Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent 3: Abiding in the Inner Kingdom

We ask you to listen to our prayers, O Lord,
and by the grace of your coming, enlighten our darkened minds:

O Key of David, Jesus Christ,
the gates of heaven open at your command,
come and show us the way to salvation.

In this third week of Advent, I have decided to depart from the traditional explanations and anecdotes about the meaning of each candle, etc. There are abundant resources for this on the web, and I am sure that your church will also have plenty to say on the subject as well.

Our last post discussed the topic of ritual vs. revelation. In Orthodoxy, there is no such dichotomy between symbolic action (liturgy) and spiritual awakening. Rather, the celebration of annual feasts summon us to return to our soul's awakening in Christ. This process is initiated by our willingness to open our hearts to the deeper dimensions of our symbols (mysteries). However, we must also realize that our efforts alone cannot accomplish spiritual awakening. We must always keep before us the understanding that it is by grace that we are led to the deeper paths of liberation. The veil of darkness is lifted as Christ reveals the divinity within each of us.

This weeks advent prayer calls Jesus “the key” to the gates of heaven. And what is heaven? It is the abode of peace and our union with the source of all. This is the concept of theosis in the eastern churches. But we must not be fooled into searching for heaven somewhere outside of our selves. Yeshu teaches us that “the kingdom of heaven is within you”, (Luke 17:21).

The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. We may be familiar with this saying, but how often do we truly live out its true meaning? How often do we look outward for validation of our spiritual identity? There are many external distractions that can take our attention away from the inner kingdom.

Some of us look to religious leaders for spiritual validation. As innocent as this might seem, it is a form of external validation and it can actually be dangerous to our souls. Only the eternal Spirit can bear witness with our own concerning our spiritual direction. Although there may be others that may help guide us on the path, we must ultimately be sovereign in the choices we make. This cannot happen if all of our spiritual decisions are determined by our religious leaders.

Christ ordains leaders to guide, not to dictate. In Christian faith there is only one true shepherd: Jesus Christ who declares that his sheep will always know His voice. Jesus, speaking of the true shepherd says, “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." Jesus is certainly is reminding us that the voice of truth can only be validated from within. A guide may help point us towards Jesus, but we must be careful not to confuse the voice of the messenger with the voice of the true shepherd.

True spiritual guides provide direction and gracefully move out of the way so that the sheep can follow their true source of salvation. As sheep, our validation comes from within from the voice of our shepherd. As we reflect on Christ during Advent, we can be confident that His voice will always resonate within the shrine of our hearts. Therefore, we can trust His voice always, and live without fear on the journey.

Another way we may look for external validation is in our holiday traditions. These too can be obstacles to the inner kingdom if we are not engaging the symbols with spiritual intent. It is difficult, especially during this time of year, to keep our spiritual focus. While we may laugh at depictions of our frenzied holiday practices in films and television shows, it is known that many people suffer from the holiday blues in spite of the festivities. Instead of comfort and joy, we can become overwhelmed with a variety of maladies. We are supposed to be human “beings”, but during this time of year, we often we become human “doings.”

Despite all of the things that may wear away at us during the holidays, it is the strength of our traditions that can point us back to our true purpose: reconnecting with ourselves as human “beings” once again. With the passing of each year, our traditions can serve as reminders to evaluate our growth and to continue seeking the knowledge of our true selves. Each holiday season is ultimately a time of renewed spiritual focus and reconnection with the source of our inner being.

As we find ourselves connecting with the deeper layers of our spirituality, we are able to piece together the many aspects of ourselves that contribute to the whole person. Although shopping, eating, gathering, giving, receiving and attending holiday services may be a significant part of the joy in celebrating the holidays, there is a much deeper component to the season. The holiday season is an opportunity to develop a deeper awareness of your inner life.

Researchers have found that spiritual well-being and physical well-being are related to physical and emotional health. Maintaining a spiritual focus can not only help to transcend the inevitable stresses of this busy season, but can also be a solid starting point from which to move forward into the new year. Do not forget: The kingdom of heaven is within you. Listen to the voice of Christ, as He will always lead you into a deeper revelation of all things.

Wishing you a more profound experience of the elements of the season: love, compassion, joy, and peace – and this year, try giving yourself the gift of “being”. This is a gift that you can share with everyone you encounter all year long.