The Psychology of Advent

The Coming of Jesus into Our Minds and Hearts

Advent is a season observed in most Christian denominations as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives: the physical nativity in Bethlehem, the reception of Christ in the mind and heart of the believer as a result of the Spirit promised at Pentecost, and the eschatological Second Coming and the ultimate destiny of humankind.

The reception of Christ into the mind and heart of the believer as a result of the Spirit promised at Pentecost is more than receiving grace. The effects of grace are internal and external. The external is more obvious since it involves a person’s behavior such as speech, which would include the written word and their actions. The internal effects involve the mind and heart both of which play a part in the person’s emotional state. In the Catholic tradition, there are two types of grace, Actual and Sanctifying. 

Actual grace is that special help that the Holy Spirit gives us to enlighten our minds and to inspire our hearts to do good and to avoid evil in particular situations. It consists of temporary gifts of divine light for our minds and divine powers for our hearts. It is the nudges that God uses to get our attention so that we might enter more deeply into a relationship with Him. Actual grace compels us to take action in our lives to put God first.

Sanctifying grace is interior grace, which dwells in the soul the true Self and transforms it, making it closer to the Divine. There are many other “kinds” of grace according to various Christian denominations.

However, the theology of grace is lost on most people. The reason it is lost is that most people expect grace to change them because in many if not most cases they seem to understand grace as a “quid pro quo”. If I am a faith-filled, and willing participant in prayer, worship, and works of charity I receive grace or favor from God. I’m not sure how grace operates or affects a person.

We know that grace is not like fairy dust that magically changes us. The process of change may be explained more by psychology than by theology.

Using the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, one can demonstrate how the healthy human psyche develops and cooperates with “Grace” which is the English translation of the Greek χάρις (charis) meaning “that which brings delight, joy, happiness, or favor”. Free will is not the only necessary criteria or disposition required to “receive Christ” into one’s mind and heart. A person’s disposition and attitude must be open to the power of grace to assist and strengthen one’s ability to unite with divinity or do God’s will.

Faith or confidence in the power of the Spirit is necessary if grace is to affect the mind and heart. How many times did Jesus say, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Faith is belief, firm persuasion, assurance, firm conviction, faithfulness. Faith is confidence in what we hope for and the assurance that the lord is working, even though we cannot see it. Faith knows that no matter what the situation, in our lives or someone else’s that the lord is working in it.

Luke’s gospel claims that Jesus ” increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Lk 2:52. The obvious question is how did Jesus use “grace” to achieve this wisdom and reputation. Perhaps the answer lies in our understanding of how the human psyche works.

The Mystery of Incarnation

Francis of Assisi believed that the finite world manifests the infinite world or eternity and that the physical, comprised of human consciousness, is the doorway to the spiritual (the foundational principle we call “incarnation”).

From this, we can realize that access to heaven or eternal life begins on earth with human consciousness. 

The material is not really separated from the spiritual but only separated by that which separates our consciousness from the sacred or the Divine or what we might know as separation from Good by Evil, from Justice by Injustice, from Love by Hate.  There are no sacred and profane things, places, and moments. There are only sacred and desecrated things, places, and moments—and it is we who desecrate them by our ignorance, irreverence, and unwillingness to unite with all that is Divine. The Creation of the universe which of course includes our world or planet is sacred and we humans are all included as the creation story in Genesis indicates.

Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985)
The Paradise 

In that first book of the Sacred Scriptures, we are told that we are created  “in the image and likeness of God”.. created ..  male and female. As such then, we are a mirror of the Divine, a consciousness of divinity in the universe.

This story goes on to symbolically describe how humans separated themselves from that image and likeness, of the divine Creator. They disobeyed or failed to listen to God. We could say that humans ignore the presence of divinity in the material world. The fruit, the tree of knowledge, the serpent, even paradise are all parts of creation as it unfolds through what we now call evolution. Eventually, humans developed consciousness or sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world. “inner, qualitative, subjective states, and processes of sentience or awareness.” An example of consciousness was described in Genesis 3: 7, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”

This consciousness includes “one’s autobiography and mental time” together with the capacity to introspect and report about one’s mental state by verbal and nonverbal means. According to some who study consciousness, it can be defined as “inner, qualitative, subjective states, and processes of sentience or awareness.

By taking the mystery of the Incarnation absolutely seriously and gradually extending it to its logical conclusions, the seeming limitations of space and time are once and for all overcome. When we stay with our daily experiences and apparitions, we see that everything is a revelation of the Divine—from rocks to rockets that are used to launch space capsules and satellites to the human psyche which may or may not be aware of the presence and power of divine activity in and through the creation of the universe. Humans are the only creatures to possess this self-conscious mind. Only the human can reflect on his or her behavior to determine whether or not it is a product of free will or simply a defense mechanism based on one’s physiological and psychological dispositions. Only humans can make choices based on thought and free will. Of course, the physiology and psychology of the person contribute to their ability or lack thereof to make appropriate choices.

