Over the centuries, people have often pointed out that after Jesus’ resurrection it was Mary Magdalene to whom he first appeared, and that it was she who ran to tell the others of his presence among them.
And they found it difficult to believe, of course, because they had seen him die. And then Mary came and told them that she had seen him in his physical form, and not merely in vision, which of course could not happen.
What was the quality in Mary Magdalene that qualified her to be the first to receive proof of the Master’s resurrection?
It was solely and entirely her great love. Other stories are told of Mary in the Bible that reflect this defining quality in her. And perhaps the most moving is the story of how she entered the room where Jesus was dining with his close disciples, and how she knelt and anointed his feet with costly ointment, and then used her hair to dry them.
Two thousand years later, our mental image of the scene tends to be tidy and formalized, like a picture in a storybook. Yet it is highly instructive to visualize it as it actually happened.
Imagine your reaction, if you were having dinner in the presence of your great master, with his closest disciples gathered around him. And in the midst of this wonderful expression of spiritual friendship, with everyone talking animatedly, Mary Magdalene quietly enters the room and, with one-pointed concentration and love, carries out this act of tremendous reverence, which was completely outside of what any of the others would consider doing.
The normal tendency would be to think: “This is too much!” In fact, the others protested to Jesus, “Why are you letting her do this? Why is she wasting this costly ointment? Why are you allowing this excessive display?”
But Jesus pushed their objections aside, because he recognized the love that was in her heart. And he knew that what she was doing was entirely fitting and appropriate.
In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a passage that wonderfully endorses Mary Magdalene’s exalted act of devotion:
Cling thou to Me!
Clasp Me with heart and mind! so shalt thou dwell
Surely with Me on high.
The Gita tells us that this world in which we are living, and that seems so solid and real, is false and fleeting. And we must come to the point where we recognize that nothing of this world endures, and that its shiny promises are very far from what they appear to be.
The scriptures don’t deny that this world also its the beautiful and uplifting aspects. But we are cautioned that even the beauties of the world are not what they seem, and that they do not last.
The Gita then asks a profound and important question. Given that this world is unreal, how shall we live our lives? And it gives us the answer: “Give me your heart. Focus your thoughts on me. Cling to me! And I will bring you safely through this false and fleeting life into my eternal home.”
Before Mary Magdalene met Jesus, she had been a courtesan, a fallen woman who was not respected by her community, despite her great wealth and independence. Her life was far outside the narrow bounds of what they considered acceptable, and yet she had a great power of love. And because she wasn’t bound by the small-minded conventions of her time, she could express her love without the slightest inhibition.
This was the power that enabled her, when she met Jesus and recognized who he was, to cast aside all restraint, to the extent that when she entered the room where he was dining with his disciples, she had but one single thought: “This is my master!” And this is why she was chosen to go to the tomb, and to announce the news of Jesus’ resurrection.
While many were running away in horror and fright from the scene of the crucifixion, it was Mary who took down Jesus body from the cross and helped prepare it to be laid in the tomb. It was the Sabbath, and under Jewish law they could not prepare his body. So she waited until the first crack of dawn, when the law would allow it, and she rushed back to the tomb, because to her way of thinking there was not a moment to be lost. And it wasn’t that Jesus randomly decided to reveal himself to her before the others, but it was her complete love that qualified her to see him before anyone else.
She had trained herself to see Him alone in every waking moment. And this is the answer that the Gita offers us: “In this false and fleeting life, cling thou to Me! Clasp me to your bosom!”
This is the answer we all are seeking. And the further message that is implied in the Gita’s words is that even though this is a world of illusion, it is not proper to run away and try to avoid getting involved. The Gita tells us to work with ourselves as we are, and with our lives as they’ve been given to us, but to see behind it all the living face of God.
The most mystical and beautifully poetic of the gospels is the Book of John. It’s the gospel that Swamiji most often chose to quote from, because out of all the apostles, John’s understanding of Christ’s message was the closest to the teachings of Self-realization. Like Mary Magdalene, the relationship that John enjoyed with Jesus was completely personal and of the heart. And even more than Mary, he knew that God was present within him. Thus we find that he never talks about himself, and that he writes very humbly, because he knew himself to be nothing but a tiny expression of the same great consciousness of God that filled Jesus.
