To Know True Joy: The Challenge of Jesus’ Last Days

jesus-enters-jerusalem

When we read the biblical story of Jesus’ life, it often seems faded, as if seen through a film that has been bleached by the passage of time. Movies and books about Jesus’ life exaggerate the differences between the time in which he lived, and ours. Preachers speak as if that time was somehow special, separate and apart from the normal course of human history. Even worse, they may try to make us feel unworthy to have been born in the time when he lived.

More than twenty centuries have passed since Jesus walked on earth. Yet that wonderful story can be every bit as fresh as if he were alive today, if we can just put ourselves in the shoes of the people who were living those wonderful scenes, and realize that they weren’t so dissimilar from us after all.

Human consciousness doesn’t change. The one, central urge that drives all of our thoughts and actions is a pressing desire to escape suffering and know greater happiness. And this is something that never changes.

That central desire is present in all people at all times. And when the divine light appears on earth in human form, the response is the same – those who recognize that light as the source of their greatest happiness welcome it with rejoicing, while those who aren’t ready for the light rebel against it and reject it.

Jesus came to the Jewish people as an avatar – one to whom God gives the power to uplift millions into His light. And even though the drama of Jesus’ life took place within the culture of Judaism, it transcends all boundaries of religion and time.

Outwardly, the culture of the Jews was very different from that of the Roman occupiers. The Jews were a distinct minority who were allowed to have their way of life, but with little influence outside of their own small sphere, which was tightly controlled by the Romans. As a result, there was a feeling of great frustration among the Jewish people.

Those who looked to worldly power as their hope were frustrated by the limits that the Romans had placed on them. And those who were spiritually inclined were frustrated because their teachings had been hijacked by a corrupt and worldly priesthood.

Most of the Jewish people looked upon the great temple of Jerusalem as a symbol of their faith and accomplishments. Even today, the Jewish people look upon the temple with yearning, as a symbol of a future time when the land of Israel will be restored to its former glory.

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

For many centuries, people have believed that worldly power and spiritual power are somehow connected – that our great temples and cathedrals stand as true symbols of our faith and as a sign of God’s favor. But the world has entered an age when people are beginning to turn away from that belief.

If you visit the Portiuncula, the little church in Assisi that St. Francis built with his own hands, you can feel the love and devotion with which he restored that little chapel. In fact, it was from that tiny church that Francis’ great work began.

It’s a very humble building, and it’s ironic that it is enclosed by a huge basilica that the Roman Catholic authorities built around it.

You enter this beautiful, enormous, high-vaulted church, and you must walk a goodly distance across the polished marble floor before you arrive at the tiny, humble Portiuncula.

portiuncula

Portiuncula. Click to enlarge.

The church authorities felt that the best way to honor the spiritual power that Francis brought to the Church was to construct a great basilica that would reflect that power in a physical form.

The great cathedrals of Europe, and the great temple of Jerusalem were built during an age when the consciousness of mankind as a whole was incapable of conceiving that the reality of this world could be anything more than that which they could perceive with their own physical eyes.

(The procession of the ages of human consciousness is wonderfully described in a book by Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz, The Yugas: Keys to Understanding our Hidden Past, Energy Age, and Enlightened Future.)

The leaders of the Jewish people, who included the kings and the government officials and high priests, claimed the right to define what Judaism was. And as an expression of their beliefs, they built an enormous temple to impress upon the people the power of the Jewish faith, and how powerful their leaders were. (It’s significant that they built the temple in the district where the very wealthy lived, alongside the magnificent homes of the chief priests.)

In contrast to this display of worldly wealth and power, we find the true lovers of God, who understood that spiritual power doesn’t require an outward display, as the priests claimed.

Once you accept the need for an outward show, along with the usual explanation that it’s all for the good of the people, it’s nearly impossible to hold on to even a shred of the ideals you started out with, such is the seductive power of delusion.

So God sends Jesus into this culture, in response to a deep spiritual hunger for something more meaningful than cold outward forms, something that would renew their souls and help them understand the inner truths of their religion.

Jesus came to renew the religion of the Jews, and to return it to its former glory. This is why we find so many references in the biblical account of Jesus’ life to the prophets who came before him, and to the stories of the Old Testament, and the kings of Israel, because Jesus came to tell the Jews that theirs is a great and true religion, and to deepen their understanding of what it means.

