between desire and fulfillment,
in the lack, not the contentment.
Love is the ache, the anticipation, the retreat…”
Kiran Desai, “An Inheritance of Loss”
On this feast of the Presentation, my mind immediately turns to these two humble old figures in the Gospel, Simeon and Anna, who “never left the temple but worshiped there night and day with fasting a prayer.” I think of them both as archetypes for the contemplative monk and nun. I thought of Mary Louise across the street who, when I was first here in 2000, spoke to me so eloquently about “the place,” that is, Shantivanam, and that how no matter who comes and goes now, the three founders left here a sacred space, a sacredness that cannot diminish. “If God were to grant me a thousand years,” she said to me, “I would stay here and watch and wait.” She reminded me of Anna. When I wrote the Song of Luke I had the two characters, Simeon and Anna, sing Simeon’s canticle together as they both seemed to embody this same sense of waiting. For our Camaldolese version of the canticle of Simeon that, as all of our psalms and canticles, has its own doxology, Thomas wrote the beautiful “With the just ones who have awaited the coming of Christ on earth, we sing to the glory of God.” And just about very time I sing that I love to think about all the just ones through the ages who have patiently awaited, who did not know the whole answer but were content somehow in the waiting, the rishis along the banks of the Ganga, and the bhikkus sitting under bodhi trees, the sages on the mountains of China, and the medicine men and tribal leaders in Africa, the outback of Australia and the wildernesses of America, waiting waiting waiting, maybe no even knowing that they were waiting. And somehow our tradition is bold enough to claim that Jesus is what they have been all waiting for.
A feast the Presentation makes us wrestle with that, or at least it makes me wrestle with that claim that Christ is not just the glory of Israel, but the light of the nations. My philosophical mind wants to take refuge in the logos, and say that it is the Word that they are waiting for and whenever anyone encounters the Word through beauty or truth or goodness, they are encountering this second person of the Trinity. Or it wants to hide behind the “Christ” and say that the Christ is different from the historical person of Jesus. But a feast like today’s asks us to actually have some devotion to this specific person, Yeshua ben-Joseph, this human being in whom we believe the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily. I remember having just about the same rather uncomfortable discussion twice last year when I was here in India specifically about Jesus being an avatar of Vishnu, specifically the eleventh. I suppose that is one way to make Jesus understandable and even acceptable, but it wasn’t enough for me, if “the fullness of the godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily” as the Scriptures claim. And I would quote Monchanin and Abhishiktananda and the reason they took the cosmic cross as their symbol: because not just the Christ, not just the Word, but the “Christ revealed in history,” that is the person of Jesus, they said, “is the very Brahman itself, the object of all the contemplation of the rishis.”
In a sense this is old-fashioned theology already, a theology of fulfillment, though it is still a few steps ahead of many other Christians who think that everything outside of Judeo-Christianity has simply to be wiped out, and therefore never practice something like yoga or za-zen as a Christian. Paul Knitter explains it well in his book “Introducing Theologies of Religions”: there is “replacement theology” that says there is only one true religion that must replace all others; there is “fulfillment theology” that holds that there is one true religion that fulfills all other religions; there is the “theology of mutuality,” that there are many true religions which are called to dialogue; and a “theology of acceptance”––there are many religions which have different ends completely. Peter Phan says, in his wonderful article “Praying to the Buddha”:
More simply, theologies of religions are often categorized in three models: exclusivism, pluralism, and inclusivism. Exclusivism holds that there is only one savior and one true religion or church and that no salvation is possible outside of them. At the other end of the spectrum, pluralism holds that there are many saviors and different paths leading to salvation, none necessarily superior to the others. Inclusivism maintains that although there is only one savior and one true church, salvation remains possible outside them––though it is always ultimately dependent on them.
