Surely no playwright, living or dead, could ever have conceived a story more dramatic than the final chapter of the life of Jesus:
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” (John 20: 1-2)
In the days preceding the events described in this famous Bible passage, the disciples have endured the terrible agony of witnessing Jesus’ capture and crucifixion, and at this point they’re waiting to be able to bury his body, but they’re bound by the practices of the Jewish religion which hold that no work can be performed on the Sabbath. So Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy disciple, comes and takes Jesus’ body to the tomb.
Many of us experienced the death of Swami Kriyananda seven years ago – and what if, instead of dying peacefully in his bed, he had been brutally killed? He often thought that he might be assassinated, because of the fanatical antagonism that certain of his fellow disciples had whipped up against him.
It didn’t happen that way, but nevertheless, what if someone you deeply cared for were whisked away and killed in a particularly horrendous fashion, and you were then prohibited from performing the funeral rites?
The disciples had to wait thirty-six hours plus the night that followed. And just imagine their state of mind. Quite aside from the terror that they might also be taken away and put to death, there was the paralyzing grief over these events which were so vastly different from what they had imagined and expected.
Last week our choir performed “Palm Sunday,” which is a song of great rejoicing – the opening words are “Sing out, Hosanna, to the Son of David, blessed he that cometh in the name of God!” It describes Jesus’ entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, and how the disciples were singing and dancing triumphantly and laying palm fronds before him.
And now the final chapter of his life has befallen them, and they are wondering if the Roman soldiers will come crashing through their doors and drag them away to suffer the same fate.
When the Sabbath finally ends, Mary Magdalene cannot contain herself – she rushes through the dawn to the place where his body has been laid.
It’s deeply appropriate that Mary should be the one chosen to move the story forward, because she represents the feminine feeling quality that cannot stand to linger and avoid acting. Yet she knows that there will be a huge rock before the tomb, and it’s a question that has plagued her throughout the preceding days. Because despite her best-laid plans, there is that impossible obstacle – how will she be able to move the rock? Will she not even, at the very least, be able to anoint his body?
When she arrives at the tomb, she is astonished to see that the rock has been moved aside. And as she enters she sees the winding sheets in which his body was wrapped, piled as if someone had removed them. In other Biblical accounts, we learn that the wrap which was around his head was set somewhat apart, as if it had been removed first so that he could unwind the rest of the burial cloth from his body.
But he is gone, and her first impulse is to think that the authorities have removed him. So she runs back to the disciples and exclaims, “They’ve taken away the Lord!”
And it’s a very reasonable assumption, because the priests who’ve arranged for his crucifixion are very nervous, knowing that Jesus has predicted that even if they killed him he would rise again. So they’ve doubled the guard, to prevent the disciples from coming for his body.
It’s said that Simon Peter now runs back to the tomb, because he has to see it with his own eyes. And Mary Magdalene also returns, and when she enters the tomb a second time she sees a pair of angels there, and they look at her calmly and say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” (Luke 24: 5-7)
And I’m sure that she had to stop and ponder what it meant – “seek the living among the dead.” But from their perspective the passing of his body has nothing to do with whether he is living.
They’re challenging her to understand, saying, “What makes you think that the Christ consciousness that you’ve known when he was in the body is now dead? Do you imagine that the death of the body has anything to do with his consciousness?”
But Mary is still confused, and as she turns away from the angels she catches sight of a man, and she thinks that maybe he’s the gardener and that he can help her. So she asks him, “They’ve taken away the Lord. Do you know where they’ve taken him?” And the man smiles and says a single word, “Mary?” And as the truth suddenly dawns on her, she says, “Rabbi – it is you.” Because it’s Jesus, and now she feels the power of his divine sweetness, and she falls at his feet and tries to embrace them.
Mary has watched the events of the last days with complete heart-wrenching involvement, and now she knows that all of the darkness, the horrific intensity and confusion and grief and despair, and the terrible not knowing are at an end, in that moment when he simply says her name.
Countless beautiful stories are told in the scriptures to testify that God is holding us in His hand. There’s also the story of the footsteps in the sand, and how we see Jesus’ footprints walking together with us in our times of ease. But when the darkness comes the footsteps suddenly vanish, and Jesus explains, “I was carrying you.” Because we were unable to walk by ourselves.
Every story of the spiritual life, and every epic and saga of the scriptures, is about intense human experiences of longing, desire, suffering, disappointment, pain, and death. And they don’t always resolve nicely and neatly within the reach of our human expectations.
We like to imagine that what God wants is what we want, and that His will is to make us comfortable so that we can remain the same. We have a strange desire to hold onto the consciousness that we already have; and I like to think of it as “the preference for the known misery.”
Because no matter how inadequate our experiences, and no matter how painful our relationships, or how often this life has disappointed us, the last thing we want is for any of it to change.
We think we have it all figured out. And then God smiles and says, “I don’t think so.”
When I was living at Ananda Village I arrived for work one morning at the building that is now Hansa Temple but that in the early years was a very rough-hewn, almost primitive structure where we published Swami Kriyananda’s books.
We had a big poster of Master that had hung on the wall for years, and when we decided to take it down that morning, a family of bats came flying out and flew around the office.
They were flying off and hiding, and later while I was sitting in my office a bat fell on my hand. And I was pleased by my first response – I stood up silently and got a cardboard box and put it on top of the bat, and then I screamed with blood-curling terror.