Imagine what an impact his coming must have had on those who had the sensitivity to recognize what he was – those who loved God, and who longed to commune with Him, in the midst of this very heavy world with its pomp and rules and rituals, and its enormous consciousness of materialism. They longed for a master who would show them how to find the inner flame of divinity that was their life and hope, and that had nothing to do with those outward things.

And now Jesus comes, and he carries with him the glory of God. He is a clear window through which the faithful can perceive the Divinity that creates and sustains all things, including the cold stone temple and the rich homes and wealth of the priests and politicians.

Did you know that the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem a very short time after Jesus lived, in 70 A.D., and that only a short segment of one wall remains, and that it wasn’t actually part of the temple, but merely a small section of the wall that surrounded the Temple Mount? Yet countless people cling to it as a symbol of the hopes of the Jewish people, and of all that they have endured, and their longing that their former glory might be restored.

For the Jewish people, the Wailing Wall symbolizes the suffering of ages, and the hope of eventual salvation. And so I don’t want even remotely to make light of that symbol. But I do want to point out that the former glories of this world are, by definition, gone, and that history tells us, again and again, that they can never be restored.

Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall, photo by Peter Mulligan (Creative Commons). Click to enlarge.

Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall, photo by Peter Mulligan (Creative Commons). Click to enlarge.

The wealthy neighborhood where the priests lived is gone, and all their power and wealth are gone. But the light and power that Jesus carried is with us as much today as when he walked those streets with his disciples.

Dressed in the garb of a simple shepherd, Jesus walked with the ordinary folk who had been longing for a savior who would lift them above this world of unbearable material confinement.

And now they find their salvation standing in their midst, and it took courage to receive Jesus and practice his teachings, in the face of the power of the established religion, which proclaimed with great firmness, “This is how you must worship, and this is how God is pleased.”

This solitary wandering sadhu comes walking among them, without any possessions or worldly power or position. But he is radiant with the power of God to uplift their souls. And this naturally causes those in authority to become more and more alarmed, and to set themselves against him.

But the ordinary people responded to Jesus from their hearts, because they could feel what he had. And they didn’t wait for those in power to approve of it, because they knew from their own experience what he had to give them. And so we see a great conflict and conflagration starting to be kindled, even as Jesus’ inner radiance is drawing more and more of the common people to him.

In the story of Jesus, we see the eternal battle of light and darkness, with the two armies arrayed on either side, of those who cling to outward appearances, and those who recognize the power of Spirit that Jesus came to offer them.

Time after time, Jesus entered Jerusalem, where the powerful priests and the great temple stood against him as he made his great revelation known, and his message that the kingdom of God is within us. And each word that he spoke sent a message to the priests and the authorities that he rejected their superficial, rule-bound beliefs.

And so they tried to pin him down with his theological errors, which were of great importance to them. But he answered them fearlessly. And all the while his followers were watching and wondering, because they weren’t completely sure which side would win.

Jesus continued to speak of the individual soul’s potential for Self-realization, and the power of sincere seekers to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. And each of his followers received the message in their own way.  Some believed that Jesus would fulfill their dreams of worldly power, because they were living in an age when it was inconceivable to imagine a power that wouldn’t be expressed in stone. How could his mission be deemed truly successful, unless it would take a form that they could see with their eyes?

Jesus kept washing up on the shores of Jerusalem and defying the priests and the authorities, and the sense of a looming conflict grew more and more intense. And then he withdrew with his disciples to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, and taught them. He brought them away from the worldliness of Jerusalem and gave them a series of deep spiritual experiences, to strengthen their awareness of what he was, and what they were.

And then Jesus announced that he would return to Jerusalem for the sake of the disciples who lived there. And his followers were wondering, “Will he come back to Capernaum with his disciples, and will they start a small monastic community? Or will he walk into the city which is the center of our faith, and celebrate the great festival in the temple?”

The disciples could feel that the events they were witnessing were building toward a great climax. And so there was a tremendous sense of anticipation and uncertainty. And then on Palm Sunday Jesus entered the city for the last time.

On Palm Sunday he brings the disciples into Jerusalem in full glory, and he says, “I will ride on the back of a donkey, and you will proceed with me, and we will sing together.”

For much of Jesus’ time in the public eye, he has only allowed his inner power to be seen by his closest disciples: “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.” And now he began to let his power be known more openly.

Jesus allows the glory of God to shine through him, and the people are worshipping and celebrating and singing as they enter the city. Meanwhile, the priests are saying, “This is improper – it is not right for your disciples to honor you in this way!” But Jesus rebukes them: “If I were to silence my followers, the very stones would cry out.”

