This reflection was part of the Advent Prayer Series we led in our hometown and church. The series was entitled Transforming Fear into Trust.
Mark 13 : 5-13 (A Contemplative Translation)
5 Yeshua began by saying, “Be careful, and do not let anyone manipulate your mind and heart. 6 In a time of crisis, many so-called leaders will rise up, claiming to be the answer, saying, “I am the One who will keep you safe.” They will manipulate the minds and hearts of many, who are fearful, into following them. 7 When you see violent conflict around you, and reports of violent conflicts everywhere, do not allow yourselves to get drawn into reactionary fear and panic. These disturbances are what naturally happen in a time of uncertainty and upheaval, but they’re not the real change we’re looking for. 8 Groups of people will fight and invade other groups, and countries will wage war against other countries. There will even be natural disasters in many places, and times of widespread starvation. But this isn’t transformation; it’s only the pains of labor that precede the birth of something new.
9 As for you who are following my teaching, stay alert and watchful, both within and around yourselves. If you remain in peaceful, powerful Truth in a time of fear and panic, and do not take sides when people are hating and fighting each other, they may arrest you for your strange, different ways, and even go so far as to physically harm you in their supposed places of worship. You will be dragged before political rulers because you abide in my living presence, and they will see your light radiating before them. 10 This Liberating Transmission we’re bringing into the world must be shared with all people, of every background. 11 So, when fearful people drag you away in chains and make you stand trial, don’t even worry about what to say. Just open your mouths and speak whatever is given to you at that moment. It won’t be your small self that is speaking. The One Sacred Spirit, dwelling within you, will speak through you! 12 The terror in the world may be so great that families will be torn apart, with brothers betraying each other, children betraying parents, and parents betraying children – even handing their own family over to executioners! This is what fear does in people’s hearts in a time of great conflict. 13 In such a time, if you remain in my light, power, peace, and presence, then every one of the warring factions will hate you for not taking their side. However, the one who perseveres in living from Divine light and truth through all this tumult, not giving into hate or fear, will be made completely whole and transformed by the ordeal. The hardship, far from destroying you, will increase the power of your love."
Sometimes it’s easy, two thousand years after the birth of Christ, to have Advent and Christmas become a domesticated story. We turn the narrative into a lovely and very safe story about sweet baby Jesus, and the little baby lambs, and people gathering at the manger. We forget that Jesus was born in the midst of great conflict and great opposition. We forget that Jesus birth, life, and teaching is not simply a beatific vision that happened once in the past. The Christmas story is actually about the birth of a new way of living and loving in the face of conflict, violence and fear. It’s about the birth of Divine Unity in the midst of division.
In Jesus’ time, Judea was occupied by a foreign oppressor (the Romans) While the Romans, were more or less universally hated, various factions within the Jewish community had very different responses. The Sadducees, a religious/political party acquiesced and chose to live as peaceably as they could with the Romans. They even worked for them in their government agencies, aligning themselves with the Romans and therefore were able to stay in power themselves. The Pharisee’s response was to stay very pure within their own observation of the Torah. They chose not to touch the violence or conflict, but rather removed themselves internally to focus on their inner practice and purity while living side by side with the ‘impure’.
The Essenes fled the city altogether to go into the wild areas and kept themselves physically removed in order to practice the Torah in purity. The Zealots fought the Romans through an underground resistance, engaging in acts of violence as part of their opposition. Each of these groups did not trust or like the others. They had a common oppressor, but their allegiance to their response created conflict among them. There was division upon division. This is the situation where Jesus was bringing his teaching about trust, about not giving into fear.
Based on our current events, this passage could have been written a week ago. Jesus’ teaching is a call to not align with forces that have collapsed to one camp or another into an “us versus them” oppositional attitude. Jesus is saying that in order to follow the way of truth, we need to stand in the middle of all factions (both around us, and within us) and see clearly. We must be able to stay present and not to collapse into fear in any number of directions. We must develop the capacity to stay open, breathe, and take in the whole field of human experience. The response of fear in each of these camps is to collapse into one hardened way of doing things; into thinking only one way is right, and we need to oppose, fight, or destroy the other to become safe.
