An Advent reflection...
Most Christians think of Advent as the coming of Christ in the future. Christmas is coming … on December 25. After that, it will come next year on December 25. Many of the readings also point to the Second Coming as that point in the future when, as the Creed recites, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." — "again," as in, "sometime in the future."
Learning to recognize Christ's presence here, now, in this moment!
Throughout history, Christians have tied themselves in knots trying to predict when that time will be. The real gift of Advent, indeed, of the gospel itself, is learning to recognize Christ's presence here, now, in this moment. The time is now. The real point of His message was about pausing and experiencing His presence. About coming back to where we are in this instant because this is where He is, in this body, this temple, this space we occupy. The only peace we can know is by learning to return here, where He is, always inviting us to be present with Him, perfect in our imperfection.
The doctrine of the Second Coming was an integral part of my childhood. Something that would happen in the future. The Kingdom of Heaven coming down to make this imperfect world perfect. An event that would transform me, in my sinful form, into something sinless. And so, holiness was always about striving, about pursuing, because who I was in my imperfection was wrong. So wrong that it required an event outside of space and time that would transform form and time into something no one understood – Perfection. The greatest spiritual task was to love perfectly, and I equated loving perfectly as something I could not achieve in the moment, because it would not occur until I was ultimately something I am not, that is, free of self. Ergo, what I am is wrong.
Since I could never achieve perfection, my very striving, or pursing, only made me more conscious of my inadequacy. I would become discouraged, and internally "give up," or turn away from myself and in doing so, from those I sought to love. This was true particularly when others did not respond as I thought they should to my pursuit. Then, my suffering was compounded. Not only had I failed, there was something inherent in me that was insufficient. If only I had loved more perfectly, the other would have responded and loved me in return. It became a vicious, endless cycle. A broken record spinning round and round. Pursuit of having, of achieving, of becoming or acquiring something I did not have, was not. And when I failed, despair, giving up, turning away. Then pulling myself up by my bootstraps and trying again, and again failing myself and those I sought to love.
Even my spiritual practice became a place where I was caught in the cycle of pursuit, failure, and turning away. In "trying" to love myself, all I learned was how unequal to the task I was. I thought I was the busy, spinning record. I had to learn to stop pushing against a self that was wrong, and know the embrace of Christ, for whom I was absolutely, unconditionally, right … as I was, in the moment. It was not until I began to learn to become conscious of myself in the moment, of my spinning, busy mind, of my underlying sense of fear, sadness and inadequacy, and learned to see those things in myself as Christ sees them, without judgment or censure, that I began to realize that I was not the spinning, broken record.
To be in the moment with Christ...
What if we could actually be with the Nativity? Experience the inner experience of Mary, of Joseph? Ignatian spirituality encourages the practitioner to do just this. To be in the moment with Christ. This practice is far less a journey into imagination as it is the experience of Christ folded into our own inner knowing. When Christ was conceived, he became form, but he had always been, so his "coming" was not a coming into being, but a coming into this particular form. A zygote, dividing, dividing, dividing again. And his mother felt exactly what any woman feels when she learns she is pregnant. "I can't feel anything at all. But I know something is different in this form called my body." And as the fetus grew, the ability to sense its presence grew too. Physical discomfort, the changing body, the fear of the unknown. And then childbirth, both mother and child feeling the pain, uncertainty and then, ultimate wonder when the event in the moment evolves into the warmth and certainty of this miraculous human form cradled in the arms. A series of moments, each one with a different experience, a different knowing.
My serious spiritual practice, the place where I truly began to wake up to knowing Christ present in me and with me, began in this way. As it progressed, I began to learn that I did not have to choose between pursuing spiritual perfection and turning away in despair from loving myself and others. I began to experience the place between pursuit and turning away. That place is invitation: the invitation of my open heart. I began to become aware that my heart beats and expands because of the underlying presence of Christ, that it is a lovely place, so full of compassion and caring for others. A place of goodness.
The essence of "God With Us"...
I have begun to learn to sit quietly, even with what I see as my flaws, my imperfections. I have begun to practice presence there, in that place where His love flows constantly into my heart and connects me to every other living being in my life. In this practice, my prayer has become, "show me how to be present in this moment with You," not, "Oh, by the way, can you come here and do this or do that, or even, just be here." He already is here. He has always been here. In learning to pause and breathe in His presence, I am learning to come home to my own heart, which rests in Him and in so resting, opens out to others.
This is the essence of the gospel of Christ, of "God With Us". The Kingdom of Heaven, Christ told us, is within you. In this moment, in the seeing who we really are, perfect in our imperfection, balanced with our being present in the invitation of Christ to the compassion that is the ground of ourselves as His creation.
From this perspective, Advent is less about some future event, some coming Christ that we have to wait for, than it is about the essence of compassion, invitation without criticism, expectation or anxiety, that is waiting for us in the recognition of Christ as the ground of the heart in each of us, in this moment. God With Us.
Photo Credits: Embroidery image used in title from Embroidery Library www.emblibrary.com/EL/default.aspx
What are your thoughts on this commentary?