Which is to say, I am everything that they proclaim me to be, and all of creation affirms it.

Now, many of those who have been following him are thinking that this will be the moment when he will declare himself the savior and king of the Jews. The Jewish people will have their day and throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. The disciples will be vindicated in their faith, and the temple will be theirs. The corrupt priests will be thrown out, because Jesus and his disciples have come to save the Jewish people.

But, of course, the story doesn’t end in the way they expected.

A friend of ours in Portland is taking her last breaths, after a month-long vigil. I stayed in her home for much of that time, and we did something that the hospice nurses recommended. Instead of keeping her out of sight in the bedroom, we brought her into the living room and let the normal flow of life go on around her.

For weeks our friend lay in her hospital bed in the living room, by a lovely window in full view of the dining room. The dining table became the center of our world, while our friend lay a few feet away.

She hadn’t wanted to die. She is the same age as I am, and she had made many plans, and she was determined to get better. But it became clear that it wasn’t in the cards, so there we were, her husband and four close friends, waiting and watching to see what God would do, which we couldn’t possibly fathom.

As I was sitting at the table observing all of this one day, I turned to her husband, who was being absolutely princely, and I said, “If your faith in God is based on getting what you want when you pray, your faith isn’t going to last very long, is it?”

Because, how often do we get what we want? Sometimes, of course. And most people are terribly pleased when God gives them exactly what they ask for – a spouse, a job, a car, a raise, a child, a house.

As Master said, sometimes our prayers and our karma intersect. You pray and you get what you want, because it’s your karma to get it. But is this the full measure of our relationship with God? Is it like Amazon.com, where you place your order and receive a package by FedEx?

It’s a ludicrous analogy, but isn’t it what we’re often thinking on some level? “This is what I want and need, and Lord please let me have it.”

Whatever we’re asking for, it may be a perfectly wholesome and reasonable and good thing, so it’s harmless enough, isn’t it?

Our friend wanted to go on living so that she could complete her plans for all of the ways she could help her guru’s work. She was at the peak of her capabilities, and such a prayer could not be called selfish, because she wasn’t praying to be important, or to have money and nice things. She was asking, “I want to serve.”

But then we tend to add that last little bit, where we say, “And this is how I want to do it.” It isn’t a bad prayer. And it wasn’t bad for Jesus’ disciples to want him to come in the way they hoped – that he would march into the temple and take over and allow this beautiful teaching to become the center of the Jewish faith.

Who would call it a vain hope? It wasn’t wrong for the disciples to want to be free of political oppression, and to rid the temple of the corrupt priests who had power over them.

But we need to remember that there is always a divine drama unfolding behind the scenes, completely separate from the play of this world. That divine drama is the progress of our individual souls toward the light. And don’t think for a moment that it will always be easy to embrace it.

It’s easy to want to embrace it. And it’s easy to understand that it’s what we should do. But – oh my! – how very convoluted are the threads of our karma. And how often our karmic fate takes us in an unexpected direction, away from that which we wished and dreamed.

My experiences with our dying friend reminded me most profoundly that we have no idea what our divinely appointed fate has in store for us. We thought that she would die within a week or ten days, and as the time dragged on we had no idea what God intended.

But a master knows. And many, many times in the last month I longed for omniscience, to be able to know my friend’s consciousness and what was coming for her. But it wasn’t given, and it has never been given to me. I can’t know, even in the day-to-day running of my own life, why these things are happening, and why a different set of things isn’t happening.

So our prayers need to be very deep and impersonal, if we want to align ourselves with God’s will.

We can distill all of the things we want as devotees into a simple prayer: to be in harmony with God’s will. But it is very hard to know, even then, what God’s will will be, and to accept it and receive it with all love and humility.

How can we know His will for us? God’s will is playing itself out all around us, and for the most part, we can simply look around at what’s happening. And this is the position that the disciples of Jesus found themselves in, as they waited to see what the Lord would do.

As the end approached, and as the last cycle of Jesus’ life began to unfold, he began to say some very confusing and strange things to test their faith in him, and to weed out those who weren’t strong enough in their faith to follow him into the trials that lay ahead.

He said, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me.” And the Bible tells us that when he began to talk that way, many no longer followed him.