How does John describe himself? No less than six times in the Gospel of John, he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” And it might occur to us to wonder, how are we to balance these two aspects of John? Because, on the one hand, the Gospel gives us a picture of him as the humblest disciple. Yet he refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved,” as if Jesus had singled him out as uniquely loved above all the rest.
But there is a profound sweetness of truth in his words: that of all of the aspects of his being, the only one of any significance was the fact that Jesus loved him.
Many western saints have adopted this impersonal way of referring to themselves, as having no worth apart from the fact of Jesus’ love for them. And it’s wonderful to ponder the truth that our lives can only be ultimately defined by the simple fact that God loves us.
We know that this world is false and fleeting, and that we cannot escape the challenges that will come to us in our lives. We know that not all our prayers will be answered. And even if, by the power of our own will and the favorable karmic circumstances of the moment, we’re able to manifest mighty works in this world, we know with a sure and certain instinct that our rosy hopes for worldly fulfillment will be denied us in the end.
We bear children, and we love them dearly, and then their destiny calls them to follow their own way. And sometimes our children choose paths that cause them great suffering.
In countless ways, our human hopes are dashed. And then our first inclination is to lash out at the fates. “If God really loved me, He wouldn’t treat me this way!” “My suffering is too much, and how can I feel that God still loves me?”
But once we understand the central truth of our existence, that we are loved by God, and that we are His alone, we will not be able to see anything that happens to us as taking place outside of His love.
Swamiji said, and I’m quoting loosely, “The one who created us surely loves us. And if the one who created us has ordained death as the end for all that he has created, then surely death, too, must be an expression of His Love.”
Now, this life is filled with small deaths. In this context, I remember my father – and it’s difficult for me to talk about this without it hurting my heart too much. But when I was in my teens, I was very close with my father, and yet when I was eighteen and I went off to college, it wasn’t with terrible pangs of separation, because I knew my destiny wouldn’t be linked with my parents’.
Some people have the karma to remain close to their birth families throughout their lives, but my destiny took me away, because it was my fate to be raised in a good family, and then go out and find my spiritual family.
But my father didn’t understand this, and I remember him telling me when I left for college, with tears in his eyes, “Children disappear into the adults that they become.” He was gazing at me wistfully, because I was about to disappear from his life, and he knew I wouldn’t be coming back. But there was nothing I could say that would soften the blow, because of the destiny that God had ordained for me.
Our lives are composed of a series of realities that rise and endure for a while, and then fade away. And some of those realities will inevitably be crucifixions. This is one of the most poignant meanings of the Easter story – how we long for all manner of fulfillments in this world, and how they may come to us for a while, and then they fade away. And these are small crucifixions that may seem very large to us at the time.
The story of Jesus’ life holds meaning for us on two levels. Certainly, the most dramatic part of the story is the outward event of his crucifixion and resurrection, and his great works as an incarnation of God. But everything that he did also had a highly personal and symbolic meaning for our spiritual lives.
What was the great symbol of Christ’s life that speaks to us so intimately and individually? It is that he walked only where God told him to walk, and he followed the will of the Lord in all things. He had detached himself from everything else, and he gave himself completely to the mission for which God had sent him.
When he was about to be crucified, he said, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” He wasn’t trying to avoid the suffering that lay ahead. He was asking the Heavenly Father, “Is it necessary for hopes of these people to be dashed in this terrible way, and that the freedom You offer them be so utterly rejected?”
This was his grief. He had lived among them, and he had told them how to find true joy. He had said, “This is the truth, even of your own scriptures.” And they were so entrenched in their traditions, and their worldly position and power, and the rigid certainty that they knew where their happiness lay, and what they truly wanted, that they were utterly closed to his message of inner freedom.
Swamiji described it as being “lost in a forest of pride.” Lost in the pride of my worldly position, and in what I imagine I am, and what I imagine I know. Swami said that if spiritual fulfillment were easily accessible, people might not value it much more than the ordinary ego-fulfillments of this life. “Among all the other things I get to have in this world, and that I’m striving for, I might as well add a smidgen of God.”
It wouldn’t drive us to the complete self-offering that allows us to receive God, and to realize that He is us.
