Cambridge, MA. In this Holy Week, we are of course invited to quiet ourselves down, pull back a bit, and reflect on the meaning of our lives, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are fortunate to have an abundance of aids in this reflection, ranging from the Bible and the liturgies of the Triduum to myriad homilies, spiritual writings, works of music and art. What we are not used to doing is listening to how people of other faith traditions think about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, have been listening for centuries to what we Christians think of them and their faiths; rarely do we take time in a week like this to listen to their insights. Even if they see things differently than we do, and perhaps misunderstand parts of what we believe — as we have always tended, even with best intentions, to misunderstand the traditions of others — learning is still possible.
I would like to take a step in this direction with a small series of reflections for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, based on the reflections on the Gospels by Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893-1952). Founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and author of the famous Autobiography of a Yogi, lived a good part of his life in the West. During these years he studied the Gospels, and wrote The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ within You (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 2004), a nearly 1600 page reflection on selected Gospel passages, published posthumously. For the three days, I will simply offer a summation of a few of his insights into the relevant texts.
Holy Thursday: In commenting on Chapter 22 of the Gospel according to Luke in his 69th discourse, Yogananda reports on the Lucan basic account, making as always a number of small points along the way. For instance, he draws parallels with sacred meals hosted by Indian spiritual figures, and he also shows great discomfort with the idea that Jesus and his disciples drank wine, since this could diminish spiritual awareness). But two points stand out as I read the text.
First, when Jesus says that his blood was to be shed “for many for the remission of sins,” Yogananda argues that this cannot mean that Jesus died for future sins, even thousands of years later. While he admits that Jesus could indeed absorb his disciples’ bad karma, he thinks an overly literal expectation that Jesus takes away sins encourages laziness and irresponsibility on the part of people who would do better to grow in their divine awareness. Rather, Jesus was putting forward “the extraordinary example of his sacrifice on the cross, through which he attained complete liberation in Cosmic Consciousness — freedom from the willingly accepted bonds of his mortal incarnation” as an example for his followers too to forsake any attachments that would slow their path to God-consciousness.
Second, Yogananda is also uncomfortable with the idea that based on the Last Supper meal Christians come to think of themselves of eating the body of Christ. He insists that even with Jesus, the body should not be allowed to block the Spirit within. The flesh of Jesus is his Consciousness; his blood is his spiritual Cosmic Energy. To share this meal, then, is to learn to see Jesus “in his formless infinitude as one with the all-pervading Christ Consciousness and universal light of the Holy Ghost Cosmic Energy.” To make sense of this claim — perhaps realizing that this is not the way Christians see Jesus at the Last Supper — he points to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the “formless Christ” (a footnote alludes to Aquinas’ teaching on the infusion of God’s essence into our minds at the Beatific Vision) and Teresa of Avila on her vision of the formless Christ.
Finally, in his 70th discourse, commenting on Chapter 13 of the Gospel according to John, Yogananda stresses the spirit of service as physical and spiritual, and adds that what Jesus does reminds us of what the Father too had done: “Even the Heavenly Father serves impartially in silent humbleness: he has created the water in the well, and as the indwelling Spirit in the water and in every person, it is He who washes the feet of His children — even the egotistical and materialistic persons who never honor Him.”
These brief comments just touch the surface of Yogananda’s lengthy reflections, and I encourage readers to take a look for themselves. But what to make of all this? As I admitted above, Yogananda does not read the Last Supper accounts as do most Christians, he looks for other values, and some of his conclusions are quite apart from the traditional teachings on the meaning of Holy Thursday. We might tend to think of his reading as Gnostic, or alien to the integral spirituality of the Bible. But we need not judge Yogananda as if he were simply a reincarnation of some ancient heretic, nor need we worry about refuting his readings — which were, I think, meant as a gift to the Christian community, not as a threat. We do well, instead, to read him (and a host of others who have commented on Jesus from outside our tradition) and see if his insights into “his” Jesus as radiant of divine consciousness can illumine our own ways of seeing Jesus — and one another — in this Holy Week. Can we actually glimpse this Divine Consciousness at play in the Holy Thursday liturgy? Please add your comments, indicating whether you find this to be possible or not.