Today, we find the teachings of Jesus nicely laid out and conveniently organized by the various denominations in ceremonies that nobody really understands. They pass out wafers and wine as symbols of his urging us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. And very few know the meaning of that saying. Even when Jesus was with them, it wasn’t clear to most of them. Because, as the Bible tells us, “Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?…. And many no longer walked with him.” They couldn’t understand what he was telling them – that they must learn to commune with him in his true nature, in the unbounded consciousness of God.

Jesus said these strange things because he was aware of what lay ahead. Many of the disciples had joined him because it was something that happened to work very nicely for them for a time. Perhaps it was a bit daring and exciting to count themselves among his followers, and maybe they were thrilled to feel that they were living somewhat outside the mainstream and doing something new. But they were wonderful people, who longed in their hearts for a better teaching, and they had a wonderful time with Jesus, because he was so full of joy and laughter and wisdom.

They could go to Jerusalem and feel triumphant and exult in how he would confront the priests and best them. And then they would walk together, singing and having a great time. So for the moment their prayers and their lives were intersecting very nicely.

But Jesus knew that if we base our faith on the hope that God will answer our prayers in exactly the way we want, our faith will not grow strong enough to stand fast when it’s tested.

Jesus knew that his followers would have to be deeply rooted in their inner experience of his truth, to be able to withstand the horrors that were approaching.

Even Peter, who was the most stalwart and steadfast of the disciples, was thrown into a panic when the Master was arrested and taken before the authorities and humiliated and tortured. Three times Peter panicked and denied the Lord, because he didn’t have the strength in himself to say, “I am one of his followers – do with me as you will.” He said, “I have never met him,” and he denied Jesus to the Roman soldiers three times in the same night.

If your faith is based on God answering your prayers in the most pleasing way, your faith will remain shallow and fragile, and you will sooner or later find that you don’t have anything deserving to be called faith in God at all.

Jesus knew that when he was gone, his teachings would have to be spread by disciples whose faith nothing could touch. And it wasn’t that those whose faith was weak were bad people, but they had gone as far as they could go.

So they entered Jerusalem, and they were riding the wave of Jesus’ power. And who among them dreamed of the tragedy? How few of them could hear in that joyful noise the note of approaching disaster? It wasn’t that their master would be defeated, or that their faith would be disproved or refuted, but that God was about to answer their prayers in a way that they couldn’t imagine, and that few of them would have the courage to receive and accept.

This is the inner meaning of the story of Jesus. But let us not forget that it includes the wonderful ending, when the story resolves itself in bliss on Easter morning. It resolves in a divine way, because it can never be resolved in this world, and it was never intended to.

It doesn’t mean that we are meant to be miserable in this world, but that we must seek our happiness from its inner source, and that it is a matter of life and death that we do so.

We can bring our joy into this world very nicely, but we can only know that joy by tapping into its source.

At the end of Swami Kriyananda’s life, he said, over and over, “I feel so blissful, I just don’t know what to do with myself.” That’s how he put it. And at the very end, he said, “I used to have a certain aversion to this world, but wherever God is present, how can there be anything less than bliss? And where is God not present?”

This is the greatest challenge of our spiritual life. And Easter is an excellent time to face up to that challenge as squarely as we are able, and ask ourselves, “Why do I love God? What do I know of Him? How can I have more faith in God? Why am I a disciple? What is required of me, if I would be a true disciple? What could ever take my discipleship away?” Because these are questions that will be asked of us all, sooner or later.

I remember sitting at the table, next to this beautiful woman who had been reduced to a skeleton, and seeing everything that we thought of as her becoming smaller and smaller. But the spark of the divine light was still in her eyes.

We have a chant, “When I die, look into my eyes. They will mutely say, I will be Thine always.” Because the inner light is who we are. And how strongly are we aware of that light? How vividly do we know it in our heart and brain and spine? How far can God push us before we will break? And if we break, will we break toward God, or toward discouragement and resentment and self-pity and regrets, or toward humble acceptance in perfect faith?

Jesus’ disciples were given the opportunity to practice in a way that we ponder with awe, two thousand years later. And we, too, can practice here and now, this morning, this afternoon, and tomorrow.

The promise has been given, and all of us have experienced the truth of that promise. Hold on to that promise, and don’t let anything take it from you, because you will see that everything else will be taken from you in the end.

Spend a month with someone who is slowly dying, and watch everything being taken away – it is as sobering as you can imagine, but it is not un-joyful. It is absurdly, ridiculously, and causelessly joyful, because when everything else is taken away, what is left is what we are, which is the children of God, and the children of bliss. God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 20, 2016)

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