Christophany and Advent: A Broader, Deeper Incarnation
There are probably many ways to know Jesus, but there are two general approaches. The first is from the outside, as an object of faith, adoration, or doctrine. This is the method of conventional Western Christianity. This method of knowing Jesus in traditional theology is called Christology. The difficulty in this method, however, is that the object of our knowing is culturally embedded; in other words, our sense of Jesus is dependent on Western methodologies and thought categories. This lens or filter, actually, any lens or filter, is called a cosmovision.
For one thing, this Western cosmovision is a rather biased and slanted perspective that ends up having more to do with Greek thought forms and Roman legal categories than it does with who Jesus really was or what he really taught. That would be problem enough. But this perspective through our Roman and Western lens also makes it extremely difficult to converse meaningfully and sympathetically with the other peoples and religions of the world and difficult to connect with the legitimate experience and thought forms of the rest of the world.
But the other way we can know Jesus is from the inside. We can take our cues here from Raimon Panikkar in what he describes as a very different contemplative knowing of Jesus he calls Christophany. Rather than subject-to-object as in our traditional Western knowing, this knowing is subject-to-subject. The trajectory of this inner knowing is through the disciplined and subtle exploration of our own inner landscape. Where you find Christ is correlative with your deepest and most authentic self.
By this route we are able to encounter Jesus’ own cosmovision through a dynamism that Panikkar calls interabiding. Because the only cosmovision here is an interior one, this interabiding, then, requires the opening of a new channel of perception within us—what Panikkar calls “the third eye” and what Cynthia Bourgeault calls “heart perception.” The research of modern neuroscience confirms what contemplative transformational methodologies have known all along—that contemplative practice doesn’t just change what you think; it changes how you think. It also changes what you are able to see.
Panikkar suggests that the pathway of this contemplative inner knowing of Christophany skates between the two classic options of our identity vis-à-vis God. On the one hand, I do not exactly claim that I am God; but, on the other hand, neither do I insist that God is completely other (as in the claim of a rigid monotheism). Instead, I discover myself as “the thou of an I,” (God is the I, and I am God’s Thou.) This is the nondual knowing that preserves the sense of the divine interpenetration into human life.
There are certain conditions of life that contribute to this understanding. One is that life is not static; it is a constant flow, moving ever forward. There are no fixed points and, despite illusions to the contrary, no fixed identities. The other condition is that everything in life is related to everything else. There are no distinctly separated objects. Relationality is the principle by which life is put together. Strikingly, these are among the proven verities that come from quantum science. Again we see a confluence of modern quantum physics and ancient contemplative truth.
To see in this way—to see the unified field of this relationality that includes the seer and the seen—is frequently called unitive or non-dual vision or perception without differentiation. But the challenge of this vision and understanding of life is that you cannot see it until you can see it. From our usual way of seeing and from our ordinary consciousness (egoic operating system) this simply makes no sense at all. It requires subtler faculties of apprehension.
It is, nevertheless, how Jesus saw the world; it is his cosmovision; and it is the perspective within which he pitched his teaching. Specifically, what he taught is patterned by a Trinitarian understanding of life. Deeper than doctrine, this sense that life is thoroughly penetrated by the divine was mystically experienced by Jesus from the inside. He both expressed it and lived it as a life gesture of kenosis, by which, through this expression of self-giving love, one enters the dance of abundance. It is precisely in this dance that unity and diversity are preserved in the dynamism of love.
Although most of us had been taught that to follow Jesus required moral merit and obedience, that model and understanding follows the first way of knowing Jesus—knowing him from the outside as an object of moral injunction. But if we were to explore this second way of knowing Jesus—knowing him from the inside, subject-to-subject—what kind of difference would it make, what would it look like, and how would we even do that? It would obviously require a sensitivity and attention to our own interiority. This would necessitate a different way of knowing—the capacity to delicately notice and observe our own experience from the inside without judgment. Theological and philosophical categories would have to be suspended in favor of a subtler interior noticing.
This subject-to-subject knowing would be more like the meaning of the Hebrew word “dath,” which is the kind of knowing inherent in lovemaking—knowing from the inside, subject-to-subject. Where you find Christ is correlative with your deepest and most authentic self, for Christ is in you and you are in Christ. This Christophanic interior knowing requires a more refined phenomenology than our usual way of intellectual knowing, our knowing from the outside.
But this capacity for Christophanic knowing is a faculty we already have within us; we come equipped with it. So much do we exclusively rely on our intellectual awareness, however, that most of us do not even know that we have this capacity for deeper seeing and deeper knowing. But just to correct myself here, this is actually not something we “have,” so much as it is a part of our being, our very nature—a vibrational frequency wherein the human and divine flow into each other so that there is an interpenetrating presence. The result is an energetic dynamism in human life that bears the stamp of the divine.
