Those who contemplate on the all-wise, ageless Being,
the ruler of all, subtler than the subtlest, the universal sustainer,
possessing a form beyond human conception,
effulgent like the sun and far beyond the darkness of ignorance,
truly reach the supreme Purusha.
(Bhagavad Gita 8:9)
9 jan, 2010
The first guests have arrived for the Abhishiktananda centenary, actually the conveners themselves--Bettina Baumer and William Skudlarek, OSB. Bettina was a disciple and friend of Abhishiktananda, and if I recall correctly was told by Abhishiktananda to go back to Germany, her homeland, to get her doctorate so that people would take her seriously here in India. I think he was referring specifically to men in a time when the male culture had even more of a stronghold on all things intellectual. So she did and has been here ever since, with her main base in Benares but also a beautiful retreat spot up above Rishikesh. She also worked with the great Hindu-Christian scholar Raimundo Pannikar on his major work on Vedic spirituality, and is mainly focused now on Kashmir Shaivism. Fr William on the other hand is a Benedictine monk from St. John's Abbey in Minnesota whose current work is in Rome as head of the MID--Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue--the group that is organizing this event. I told him last night that he was like a Marine, sent wherever to do whatever is needed: he was stationed in Brazil and Japan, he speaks four or five languages and is also a professional 'cellist. A real erudite man, perfect for the job. He's just coming in from Thailand.
There are two things I hadn't realized about this conference, first of all that it is only open to members of MID (I didn't actually know that I was a member, but please don't tell anyone); and secondly that this is not the major event celebrating Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam! That will take in December on Abhishiktananda's actual birthday. There must be some reason I am here for this one instead of that one, though this one may be a little heady whereas the birthday party sounds like it would be more fun.
So I'm preaching today. It's the last official day of the Christmas-Epiphany season and we hear the story from the Gospel of John of Jesus and his disciples going into the region of Judea and starting to baptise people. John the Baptist's disciples approach John and ask him what he thinks about this, and John at the end says the beautiful phrase, "This is my joy and now it is complete. He must increase, and I must decrease." I just finished reading a book by the famous biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor called "Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives." There's a wonderful section on Jesus and John the Baptist that stuck in my mind and I have been wanting to preach about it, so here is my chance.
In this book Murphy-O'Connor states unequivocally that he believes that Jesus was a disciple-student-follower of John the Baptist. He speculates that Jesus had not gotten adequate answers as to the nature of his vocation from his parents when he was a young boy, and so was impelled to search for answers back at the temple among the elders. He was still unsatisfied as he got older and so joined up with the Baptizer and, Murphy-O'Connor believes, fully bought into John's mission at first, which was to return Israel to strict observance of the covenant, kind of like a young person looking for a sense of identity in this day and age joining a fundamentalist-evangelical church. So, in other words, he suggests that Jesus himself at an early stage of his public life was a bit of a fundamentalist, a zealot for the Law; and certain passages in Scripture are from that period, when Jesus says things as he does in Matthew 5 like, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law... not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law...", passages, I might add, that I have done somersaults to try and interpret in the best light in the past. But he suggests that some time around the imprisonment and death of John, Jesus has a kind of conversion experience, a change of heart about the Law, and those more fundamentalist passages about the Law are simply slipped in out of context from the rest of Jesus' gospel, for instance here in the Sermon on the Mount, that comes out of his mature understanding. At some point Jesus completely turns his back on the Law and with it he rejects any notion of punishment or restitution, and of course turns his back on the teaching of John the Baptist. Murphy-O'Connor lays out a pretty convincing argument that this is exactly why Jesus irritates his contemporary Jews. From now on out the one thing necessary is simply to follow him, as is shown in the story of Matthew itself--no punishment is meted out and no restitution is demanded. One simply must now follow Jesus.
I had all that in mind when I read that scene from the Gospel of John, as if this were the moment it was starting to happen. If Murphy-O'Connor is correct, imagine that Jesus has now stepped out on his own, no longer in his cousin's shadow, and there seem to be some questions about ritual purity. You can feel the poignancy of this moment for John, and it makes his words have even more pathos and weight to them. Not only is Jesus beginning to understand his mission, John is coming to understand Jesus' mission and his own, and is graciously bowing out and yielding to what has been ordained from heaven. There could hardly be more powerful words in Scripture nor a better example of how we are to be in our relationship to Christ and his Gospel, as well as in our own interpersonal relationships, especially with those for whom we exercise some kind of leadership as mentor, teacher, superior, parent: This is my joy and now it is complete: You must increase--I must decrease. My love for you, my devotion to you is not about me: it's about you. I don't want you: I want for you. I would give my life for yours. This is the love that presages crucified love.
There's an excitement about this scene too, you can sense that something new is dawning, as John's father Zechariah had sung in the canticle when John was born, "the dawn from high is breaking upon the earth to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadows of death." In our own little world, too. Christmas usually comes and goes pretty quickly, like a sugar high the way we usually celebrate it, and then yields to the deeper implications of the mystery of Incarnation. This year it feels as if we have had a rather long drawn out Christmas season, but today it ends giving way to the beginning of Ordinary time with the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord tomorrow which we will celebrate tomorrow. And how appropriate (I'll assume Bettina planned it this way) that tomorrow, the Baptism of the Lord, would also be the opening of the centenary event of Abhishiktananda's life, since for Abhhishiktananda Jesus' Baptism was the pivotal moment in Jesus' own life and self-understanding. This new dispensation of Jesus, his whole new gospel, comes from this experience, when Jesus discovered, as Abhishiktananda put it, that the I AM of God belonged to himself or, to put it the other way around, (I never tire of quoting this) when "in the brilliant light of his own I AM, Jesus discovers the true, total, and unimaginable meaning of the name of God." But that meaning has nothing to do with punishment, nothing to do with petty human laws or our notions of justice, nothing to do with cultural conditioning or blood lines, nothing to do with the layers of interpretation we put over the experience, nothing to with death. As a matter of fact so far beyond death as to make death merely a vehicle of a greater power, a greater life, not unlike the death John the Baptist is facing in this scene, not just his beheading, but the surrender of his importance, his decreasing so that Christ may increase in him and around him in the world.
This is the death we are called to as well by virtue of our Baptism, if not by our lives of renunciation: Christ increasing and our little selves decreasing 'til we can make the words of St. Paul our own, that beautiful formula for the Christian version of the non-dual experience: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Only by this way will we go beyond death to discover resurrection power at work in us. Only this way will we know the dawn from on high that breaks upon those who dwell in the shadow of death. Only this way will we know that Great Person of the sun-like splendor beyond the darkness. There is no other way to go. We must decrease, so that Christ will increase in us and around us.