Saturday, December 8, 2012

"What are you waiting for?" -- Reflection on Advent

[I wrote this reflection a long time ago with Quakers in mind, but other Christians may also find themselves to be "seekers forever, finders never." This Christmas I realize that the best gift we can give ourselves, and others, is to be fully present--present to our feelings, present to our hopes and dreams, and present to the spirit that created and inspires us. This is a gift we must be willing to receive from the Holy Presence in which we live and breathe and have our being. It is pure grace.]

This is the time of Advent, the time in which Christians wait for and reflect upon the coming of Christ. For Friends, every meeting for worship could be considered a time of advent since we consider worship "waiting upon the Lord." In the past, Friends waited upon the Lord with a real expectation that the Lord would actually arrive. Now many Friends are apt to wait simply for the sake of waiting. We are willing to settle for "peace and quiet" instead of joy and bliss.

 Pleasaunce Holton makes fun of this kind of Quaker seeker in the song, "Doubting Quakers." Its refrain is:

 "We're all in search of God, We're good a silent seeking,
Seekers forever, Finders never."

Samuel Beckett mocks the perpetual seeker in his play, Waiting for Godot. In this play, two tramps await the arrival of a mysterious personage named Godot who is supposed to give their lives meaning and purpose. The tramps have convinced themselves that when Godot finally arrives, their lives won't seem boring and empty any longer. This being a modern play, Godot never comes, nor would it make much difference if he did. Beckett makes it clear that, as long as you are waiting for someone else to come and give your life meaning and purpose, your life cannot possibly be meaningful. At best, waiting for a savior postpones our encounter with the pain and emptiness of existence. Waiting gives us something to hope for, something to think about, something to write sermons and plays about, but ultimately it is only a distraction from the terrible tedium of the present moment.

Godot became a classic of our time because many of us feel, or have felt, like Beckett's anti-heroes. We would embrace any illusion rather than look within ourselves and face the reality of the present moment. When tomorrow comes and I find the perfect mate or the perfect job or the perfect religion, or when Jesus comes back and makes the world perfect, I will finally have a life.

Most of us don't really believe this dream, but at least it is better than having no dream at all. So we go on like the man described by Dr. Johnson who persuaded himself that when spring came, he would finally be happy. Of course, when spring actually did arrive, this man was usually disappointed, but for the other three seasons of the year, he was in fact happy. Dr. Johnson says that this is the most happiness that any of us can expect. As Alexander Pope, wrote: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast,/Man never is, but always [is going] to be blessed."

Unfortunately, those who expect to be blessed in the future, or cling to blessing from the past, never have a life in the present. As the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland explained , "We have jam every other day. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

What does it matter if Christ came yesterday, or will come again tomorrow? All that matters is Christ today! Today, this very moment, is the only time that is real. If Christ is real, Christ must come at this very moment, must meet us here and now.
Fox criticized those who believed that the Holy Spirit inspired early Christians, but no longer inspire us today. According to fundamentalists, we are fallen creatures who must rely on scriptural insights that God provided in the past. For these Bible-centered Christians, the Advent of Christ is an historical event that took place two thousand years, once and for all. Fox countered by asserting that unless you live according to the Spirit in which the scriptures were written, you will not be able to understand them. Furthermore, the Spirit continues to live and work within us, inspiring new insights and understandings.

The second block to experiencing the Light within us is the belief that Christ will come again in the future. There's nothing wrong with imagining a future where Christ will be fully revealed to all, where the world will be more just and more spiritually enlightened than it is at the present. However, there is a danger in pinning so much hope on the future that we ignore the present. In this sense, dreaming of a "world without war" is as bad as dreaming of heaven after death. Such dreaming can blind us to the genuine peace and heavenly moments that God gives us right now. God's kingdom is not like an amusement park in which we have to wait and wait in line for a ride. God is fully present in every moment. Therefore, every moment can be an experience of divine bliss, a foretaste of the perfect society in which all will be guided by the Light.

Jesus talked about Christ's second coming, but that wasn't the most important or most shocking part of Jesus' message. Jews believed, and many still believe, that sometime in the future the Messiah will come. What actually shocked Jesus's listeners was his assertion that the Kingdom of God had actually arrived. "The kingdom of God is within you," Jesus insisted. "The day of Lord has come."

Here in this moment, as we go about our daily tasks, washing dishes, minding the kids, taking out the garbage, smelling the roses, making love, sharing joys and grief with our friends and loved ones---here is where we must look for the advent of Christ. If we are ever going to be enlightened by Christ, we must recognize that His Light is right here under our noses, as real as our heartbeat and our breathing.

As we breathe in, we are receiving the holy spirit of life. As we breathe out, that spirit goes forth from us into the world. Breathe in, breathe out, the spirit of Christ--this is what Paul meant when he said we can pray continually. Breathe in and breathe out the holy spirit of life: that is the way to be continually aware of Christ's advent.

An ancient hymn by the German mystic Mechtild of Magdenburg refers to God as "unresting, unhasting, and silent as light....." How beautifully this describes the way that God comes to us during a time of meditation and prayer. "Silent as light"--just like the dawn slowly emerging out of darkness.

However, if you have ever waited for the dawn, you know that its arrival is anything but silent. As soon as the first glimmerings of light appear, birds go wild and start singing out with joyous exuberance, as if to say, "A new day is born! What a miracle!" In a similar way, those who have experienced the silent coming of Christ's Light cannot help singing out with joy and praise.

Perhaps this is where Friends need to pay more attention. We are "good at silent seeking," but not very good at joyful noises. "Silence can be a drug," says Pleasaunce Holton, "when we ought to be speaking." True, it is hard to speak about the "immortal, invisible God only wise,/in light inaccessible hid from our eyes." Words fail us, even the words of the greatest poet. Writing about his mystical vision of God, Dante apologized at the end of the Paradiso:
"What then I saw is more than tongue can say.
Our human speech is dark before the vision.
The ravished memory swoons and falls away."

Yet if we have glimpsed even the merest glimmering of God's eternal Light, how can we keep from speaking or singing?

The friends of a mystical Sufi poet once taunted him: "You say that the wonder of God is inexpressible, yet you write poem after poem about God. Why do you bother?" The poet responded simply, "Why does a bird sing?"

According to the Bible story, the shepherds and wise men came to Bethlehem and offered whatever they had to the Christ child. The wise men offered rich gifts; the shepherds offered their silent awe. I offer these words to the Christ child within each of us. May each of us experience the coming of the Christ within our hearts and may we share our joy and wonder with others, in the spirit of love.

(This was written in 1994, but seems timeless and relevant today.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks LA Quaker! We are using this post in our monthly "QVS Day" with the Quaker Voluntary Service volunteers in Atlanta.