The Mystery of Jesus, the Christ

The Christ Mystery refuses to be vague or abstract; it must be concrete and specific. Jesus enters our world as a human, who like us, is created without blemish, without imperfections, a tabula rasa, or the absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals, in other words, a clean slate. This appears to be contrary to the concept or belief in “original sin” which some say was an explanation for inhuman or unGodlike behavior which many refer to as evil. I’d rather believe that we are the original blessing of the Creator and need “grace” to affirm that blessing and in doing so, give us the support and power of the Spirit to become more fully conscious of our destiny-oneness with divinity. Isn’t that what heaven is all about?

With all this in mind, let me try to describe the psyche of Jesus using the Analytical Psychology of Carl Jung who once said, “The drama of the archetypal life of Christ describes in symbolic images the events in the conscious life as well as in the life that transcends consciousness of a man who has been transformed by his higher destiny.” Each of us has a higher destiny as well, call it heaven or the Kingdom of God.

Using Jungian psychology, I believe that the soul, created by God, is the Self that is one with the divine. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jer 1:5  and in John’s gospel he refers to Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jn 1:1  Both Jeremiah and Jesus are just two examples of this unity between creature and Creator.

Born of two Jewish peasants, Mary and Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth was like every child of God. Innocent, ready to explore the world around him, observing the adults in his life, discovering his identity, and actualizing the person or true self that he was.

But Jung claims that there is a false self that is separated from the divine because the false self is the self that humans use to impress others or to fit into society, to be part of the crowd. The false self rests on the surface, as the self is presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the facade or image. This Jung calls the Persona (or mask) which is the outward face we present to the world. It conceals our real self and Jung describes it as the “conformity” archetype. This is the public face or role a person presents to others as someone different from who we really are (as an actor). Perhaps this was what evolved into a separation from the divine. Christian scholars understand sin to be fundamentally relational—a loss of love for the divine and an elevation of self-love which eventually evolved into an increase in human god-like authority. The existence of royal authority could be considered a desire to be God. Isn’t this what the story in Genesis conveys?

There was nothing about Jesus that was false. It’s quite obvious that he was his own person. Can we say that about ourselves?

The Scriptures report:  “When he was twelve years old, he and his parents went up to the festival in Jerusalem, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Lk 2:41-52

Jesus among the teachers

Jesus came to know what he was about, what he wanted to do with his life. Jung calls this the process of Individuation or the process of becoming a complete human being, or how we integrate all the parts of our personality of which we aren’t presently conscious. Jesus’ Self was true and strong, and he was determined to live out his goals and objectives as influenced by his reading and praying the Scriptures.

According to Jung, the ego represents the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions a person is aware of. The ego is largely responsible for feelings of identity and continuity.

Jesus must have spent many hours reading the Scriptures, learning about Abraham, Jacob, and his sons who became jealous of their brother Joseph. He became familiar with the prophets who chastised the Israelites for not listening to Yahweh. Jesus knew much about his people’s history. His identity was one steeped in Judaism with its traumatic history and characters. His Ego was strong, his identity intact.

Jung continues: The personal unconscious contains temporality forgotten information as well as repressed memories. Here resides a  complex collection of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and memories that focus on a single concept. The Shadow is the animal side of our personality (like the id in Freud). It is the source of both our creative and destructive energies. “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”— Carl Jung, Aion (1951) Jesus spent much time alone, praying, reflecting, and maybe even confronting his shadow. Do we take the time to retreat from every day affairs to face our Shadow?

The more elements attached to the complex, the greater its influence on the individual. What impact did the stories of the Scriptures have on Jesus? What impact do they have on us?

We can only guess that they did have an impact on Jesus because he set out to share his feelings and attitudes with others. This was evidenced by the way he lived and by the stories he told to compliment or criticize his fellow Jews and the Jewish religion and even those outside the Jewish milieu.

According to Jung, there also exists a collective unconscious or Collective Shadow, which is a universal version of the personal unconscious, holding mental patterns, or memory traces, which are shared with other members of the human species. These ancestral memories, which Jung called archetypes, are represented by universal themes in various cultures, as expressed through literature, art, and dreams.  Jesus tapped into the psyche of the Jews. He was steeped in their history, their angst which was caused by various foreign powers which conquered Israel for most of their existence. Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders as well as the many practices that were the result of the human interpretation of God’s will. Do we confront hypocrisy or deception in our society, in our world of family and friends or do we accept it because we don’t want to upset anybody.

Mark (3:20-22) records a situation when Jesus’ family and others were not too happy about his behavior.”Then Jesus went home, and once again a crowd gathered, so that He and His disciples could not even eat. When His family heard about this, they went out to take custody of Him, saying, “He is out of His mind.” And the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” 

Another archetype is the anima/animus. The “anima/animus” is the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women. Each gender manifests certain attitudes and behavior of the other by virtue of centuries of living together. The psyche of a woman contains masculine aspects (the animus archetype), and the psyche of a man contains feminine aspects (the anima archetype).  Jesus seemed to have a healthy balance of anima/animus considering his relation with so many women and men mentioned in the gospels. How is the balance of our anima and animus? Does it contribute to or hinder our relations with other people?

