What a Muslim Taught Me about Advent
When I was young, my family did not observe the season of Advent. With three December birthdays preceding Christmas, the month of December for my family was more like a relay race, sprinting between birthday cakes, presents, and family gatherings. It was not until I was a bit older that I began to learn about Advent. People described this season as an opportunity to revel in our anticipation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and our eschatological hope for Christ’s return. Advent was marked by the virtue of patience—a season of hopeful waiting. Given that I have always wanted about three extra weeks before Christmas to let our birthday celebrations settle, Advent made little sense to me. In fact, Advent represented to me an expression of our impatience. On my more cynical days, I proposed that Advent was a way for people to celebrate Christmas early because people are incapable of waiting.
Yet, even in my cynicism I can acknowledge my own lack of patience. In seasons set apart from Christmas, I have experienced the gnawing yearning between minutes and hours, wondering when relief would come. In smaller ways I felt the suspension between breaths aching in my lungs as I anticipated stepping onto my first roller coaster as a child. In unfathomably larger ways I felt that familiar breath-catching emptiness creep into my chest as my grandfather laid dying in a hospital bed nearly 1,000 miles away from me—I sat waiting for a phone call or text—news of a miracle, or the worst news possible.
Waiting in suspension, our lives hanging in the balance—isn’t this the worst feeling? Of all the things that plague our humanity, certainly our ignorance of the future trumps them all. So how could Advent possibly be a season worth celebrating? I understand that we are celebrating events past, present, and future that we fervently believe to be true. We believe Christ came in the flesh, and we believe Christ will come again. We celebrate a sense of anticipating what we already know.
But what about when we don’t know? What about our unbelief? What about those times when it seems like we’ve been abandoned? In moments like these my cynicism begins to emerge triumphantly, scoffing at the girl inside me who would like to delight in Advent activities. I examine the world around me, narrated by political hate speech, rejection of neighbor, retaliation against the enemy. My eyes glaze over as I scan through today’s news headlines of murder, betrayal, and recklessness. Our world surges as if Christ never came, and as if Christ will never come again. We live like Jesus was little more than a fictional folk hero, modeling possible suggestions for how we might consider living our lives, but probably won’t.
In this season of Advent, it is simply easier for me to scoff at those waiting hopefully. I look at all of you with your elves on the shelves, your Advent calendars, your candies and presents dispensed to mark the moments passing before Christmas, and I roll my eyes. When has waiting ever been a good and enjoyable thing?
Upon this confession, I move into the epiphany—the reason you opened this article in the first place. I have had a change of heart, one that could potentially be compared that of the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. My perspective did not shift after an Advent sermon, a Christmas movie, or a random act of kindness. My perspective changed when a 13th century Sufi Muslim poet clearly articulated my problem with waiting.
Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī was a poet, a scholar, and a theologian—but perhaps most notably, Rūmī was a mystic. You might be familiar with his work. He is one of the most popular and best-selling poets in the United States. Rūmī came from a long line of theologians, preachers, and jurists. He had become an accomplished teacher and legal expert, when in 1244 C.E. he met Shams-e Tabrizi, a dervish mystic who changed his life forever. Rūmī became an ascetic, writing extensively about the human condition of longing for union with God, and our desperate attempts to understand the heartache of detachment from God. While Rūmī was undoubtedly a professing Muslim, he also articulated a fondness for Jesus and an embrace of Christians, Jews, and others as sojourners searching for God. His openness and benevolence to people of other faiths led to a broader reach of influence. People of many faiths all over the world have found a prophetic voice in Rūmī, and Rūmī’s reflections have permeated across even the most indomitable religious boundaries.
I do not intend to impose a Christian concept on a man who clearly did not observe the season of Advent. But perhaps, in the spirit of Rūmī’s openness, I might reflect on a common experience and concern that he and I share. In the poem referred to as “Love Dogs” Rūmī writes about a faithful man who cries out to God in praise. A cynic approaches the man and chides, “So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?” The man who was crying out to God is silenced and discouraged. He quits praying, goes to bed confused, and in a dream encounters an important spiritual figure named Khidr. Khidr inquires, “Why did you stop praising?” and the discouraged man responds, “Because I’ve never heard anything back.” Khidr shares with the man a profound truth that has left me reexamining my entire outlook on life. He says, “This longing you express is the return message.” Then Rūmī continues,
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
Here is what a Muslim taught me about Advent. The emptiness I feel, the abandonment I wrestle with, and the cynicism that grips me, all of this testifies to the longing in my spirit. We long for union with God. We long for Christ’s return. We long for a season of celebration in the midst of a crazy and violent world. And when that longing would otherwise send me spiraling in discouragement, this poem reminds me that it is in the longing that I find love and connection with God. In this season of Advent, this season of waiting, we listen to our longing and we follow it straight to a baby in a manger—a baby who embodies God’s mutual longing for us. In this time of waiting, we find connection with that which we long for. That is what I have come to know about Advent.
Header image: Etole, S. 0142flame. Taken November 21, 2014. Retrieved December 9, 2015 from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Adjusted brightness for display on this blog.