The story of Jesus has been told and retold endlessly over the centuries, and the startling impact of that single life on untold numbers of people for more than two thousand years simply defies comprehension.
The world loves its fads. We change our appearance, our dress, our music, and our customs. Quickly rising and fading, these fleeting fads soon seem quaintly out of date. And in the midst of the never-ending flux we find the enduring reality of Jesus.
The Indian scriptures tell us that great incarnations of God such as Jesus come to earth when there is an extraordinary need among mankind.
Traditional Christians believe that Jesus was absolutely unique, reflecting the Western “either-or” way of thinking. Either Jesus Christ was the only savior that God has sent to the world, or he was something else – an unthinkable proposition. And either we accept him as our only personal savior, or we will be damned to hell for eternity.
In the East, they prefer to think “both-and.” The East is comfortable with the thought that every great master has come to share the one divine truth in a way that was uniquely appropriate to the needs of the people of the time when he lived. And the more consistent a master’s teachings can be shown to be with the teachings of the other masters, the more confidently we can accept them as being true.
In the West, we’re expected to believe, as a friend of mine who’s a Christian minister puts it, that the great revelation began and ended with Jesus.
I learned a Sanskrit word recently for which there is no English equivalent, because the English-speaking world hasn’t thought about the spiritual life as deeply as they have in the East.
The word is sampradaya. It means the great wave of grace that sweeps over the earth at the coming of a divine incarnation such as Jesus, and which continues to spread over the world through his teachings and his legacy of enlightened disciples. The literal meaning of “sampradaya” is a gift (samprada) of the divine compassion (daya).
From the Eastern point of view, Jesus’ life is one of many great sampradayas. The lives and teachings of Yogananda and Krishna and Buddha are other sampradayas, descents of God into this world, born of His compassion for struggling humanity.
Each of the masters will have his own unique way of presenting the eternal truths, but when we trace the teachings to their source, we find that they are transmitting the same divine light.
Two forces are engaged in a great battle in the world today. The first is a powerful movement toward unity, and the other is a movement toward disunity, division, isolation, chaos, and destruction.
I saw a story in the New York Times recently that embodied the best and worst of everything that’s going on in the world today. A family from Syria had lived for many generations in the same home, which was destroyed by the violence that was wracking their country. They had to flee, and they landed first in Jordan, then in Canada. The wonderful part of the story is that Canada has a policy of welcoming immigrants, and of encouraging its citizens to serve as ambassadors. So, when the parents and their four children arrived, they were met by many people who took it upon themselves to help them integrate with Canadian society.
The oldest girl was ten, and it hardly needs saying that it was an extremely unusual karma for her to be able to come and live in Canada. She immediately loved being a Westerner, and she wanted to be as Canadian as possible, so she put on a pair of ice skates and discovered that she had a talent for skating. And hearing her story, you can’t help but believe in the hidden karmic power that shapes our lives.
The family were integrating beautifully, and then the father got it into his mind that he wanted his daughter to start wearing a headscarf. But she resisted, saying, “Why should I put on a headscarf? Why shouldn’t I celebrate Christmas like everyone else?” The father became very agitated, as he watched generations of the traditions that had shaped their cultural identity dissolving before his eyes.
Of course, there’s nothing in our culture today that supports that way of thinking – “I am the father of this family, and what I say is law!” You can just imagine the conflict; and the question that the article raised was whether it would be possible for the family to be integrated into Canadian life.
The thought that occurred to me is that it really depends on where you’re standing. The big question is, which of the two great forces that are manifesting in the world today are we wanting to align ourselves with? Are we wanting to come together in a spirit of unity, or are we seeking to keep ourselves separate and define ourselves by our differences?
Now, the truth is that our opinions don’t matter. We may hold all manner of beliefs about the nature of the world and our role in it, but we will sooner or later have to realize that there are subtle realities at play in this world that are greater than our individual ideas and preferences.
We are living in a time when the grace of God is manifesting with a power that dwarfs our feeble efforts to pretend that we are in charge. The Divine is playing a tremendous role in shaping the outward circumstances of our lives, and although God has given us free will, we have an obligation to use our God-given faculties to align ourselves with His consciousness.
The truest role models for how we should live in the world are not those who come for a season and then quickly pass on. The true definition of beauty is not what’s fashionable today, or what was fashionable yesterday. The only thing that matters is the values that have endured for all time. And this is why the divine power is always trying to turn us back to the sampradayas – those great avatars who have come with a message of perfect love and freedom.