In Jesus’ time, the very powerful Jewish people were convinced that what they had was sufficient, and everything they could wish for. And Jesus came and offered them a radical solution to all the sufferings of this world.
Jesus lived like a mendicant who didn’t have a home. “Even the foxes have a hole that they can call their own, but the Son of Man lives nowhere.” And he prayed for them from his great compassion: “Lord, can’t you change their hearts? Can’t it be different?” But in the end he said, “Thy will, not mine, be done. Whatsoever You have asked of me, this I will do. This is the cup that You have given me, and why would I not drink from the cup that my Father has given me?”
And how did it all end? Given the nature of this world, it was inevitable that he would be adored by some and hated by many, and that the powers of this world would ultimately take his life. It wasn’t fated for him to be saved, and in the end even his closest disciples were powerless to help him.
The power of the world took his life. And this is the message of that tremendous life. As we slowly become aware of the true nature of this life, we try to listen ever more sensitively to what God is telling us, and to block out the voices of the world.
This was my dilemma when I was eighteen. My father was a good man, and he had been a very good father to me. I had all the reason in the world to love him, but what he imagined for my life was very different from what I knew it would be. I knew that I was being called to something else. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, that I was being called to seek God, but it soon became abundantly clear.
Paramhansa Yogananda’s father once uttered some mildly critical words about his guru, Sri Yukteswar. He said, “I heard that your guru offered a flower to a woman.” It was a small thing, but the implication was that Sri Yukteswar was less than perfectly detached. And Master lashed out in defense of his great guru. “Of all things!” he cried. “Human birth is something, but divine birth is everything. If ever I hear you say one more word against my guru, I will renounce you as my father forever.”
He was absolutely clear about his priorities. “What the world asks, I will do. But if it contradicts what God is asking, I will turn away and never look back.”
My earthly father wanted only a little of the love that he craved from me. But I couldn’t give him even so much, because I was called to something else. And so we find that even as we set out to answer the divine call, our hearts may be breaking.
We make our plans in this world, and we hold high hopes that they will be what God is asking of us, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So we endure yet another small crucifixion. God gives us a beautiful, loving child who grows up and leaves us, or a wonderful friend who passes out of our life.
It’s ironic that the more successfully we raise our children, the more happy and independent they become, and the more eagerly they run off and leave us. And we need to be equally happy when they leave, although it’s just one more of life’s little crucifixions.
Can there be any enduring happiness in this life? John answers this very important question, when he tells us that he is the one whom Jesus loved. And we can find the answer for ourselves, if in the midst of our trials we can say, “Yes, you know, I had these small things. I had the praise of people. I had a glorious position. I had these darling children. But now I see that my life has been driving me to find that which endures.”
I remember how my brother and sister and I would huddle around my mother when we were small children. She was a very sweet woman, and she loved raising us. Much later, I asked her, “What did you like most about your life?” And she said, “Oh, when you children were small.” But she didn’t finish the thought: “…and you belonged to me.”
What a gift it is to have such a loving mother! It was a blessing for which I am eternally grateful. But I remember clustering around her for some little thing, as we children would do. And where was the enduring love? The only love that endures is that which we can find flowing from the deepest center of our own hearts, and that enables us to say, “I am the one whom Jesus loves.”
I am the one whom God loves. I am the one whom my Master loves. I live surrounded by angels. And through all my earthly experiences, I will never cease to be loved. And when I am deprived of positive and pleasant experiences, it is not because my Master no longer loves me, but to remind me of the one and only true Love.
Now, this is the central truth of our existence. And yet it isn’t easy to cling to. If you can walk through this false and fleeting world and hold on to God’s all-embracing love, you will be able do whatever He asks of you.
God has told Jesus to walk through the gates of Jerusalem to his impending death. The Easter story describes how the people were eager with anticipation, saying, “Will he come?” Because the authorities had let it be known that they were going to arrest Jesus.
Jesus didn’t have to return to Jerusalem. But he said, “Now is the time. I will come.” And he didn’t sneak in at the back gate; he came riding in triumphantly on the back of a donkey, with his disciples singing around him. He was saying, “I am here. I am ready to meet my fate.”
