondualism of advaita even in Christian mysticism, such a one will not be satisfied with the language of “waiting”or “coming.”  Rather, the key word for them–and really for all of us–is “awakening.”

C.  Many Christian theologians and spiritual writers will be critical of this approach.  They will say that through this “Hindu optic” you lose sight of the historical element and historical character of Christianity.  It is rooted in particular moments in time and in particular places in space.  Thus, we have Jesus of Nazareth, born under Caesar Augustus, crucified in Jerusalem under the Procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, etc., etc.  But what these “facts” mean and their significance needs much deeper pondering, exploration, and debate quite frankly. Because if Christianity grounds itself in “historical facticity” and brushes aside the great world religions(Hinduism, Buddhism and even Sufism in Islam)as their approach to such “facts” varies quite a bit; or if Christianitytakes on  an air of superiority to such  “ahistorical” religions, then paradoxically Christianity is poised to MISS the “coming of the Lord” as He COMES to it in this historical moment through these religions.

D. Finally, there is the poignant “coming” that Abhishiktananda himself points to.  It is the coming of Christ that the poor and wretched of the earth are waiting for—IT IS CHRIST IN US WHO IS TO COME TO THEM!  To feed the hungry, to liberate the oppressed, to wipe away every tear….  This is the real Parousia, and it is only we who are holding it back.  Amen.

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