The baby in the manger is given to us, not so that we may worship it uniquely, but to welcome the coming of an avatar who offers us portals which we can come into the presence of God.
This is the only power that can lead us safely through the dangerous times in which are living. Whether we are born in times of peace and prosperity or of great uncertainty, our challenge is always to align our consciousness with the inner light of God.
The fleeting outward comforts of this world will only enmesh us in the “anguishing monotony” of endless rebirths, as Yogananda described it. We are living in a world of constant change and challenge. And the inadequacy of a life without God will sooner or later break upon our consciousness and become vividly apparent to us, and we will no longer be able to resist it.
During our Christmas meditation, I reflected on how, despite my forty-plus years on the spiritual path, there is still a part of me that wants to make this world work by my own power, and that can still think, “If only I can get this one small part nicely adjusted, everything will be okay.”
If we could just buy our community and have control over our rents. If we could just do something about the traffic. If we could just get a campus for our school. If only my hair would grow faster. And none of it really matters.
When your mind is starting to come to rest in meditation, and you’re lifting your energy and consciousness with Kriya Yoga, and you’re beginning to feel the presence of Christ, it’s uncanny how an odd little wave of consciousness will enter and try to distract you. During the all-day meditation, I watched those little waves that were trying to come in and say, “Just a little bit of change and it will all be fine.”
I’m fairly well-informed philosophically, thanks to my time with Swamiji, and I can articulate why it isn’t true. But who cares how my clever mind might explain it, if all the while my heart is vibrating with its own restlessness.
Swamiji said that people talk about calming the mind in meditation, but it isn’t really the mind that needs calming, because it’s the agitation of the heart that distracts us from our goal.
The heart is where the likes and dislikes reside. It’s the heart that thinks, “This is the way of happiness, and that’s the way of suffering, and if I can just push toward the side of happiness I’ll never have to return to the suffering side again.”
And through it all, in one way or another, Divine Mother is constantly pushing us to recognize that the answers we are seeking can never come by trying to get the world perfectly lined up and adjusted so that it will please us, but only by neutralizing our desires.
The parents welcome the little newborn infant into their lives, and like parents everywhere, they begin to spin their plans for the child. And this is why parenting can be so agonizing, because that little soul has come to follow its own destiny, and no matter how hard we may try to ensure the child’s happiness, that soul will have to follow its own path. It may be a joyful path, or not, and sometimes that life will last, but sometimes it won’t.
As we contemplate the tenderness of Jesus’ birth, let us remember that it is not about the uniqueness of the little baby in the manger. It is about welcoming that enlightened child to be born and grow within us. It’s about the inner freedom and joy that we will find by awakening to our spiritual potential.
What is the source of the joy that we feel when we contemplate the Christ child?
We delight in the infinite promise that he brings. We celebrate his perfect happiness, and the happiness of offering ourselves to serve his great sampradaya.
His joy expresses an eternal reality, since there is no greater joy than his pure, selfless love. Christ’s love is not a personal love, to be jealously protected and hoarded in our hearts. It is a selfless love that wants to give itself for the pure joy of giving.
Paramhansa Yogananda said that God is ever-existing, ever-new bliss. Why is this so? Because the essence of the Divine is pure giving, and giving, as Jesus reminded us, is blissful.
St. Paul said, “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) When we give without any thought of self, losing all awareness except the pure joy of giving, we know Christ’s love. This is why we celebrate his birth, because he offers us everything, if we will just give ourselves wholly to him.
At this time of year, we play out the story of Jesus’ coming with joyful music and a great pageantry of shepherds and wise men and angels and kings, because we welcome the birth of the Christ consciousness in our souls. His is the one joy that has no shadow, a joy that he wants to offer to us in its entirety. As I said several weeks ago, it’s a joy that seems to have a special power at this time of year, yet in the calmness of meditation, a little film still tries to veil our minds – oh, if I could just move my life a little bit this way, it would be so much better.
In our all-day meditation, we listened to a letter that Master wrote. The subject was Christmas, and the letter was about facing our challenges. Master told us, consolingly, that an easy life is not a victorious life, and that even while wars are raging around us, our lives should proceed at a contented pace. He said, “I will stand with you. I will give you my good karma and help you through it.”
