Are you coming or going?

A central concept in the season of Advent is "coming." The word itself, of course, derives from the latin "adventus" meaning coming. In the Christian context it specifically refers, as we know, to God, who is at hand, and to Jesus. Though I certainly question a literal acceptance of the story today, in the words of certain Native American Indian story tellers, I still feel able to say, "I don’t know whether this story happened but it is true." But then the question must be addressed is in what sense might it be true?

Part of the Christmas story’s power relies firstly upon the idea of preparing the way, all those visions had by Mary and Elizabeth and the role of John the Baptist are part of this; and secondly, of there being some ultimate purpose to fulfil - i.e. in the narrative there was for God a reason to come in human form and also a reason, place and time to come to. Now, a fairly straightforward literal reading of the story - such as the one I have just presented - is deeply problematic because if God is, in some real sense, all things or at least intimately connected with all things, can God be said to go or come anywhere? The first Englishman openly to declare his Unitarian beliefs was John Biddle (1615-1662) He had realised this was a problem and used it as part of his argument for the Unity of God. Argument I in his 1647 book "Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of the Scripture: Wherein commonly received Opinions touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit, is clearly refuted" begins:

He that is distinguished from God, is not God. The Holy Spirit is distinguished from God. Ergo [the Holy Spirit is not God].

Argument VIII begins:

He that changeth place, is not God. The Holy Spirit changeth place. Ergo [the Holy Spirit is not God].

Problems with the Christmas story only begin when it is understood simply at the literal level because such a reading would imply that there was a time when God, Divinity, was not present in the world in and through the kind of being we know as humankind. I don’t know about you but I just don’t believe this to be true. instead I think the Christmas story invites us to recognize something that has always been true but which we so often fail to see namely, as our opening words remind us week to week that "Divinity is present everywhere, heaven and earth are filled with God." When we learn to see Divinity in the simple daily facts of life, such as the birth of a child, we begin to see it everywhere.

Remember that the Unitarian Christian tradition has come to see Jesus not as someone who changed reality (the Jesus of orthodox Christianity) but some one who was capable of helping us better to see what was always true.

It seems clear to me that God cannot really be conceived as coming and going anywhere. Given this and, if we are ourselves meaningfully part of the whole, we should wonder, too, about the reality of our own comings and goings.

The first example which came to my mind was Goethe’s epigram "In living as knowing be" which suggests that we end at our beginning:

In living as in knowing, be
Intent upon the purest way;
When gale and current push you, pull you,
Yet they’ll never overrule you;
Compass and pole-star, chronometer
And sun and moon you’ll read the better,
With quiet joy, in your own fashion
Will reach the proper destination.
Especially if you don’t despair
Because the course is circular:
A circumnavigator, hail
The harbour whence you first set sail.

T.S. Eliot’s extraordinary poem, "Little Gidding" also bursts back vividly into the imagination:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

And later:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It has always seemed to me that Goethe and Eliot had, in these words, understood the still startling and joyous saying of Jesus’(Matthew 17:20-21):

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."

Both Goethe and Eliot, although rooted in the Christian tradition, had profoundly important interests in other religious traditions including Hinduism and there we find something else that pertains to our subject. Gandhi, for example wrote:

My experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that we can realize it not by saying “Lord, Lord,” but by doing His will and His work. If, therefore, we wait for the Kingdom to come as something coming from outside, we shall be sadly mistaken. (Quoted in Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 145)

And Ramana Maharishi comments:

The ultimate truth is so simple. It is nothing more than being in the pristine state. This is all that needs to be said. All religions have come into existence because people want something elaborate and attractive and puzzling. Each religion is complex, and each sect in each religion has its adherents and antagonists. For example, an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere in the far-off heavens, not to be reached by us unaided; Christ alone knew Him and Christ alone can guide us; worship Christ and be saved. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness (Quoted in Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 147).

There you have it - in all its nakedness - Advent, taken literally, is deeply problematic because God doesn’t need to come and go anywhere - God is always everywhere and always available to the pure in heart - those who, in Ramana Maharishi’s words, are in “the pristine state” or, in Goethe’s words, "In living as in knowing," are "intent upon the purest way." The story of Advent is glorious and true when it reminds us to come to ourselves - to a state of genuine mindfulness and presence to a place where every birth is Divine and everyday is the epitome of Christmas - true Christmas that is rather than the really rather tawdry and overly commercialised Christmas of contemporary culture.

The Christmas story, at least as I see it, is about this coming to ourselves - to that realization that "This is it!" The Christmas story is a wake up call to be present to each other as representations of Divine Love.

All our own comings and goings are but lessons to teach us that we are already here where we need to be and so is God and his kingdom. May we take time this season to sense that Divine presence in ourselves and each other and always act accordingly, with justice, compassion and wonder.
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