There are respected Christian theologians who advocate each one of these positions, making credible appeals to both Scripture and tradition to bolster their views. And, Phan points out, these three positions occur also among theologians of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism as well. The official teaching of the Catholic Church favors something like inclusivism while warning against the dangers of pluralism. We see things as not only pre-Christian, but pro-Christian, like today’s feast––everything is pointing to and leading up to Jesus, even the Bhagavad Gita and tribal rituals. A pretty fundational text for me in understanding this is from Jacques Dupuis:
One cannot … consider equal or even less practically identify the preparation of Israel for the event of Jesus Christ and that of the nations, even though also worked by God. The other religious traditions do not have an identical meaning in the history of salvation to that of Judaism; the reason is that they do not have the same relationship with the “Jesus Christ event.” Nevertheless to such an event they are already oriented and, for that reason, are not only pre-Christian but “pro-Christian.” They are all authentic “evangelical preparations,” even if in an indirect way, and as such are destined by God, who directs all of human history to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. They represent true personal interventions of God in the history of the nations that point them towards the decisive intervention of God in Jesus Christ.
This goes back to the thinking of Justin Martyr that the Logos–Word of God has been dispersed among humankind as semine verbi-seeds of the Word and seed of the Truth.
But the thing is this: there is no way of convincing another about that intellectually if they do not believe it. Either you believe that the fullness of the godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily or you don’t, and nothing I can say will change that. And furthermore, either you believe that the fullness of the godhead dwelt uniquely in Jesus bodily or you don’t, and nothing I can say will change that.
And, as Origen taught, there can be no true gnosis–knowlegde without an intimate union with Christ. That’s why for him the true model of the Gnostic was the apostle John, resting on the breast of Christ. And somehow that is what this feast has come to be about to me, intimate union with Christ that brings true knowledge. It’s something in the reading from the prophet Malachi that struck me and resonated in the Gospel––the fire. “But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Some time ago I come to understand that the fire of God, which we think of and is sometimes referred to as the wrath of God, and the fire of God that is the love of God are not two different fires. They’re the same fire, a refining fire. And Scripture says that that which seems like punishment to the enemies of God is healing for God’s friends. So it is with the fire of God’s love. It burns, but it also consumes and pervades and makes what it burns part of the fire itself. Our friend Agnete from Denmark and I were talking about inter-religious dialogue and she told me that whenever people ask her where the limits are, where the boundaries are, she uses a passage from the book of the prophet Zechariah (2:5): “I will be a wall of fire around it.” The boundary to enter to knowledge of God is that wall of fire, that wall of God’s love, which is perfectly permeable, anyone can pass through if they are willing to be burned to a crisp.
One of the images that remains with to describe the sadhus that I meet here in India is this fire in their eyes. I think of it in the face of St Francis and St Antony of the Desert too. And I think of it in the eyes of Simeon and Anna. It is the fire of desire. In the Gita Lord Krishna says, “I am desire when it is pure desire,’ and the purest desire in the desire for God. And who does not suffer from desire, even this pure desire, is not all desire like a sword that pierces the heart? Like a mother longing for her son as he fulfills his life’s purpose, like a son longing for the comfort of his father, like grandparents longing to see their children’s children, the Bride in the Song of Songs wandering in the garden saying “Have you seen the one who my heart loves? They have taken away my Lord!” But all that must undergone in order for the fire to be brought to the earth, the ring of fire that this boy himself is and contains. And who will be able to stand the day of his coming? For he will be a sign of contradiction! His main way, even his yoga of compassion, is the way of death and surrender, the way of the seed falling into the ground and dying. This is the fire that he says he has come to bring to earth, the fire that purifies us and burns out of us all that is not God’s own self. This is the fire that he comes to bring: the fire of the Holy Spirit who sings Jesus’ own song in our hearts, the love song of Jesus to his Abba. And who can stand the day of his coming into our world and into our lives? For the Spirit is like a refiner’s fire.
One of the characters in Kiran Desai’s book An Inheritance of Loss says, “Love surely must reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love is the ache, the anticipation, the retreat…” That’s where we are always, or should be content to be, between the desire and its fulfillment. May that fire be in our eyes too, and this love for God in our hearts, the fire of desire that in some way already is what we desire for when it is pure desire, in that gap between desire and fulfillment.
But for now, Simeon and Anna, the faithful monks watching and waiting, standing in for all the rishis and sadhus and bhikkus and sages, all the just ones who have awaited the coming of Christ on earth, the marriage of heaven and earth, the descent of Spirit into matter, who believe that they have seen with their own eyes the fullness of the godhead dwelling on earth bodily.