The lyrics of Swami’s Christmas song “Looking for a Friend” express the longing of a seeker on his way to Bethlehem. On his journey, the seeker meets the shepherds and the wise men and the kings, and he asks if he can join them, “For I, too, have been looking for a friend.”
When Master speaks of all the ways we can come to God, and that He can come to us, he emphasizes friendship as the highest, because in friendship there is no coercion.
In true friendship, nothing is taken from us or forced upon us. In friendship there is no plodding sense of duty, because it is given freely as a gift from one heart to another.
Parental love is not as freely given. Once the baby has begun to grow in the mother’s womb, she has no choice but to love it. But friendship is a choice, and in a very real sense, our greatest longing is for friendship. We are seeking someone who has chosen of their own free will to love us eternally. We long for a love where there we need not doubt we are worthy of that friendship, or whether we deserve it, because it is freely given. And that is the nature of the love that we are always being offered by the greatest Friend.
We are looking for someone whose love we can trust. The masters testify that God is the only friend who will never abandon us, and who will always have just one intention, to stand by us for all eternity.
In the Festival of Light, we sing “You Remain Our Friend.” The words are: “Long we feared to face Your love, lest our emptiness it prove, Now, at last, our hearts we give you, Who remain our Friend.”
No matter what may happen to us, He remains our Friend. Swamiji composed that song for the passage of the Oratorio, Christ Lives, that deals with the crucifixion. It was those for whom Jesus had come from whom he endured the greatest betrayal; yet he continued to love them even after they had crucified his physical body.
They responded to his gift of the greatest love with the least possible appreciation. And what was the divine response? He remained their friend. Our truest Friend stands by us eternally, and there is nothing that we can do that will ever separate us from Him.
This is why, even now, so many centuries after Christ was born, we meditate and celebrate and feel his living presence. We celebrate the perfect love that God has offered to the world through the form of Jesus.
Jesus was born to offer us a portal by which we can pass into the blissful presence of God. Yet we spend incarnations pushing this way and that, blindly seeking the fulfillment that He can offer to us only when we turn within.
In meditation, thoughts of worldly fulfillment will come. “If only I had this or that. If only I could iron out this small crease in the fabric of my life, everything would be fine.”
But for us, the difference is that we have anchored our lives in God, instead of persisting in the hope that we can make the world work for us, or that God will make it work. And the truth of our lives is very simple. Once we have tasted the superior joy of divine love, we will never be content with anything less.
At some time in our countless lives, the Divine Mother has touched our hearts. And, try as we may to be satisfied with lesser fulfillments, it will never work, because we will know in our hearts that we are deceiving ourselves.
Once that longing has awakened in us, we are drawn to try again and again, and Master tells us in his letter that this is the secret of success.
For me, the spiritual path has become very simple. And the plainest words I can find to describe it are: “Don’t give up.”
At this point, I’ve attended something like forty-five Christmas meditations. By the grace of God, I haven’t missed a one. And now my prayer is: “Master, I would bring you something better if I had something better to give, but this is what I have, and I offer it to you.” This is why it touched me so much to hear Master say in his letter, “Just don’t give up. Just keep trying.”
He said, “I don’t mind about your many troubles.” He doesn’t mind how many times we fall. To the master, we are like little children. The children make a big mess, and it’s so cute that you can hardly stand it. I remember Devi telling us how her little boy came to her one day and said, “I didn’t do nothing.” Devi said, “Honey, where did you not do nothing?” He said, “In the closet.” He had opened all the vitamin bottles and poured them out together, and who knows why?
Years ago I visited a friend at her house, and after a time we realized that we hadn’t heard from her two little boys. We found them in the kitchen, “cooking,” which meant pouring lots of stuff out on the counter – milk, flour, sugar. And of course you do mind, but not too much, because there’s something adorable and touching to the heart, and we know that they are learning, and we want to help and support them with our love.
Perhaps this is the only gift that we can bring to the baby Jesus, to come before him with our successes and failures, just as we are. And once you’ve learned to love with absolute trust and freedom, that’s when God can say, “This is what I’m bringing to you, and this is what you need to bring to Me.”
In every Christmas season we are given yet another chance to open our hearts in the purest possible way, and to keep doing our best and just keep trying. Master promises that he doesn’t mind what you bring him.
“I didn’t do nothing, Master.” “All right, show me what you didn’t do.” This is who we are, and let us allow him to love us. We’ve been looking for a friend, and we have found him, because we have a divine Friend who will love us for eternity.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 18, 2016.)