The Self provides a sense of unity in life. For Jung, the ultimate aim of every individual is to achieve a state of selfhood or individuation, which Jung said is the therapeutic goal of analytical psychology belonging to the second half of life and is the process by which a person becomes a psychological individual, a separate indivisible unity or whole, recognizing his innermost uniqueness, and he identified this process with becoming one’s own self or self-realization, which he distinguished from “ego-centeredness” and individualism. Are we more concerned about our image than our integrity? Do we let our true Self determine our choices?

Applying Jung’s theory to the life of Jesus

“Jesus came to John the Baptist while he was baptizing people in the River Jordan. … As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Heaven was opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, “This is my own dear son with whom I am pleased.” Mt 3:13-17

Like any human, Jesus may have been inclined to think highly of himself and use his new title as his Persona or mask to portray authority and power and the fame that comes with them. Instead, he journeys into the desert to spend time alone, to pray, and try to understand what the title “dear son” really means for him. There he tries to confront his Shadow, his unconscious thoughts and feelings and bring them to the surface so he can address them.

It is then that he is tempted by “satan” to succumb to power, fame, and fortune which usually are the characteristics of those who are recognized as special by earthly standards. Kings and Queens in the ancient world were considered rulers by divine authority and appointment. He must confront such feelings in himself.

In Psalms 89:26–28, David calls God his father. God, in turn, tells David that he will make David his first-born and highest king of the earth. In 2 Samuel 7:13–16, God promises David regarding his offspring, Solomon,  that “I will be to him as a father and he will be to me as a son.” The promise is one of eternal kingship.”

Jesus, being a Jew, would have heard these scripture passages in the synagogue and so he needs to grasp the significance of his new title in relation to David and Solomon or even Moses. How did they handle their power, fame, and fortune? How must I handle those attributes?

The process of Individuation is now in play. Jesus realizes that his role as “son”, like others of his heritage, requires a response of faith or confidence. So he sets out on the path to obey Yahweh and journey toward oneness with the divine. He separates himself from the crowd not in an elitist manner but in the way in which he can be loyal to his vocation of sonship as pronounced by Yahweh. Just read the gospels and you begin to grasp what being created in the image and likeness of God is all about for Jesus! Aren’t we all children of God? If so, what must we do to be faithful to that designation? Do we confront the characteristics of power, fame, and fortune in our professional or work life? in recreational activities ? and even in our relationships with family and friends?

This Jesus whom we await during this and every season of Advent is the Jesus who accepts his calling to live as a child of God, whom he called “father” or Abba in Aramaic. He incorporated divine characteristics that enabled him to love God with his heart, mind, and soul. He understood his calling to be a call to lose one’s self in loving others and so gain eternal life united to the divine. A calling to act with mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and inclusivity. His vocation was to be one of healing the lame, the blind, and the deaf, those suffering from diseases such as leprosy and even to heal or exorcise those believed to be possessed by demons. Thus, the core or heart of his and every Christian vocation lies in this statement of his: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Mt 10:34

Jesus would divide those who do the will of God and those who don’t, those who truly love unconditionally and those who don’t, those who forgive and those who do not, and those who have mercy, are compassionate and lose their lives in the process and those who do not. 

He will reject the false self or Persona that humans use to impress others or to fit into society and be part of the crowd. As Jung said, “The false self rests on the surface, as the self presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the facade or image.” Therefore he could say, “I and the Father are one.” Jn 10:30 Do we rely on our Persona to be accepted by others? Are we afraid to let our true Self be seen by others? We can’t be hypocritical about our discipleship.

What should we expect?

The questions for us this Advent are to ask whether we are willing or not to prepare a place for Jesus to come into our mind and heart. Paul says to the Romans 13:13 “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ”. Managing our Shadows-both the personal and collective ones, particularly those that keep us from accepting the grace of Pentecost, is crucial if grace is to affect our life and our vocation to welcome Jesus into our lives. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Mt 13:33 Grace in us must be “worked on” “kneaded” if it is to change us.

One way to do this is by using Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading. We go to a place of quiet, read the Word of God, reflect on it, pray or talk to Jesus about any word or phrase that gets our attention or troubles us, then we contemplate by quietly putting ourselves in the presence of the divine. This we can do every day. There are many other devotions or Liturgical settings like the Eucharist or even acts of charity or service that can help us enable grace to grow within us and strengthen our resolve and intention to follow Jesus.

Are we willing to journey toward unity with the divine as Jesus did by allowing our true Self to blossom? Are we able to stop following the crowd and follow our conscience? Integrity and character are the signs of the true Self and require our adherence. Compromising is not a Christian virtue.

This, then, is our expectation for the season of Advent: the coming of Christ into our minds and hearts. Will we be faithful to our Christian vocation and have a change of heart so we can live more like Jesus with love, compassion, forgiveness, and service? Will we allow our true selves to grow closer to the Divine? Will we make room for him in the Inn of our minds and hearts?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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