It is in this sense that Theresa of Avila (whom Panikkar references) can hear the divine imperative, “Seek yourself in me and seek me in yourself.” This is the essence of the Christophanic experience. As mentioned above, it is an inherent interabiding. Our contemplative practice assists us by allowing us to relax the contraction that allows the divine penetration to unfold within us, to fill us, and, most importantly, for us to realize it.
But there’s a striking assumption here that goes against the grain of what we’ve been taught. We had been led to believe that the way to God is up and that the human condition is at the maximum distance from God. In our training and upbringing the incarnation was the miracle by which God deigned to try to pull us from the contaminated mire in which we were stewing by sending Jesus, his only Son. Incarnation meant that the divine entered human life in the one person of Jesus, and Advent had always for us been the season in which we tried to wrap our minds around that reality.
But this Christophany, this subject-to-subject knowing of Jesus, reveals something profoundly different—that enfleshment is no impediment to divinity and that the incarnation has to do not just with Jesus, but also with us. The divine enters human life and interpenetrates and enlivens our being, every bit as much as it did Jesus’ being. Consequently, the way to God is not so much up, as it is in. It turns out that we have the same two natures within ourselves as Jesus did.
In Advent we have long been urged to wait and watch and hope and pray. It seems all about the preparation for Jesus’ arrival—his arrival on the planet in the stories of his humble birth in a manger and his coming at the end of time to judge the world. But all of that would seem to be a response to the first way of knowing Jesus—knowing Jesus from the outside as an object of faith, adoration, or doctrine.
But there is something else in addition, something far more mundane that further complicates things at this time of year. Besides being the time for spiritual preparation and purification, unfortunately Advent in our culture is also a frenetic time of getting ready for all of the family and cultural expectations that come with Christmas. Consequently, we just never seem to get it right. And by the time Christmas crashes down the chimney and into our living room, we complain that we just don’t feel very “Christmassy.”
The hook of Advent and Christmas for most of us has been sentimentality. We have tried to use our mood to hype us up to a level of concentrated involvement and participation. But sentimentality can only cover the most superficial of ground; it has very little depth. But knowing nothing deeper, we have put all of our eggs in that basket. And then we have always ended up coming up short and being judgmental of ourselves for our seeming failure.
But what if we took direction from the mystical and contemplative traditions and sought to know Jesus from the inside—as I have suggested in this second way? That would undoubtedly put us on a whole different trajectory. But whose birth would we be preparing for during Advent? Would it be Jesus’ birth, or would it be our own? Or might it be both—something of a relational birth with two dynamically connected ends that wouldn’t be fixed points at all.
One way that we might express our relationship with Jesus is this: We say that he is the icon of all reality, meaning that he perfectly encapsulates the deepest principle of human life within himself. He demonstrates what it is to be a single or completed human being. But this is not an external standard to which we are to live up. Rather, it is an interior reality about our human nature that is already true.
This is, in fact, the pattern of the Trinity (mystically instead of doctrinally understood). It is in the movement of the Trinity’s flow that I experience that I am a Thou of a deeper I. I experience my deepest “I” as the beloved. But this awareness cannot come from an intellectual or rational understanding; it can only come through experience, which is the result of practice; and it can only come from a relinquishment, a letting go, a surrender.
While this does not preclude a certain amount of sentimentality (we can relax about this), it certainly transcends it. That means that our Advent preparation no longer hinges on getting emotionally jacked up. Preparation may well, then, include something quieter, subtler, and much deeper.
If you are called to this more unconventional trajectory, may you surrender to it. Indeed, may the inner light of Incarnation light you from within during this holy season. And may this divine light reach the darkest corners of our present world.
9 thoughts on “Christophany and Advent”
THANK YOU for this Advent gift.
Beautifully clear, loving, helpful, thoughtful and heartful.
Thank you for this beautiful invitation
This lovely theological reflection is one I will keep on hand to give to friends and other speakers as a sample Review of the heart of the contemplative work. Thank you
Yep. I get that “not Christmassy” thing. Oven is broken, so no cookie baking with grandkids, who are going out of town for the week anyway. A Buddhist husband, Jewish closest local friend, etc., etc. Then I read this and am reminded of what I need to deeply KNOW over and over again. Thank you dear Bill.
Thank you, Bill, for pointing the way so beautifully to our inner space, the place of encounter.
Loved this piece. Especially Panikkar. Subject to subject—it reminds me of a vision I had a long time ago. I was thinking incredibly hard about capital punishment and why internally it seemed so wrong to me—not a question of morality but of something else. I was walking in downtown Charlottesville on the pedestrian mall—lost in thought—when suddenly something opened up in me and I saw what the world looked like when it was subject to subject. Can’t describe it except to say that it was about relationship and love but not affection—something much deeper—a total reorientation. So that is what I see reflected in your words—except not just between us and Jesus but between each one of us and all of us and the Divine—subject to subject(s) to subject—the trinity that holds Absolute Potentiality in manifestation so that love might be. That flow is disconnected when we objectify any Being.
Clearly, beautifully expressed, Bill. Sharing with friends. Thank you.
You have put into words thoughts that I have been struggling with for some time. Many thanks!