His fate was death, and it is the fate of all. And will we try to sneak out through the gates and avoid it? Will we look for a way to bind our children to us, and hold onto our worldly position, and keep our youthful figure, and keep our inevitable death at bay? Or will we come in at the main gate surrounded by our fellow disciples, singing together?
Where can I find the power to meet my fate with joy? Only by knowing, “I am the one whom Jesus loved.” God’s love is a power that enables us to pass through every experience, including our own death, with acceptance and self-offering and joy.
How can a master have infinite consciousness and fully live his human life? Master explained that if Jesus hadn’t suffered on the cross, his life would have been less meaningful to us. We would wonder: was he truly living as a human being, or was he above it all, and just play-acting his human experiences?
What would we learn from him, if he were not experiencing the events of his life as human beings do?
The answer isn’t difficult to discern: he lived in this world as a man, but his cosmic consciousness enabled him to be unidentified with his experiences. And in this way he could enter into those experiences completely. He had no need to hold back, from fear of pain, physical or emotional, or for fear of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to hold back in his commitment to his disciples, or in his determination to bring a new teaching to this world. Because, through all the suffering that came with those experiences, he knew it to be a small expression of the great cosmic bliss that was his own.
Even as his physical body was being crucified, the much greater part of him knew, “I am the one whom God loves.” And in his complete oneness with that great, overarching love, he knew it to be much deeper than any human tragedy or sorrow.
This is how Betsie Ten Boom was able to conquer her circumstances when she was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping the Jews. She said to her sister Corrie, “I will die here, but you will live, and you will tell people that no suffering is so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.” She said, “And they will believe you, because you were here.”
In the worst possible circumstances, she was able to know that she was the one whom God loved, and that in giving her this experience, God was teaching her who she really was.
How was it that Jesus could endure the crucifixion and forgive those who were subjecting him to such humiliation and torture? Because he knew who he was. And through all the ups and downs of that great drama, and amid the great, heaving waves of our own lives, we need to find the consciousness that can say, “I know who I am. I am the one whom God loves. And the more I am challenged, the more deeply I know that His love is who I am.”
Master said that our tests are not given to break us, but to put us in touch with the infinite power of love that lives at our core, and that alone can enable us to rise above all suffering.
There’s a wonderful story of Saint Teresa of Avila. Toward the end of her life, when she was practically on her death bed, she set out to start yet another convent. It was the dead of winter, and as she tried to cross a river in full flood she was swept away by the freezing waters. And then she suddenly found herself on the shore, completely dry and warm, and Jesus appeared before her. He said, “Don’t worry, Teresa. This is how I treat all my friends.” And Teresa, being a woman of great wit and spirit, said, “Ah, my Lord, that is why you have so few!”
Teresa enjoyed a relationship of tremendous love and trust with Jesus. And this is the truth, that we are the ones whom God loves, and that He will never be content for us to continue to believe, “This little dollhouse is the apex of my happiness. I will remain a little child and pretend that this is my fulfillment.” He tells us, “I am sorry, my dears, but I love you too much to let you go on living in blindness.”
This is what happened at the end of Jesus’ life. And how could it have been more dramatic? He died in the most horrible manner possible, physically tortured after being paraded before the jeering crowds. His body was left in the tomb, and then it was soon revealed that he hadn’t actually died. He stood up in his human form and walked out of the tomb. And in many instances he walked among them, and he cooked fish and shared bread with them. And he walked among them for forty days, as we are told in the Bible.
There is a tradition that he also appeared to his disciples in India. And, who knows? But he was able to look at his own death and know, “All suffering is an illusion. This life which appears to end does not end, because the love of God is eternal, and we are His own.”
Nothing that appears dark is truly dark, because the darkness is no more than the absence of the Light. And as soon as we can bring the Light into our consciousness, the darkness will disappear. Even so, Jesus brought a light with such power at Easter that if we will but receive it, we will no longer be able to doubt or fear.
We must become like John and Mary Magdalene, filled with the experience of how much God loves us, and knowing that nothing that happens to us can ever touch that love. There is no experience in this life, compared to which the love of God is not much greater. So let us realize this in the depths of our hearts, and the message of Easter will be fulfilled in us. God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on March 27, 2016)