In this teaching, Jesus says, “Be careful, and do not let anyone manipulate your mind and heart… saying, ‘I am the One who will keep you safe.’” There’s an impulse in the human heart to want to feel safe; to not need to trust. We seek safety and security from an outside source. The spiritual teaching here is to be able to trust in God alone, in life itself, in reality itself, and to not collapse into that sense of protection from the outside. Jesus continues to say that his followers will even be hated for doing so. Those who have collapsed into fear tend to want others to join them. The way we see this here in Vermont is when people have a lot of sorrow and regret about what’s happening in our country, we often seek solace in all complaining together, or in all talking about what a terrible world “those people” are creating. This is a collapse into something smaller rather than holding all things in love. As Jesus says, “This is what fear does in peoples’ hearts in a time of great conflict”.
“The one who perseveres in living from Divine light and truth … will be made completely whole and transformed by the ordeal. The hardship, far from destroying you, will increase the power of your love.” Jesus invites us to stay in the uncertainty, to stay in the chaos, to continue to breathe, love, and stay open. When we do this there’s eventually a breakthrough, a transformation or change that happens. When one abides in the unknowing, continuing to love, it can break us out of the typical dualistic mind that we all come into this world with - the “either/or” “us vs. them” pattern. If you stay long enough in the face of what’s uncomfortable and continue to love, at some point it breaks the dualistic mind open into the new ability to love unconditionally. We begin to have a heart that’s free.
That’s exactly what the image of Jesus on the cross is – this person who is conscious, loving, and staying awake in the face of immense hardship. In the Garden of Gethsemene, all the disciples are falling asleep, but Jesus stays awake to what’s going on. He takes it all in. And it kills him. The story continues to a resurrection on the other side. This is an external story, but it’s also a teaching, a metaphor, of what happens to the mind and the heart when we receive the conflict in the world or even directed towards us without reacting, without collapsing into fear, without pushing it away. If we instead continue to bear the conflict and remain open, it can lead to a collapse of the whole “us-them”, “either-or” oppositional psyche and break us open into resurrected free love that cannot be hurt by others. Jesus the teacher gives us an invitation to die to that part of ourselves, and be reborn into this realm of love and trust. This is the invitation to ‘stay awake!’ that we hear at the beginning of every Advent.
Prayer practice: Sensing Fear and Trust in the Body
This prayer practice is a way to become aware of constriction inside our body and the feeling of opening in trust. Simply being aware of what that feels like can help us have more consciousness and awareness of what’s happening within us in the face of conflict.
Begin by finding a comfortable position. Notice the weight of your own body on the chair or on the ground. Notice the simple moment by moment miracle of breath entering into our lungs, filling our body with life, breath leaving and releasing from the body.
Introduce a statement that comes from a place of fear or tension into your consciousness and notice the reaction in your body. You might choose something you find disturbing from the news. You could also use an inflammatory statement directed at you, or a distressing concern in your personal life. Notice the sensations in your body, thought patterns, and emotions as you focus your awareness on this statement.
Now, introduce a statement that comes from a place of trust. For example: “I am born of a Love that is infinite, and Infinite Love abiding in me can never die.” Notice the sensations in your body, thought patterns, emotions as you focus your awareness on this statement.
Take a few minutes to rest in this infinite love through which you were born, the love that was never born, never dies, endures all things, bears all things, trusts all things.
Return to the first statement of fear and tension, while also holding in your mind this infinite love. See if you can hold in your heart both realities in your mind at once without getting lost or locked into the conflict. Do not push it away or get lost in it. Hold it within this context of infinite love. Continue to breathe, continue to open and relax. If you feel yourself pushing away the tension, gently bring that reality back into your awareness while also holding on to an awareness or conviction of the presence of infinite love. If you find yourself locking into the place of tension, gently bring that sensation of fear into the ocean of infinite love. Continue this practice of holding a place of tension in the context of Divine Love. Gradually, the ability to trust in the face of fear will grow.