I was in the publications building on another day, writing something on my typewriter, when a little spider came out and ran across the spacebar, and I was intrigued to watch him, because he obviously was full of spunk and had a lot of personality. And I realized that I was aware of the spider, but I had the feeling that he wasn’t aware of me. And I was so much bigger, and I was thinking that I had the power of life and death over the little spider. And I’m not fond of creatures sharing my space, so I was thinking, “I could snap out your life just like that.” Not unkindly, but just asking him to get out.
And as I was thinking these thoughts I suddenly became aware of an enormous presence of God and Gurus above me, and that I looked like even less than the spider in their eyes.
I loved that little spider because he had real spunk. I admired him, and I didn’t feel that God didn’t love me or respect me, because I’m pretty spunky, too, and I think that God has been greatly amused by some of the things I’ve done over the years.
But I saw very clearly that we are living by the power of God alone. And just as I held the power of life and death over the spider, how much more are our lives held in God’s hands?
There are so many small experiences that we anguish over — and for good reason, because tremendous spiritual issues are so often at stake. What do I really believe? Who am I? What kind of courage do I have? How much can I love?
It’s in these tiny moments that we develop the consciousness that endures in us. And even the greatest events in human history are just blips on the screen of eternity, but what endures in us is the consciousness that we’re developing through those blips. And to God and Guru, the slightest thought that we are thinking is extremely important.
Divine Mother is watching us very, very carefully, just as a human mother will watch over her child. And the mother doesn’t think it’s insignificant if her child is frightened, or cruel, or doesn’t have the courage to persevere.
None those small things go unnoticed. The mother watches us very attentively, because She knows that the entire future of this soul will be determined by the smallest nuances of our lives.
We’re running around like the little spider. And God is saying, “Let me help you.” Let me help you find out what you truly want, and not just what you think you want. We think we want comfort and ease and to have all our desires fulfilled. And so we make our own little plans.
As little children will play with their tea sets, we have our little corporations and our little jobs and our little art pieces and our little music, and God is playing right alongside us.
He allows us to play, and just as a father might let his daughter put ribbons in his hair, Divine Mother plays with us, and it’s no sacrifice for the mother and the father to enter into the child’s world, because they love the child. And when we see it happening, it warms our hearts.
I was blessed in my family, because my mother and father were both very dear. I had naturally curly hair, and whenever my mother would wash it, she would say, “Honey, let me squinch your hair.” And she would hold it in her hands and squeeze it, and then it would spring out in little curls. And that’s how God is playing with us through these many small things.
I remember how we would come home from a long trip in the car. My father was a big man, and even if I wasn’t asleep I would pretend to be sleeping so that he would carry me.
These are such tiny things, aren’t they? But they tell us that if our human parents, with all the cares they are entrusted to bear, can give us such loving attention, then how much greater must God’s love be?
Human birth, as Master said, is something, but divine birth is everything. And just think of how Divine Mother cares for us, and how She watches us play out our karmic cycles, and how She walks with us, and Guru walks with us.
And then the fire comes, because not all of the choices we’ve made have been good ones. And I sometimes feel that we write out a contract with God, especially when we’re young, and we spell out what’s going to happen in our lives. And there are some teachings that are well-intentioned but not terribly elevated that will tell you, “Just write out your contract and the world will conform.”
And maybe yes and maybe no. But we write our contract and we shake it at the universe, and then someone who’s wiser comes along and says, “Is there actually any other signature on the contract than your own?”
We held it up to God and imagined that He would sign it, but He already has a contract for us, and it’s a very simple one: “You will be free. You will be free of absolutely everything that limits you.”
We don’t put that in our contract because we can’t imagine a joy so profound, a courage so limitless, and a freedom so enormous. Because we’re very much like that little spider running around.
Swamiji told the story of a disciple of Master who was extremely determined to have an experience of cosmic consciousness, and he kept agitating one of the disciples who had the power to give it to him, “Give me this experience!” And finally the disciple said, “If you had a taste of that kind of ecstasy, you wouldn’t be able to stand your life.”
And maybe it’s a little hard for us to understand. So God patiently explains it to us, “You are going to have My bliss, but first you must let go of everything else, and you must open your heart to be bigger than you ever imagined your heart could be.”
And what happens when you try to stretch a part of you that far? It hurts, doesn’t it? And in that pain we imagine that something is happening that isn’t good for us.
Mary Magdalene could only watch helplessly as Jesus was crucified. She stood at the base of the cross and watched him die, and who can imagine a worse human experience? The Master was everything to her – he had rescued her from a life of despair, and he’d given her a joy beyond imagining. And she wanted desperately for him to do something about it, because she knew that he could move heaven and earth.
But he didn’t. And how many times when our heart is asked to stretch and we feel that it will break, has it actually broken? But we are so afraid – how can it stretch any farther? And then the pressure gets even greater and we think the answer to our prayers is that God will make it easier. But why would you let your child play with her little tea set forever?
One of my friends was having difficulty with her son who didn’t want to be potty-trained, so she challenged him, “Don’t you want to be a big boy?” And he said, “No! I like being a baby!”
I said to her, “I’ve never known anyone who went to college without being potty-trained, so it’s probably going to work out.” And so it did.
But God isn’t going to leave us alone, and He’s going to keep pulling. And when Mary Magdalene watched Jesus be crucified, she thought, “I believe in him. I pray for him. Where is the miracle?” Because in her mind she was defining for God what the miracle should be. The miracle was that she was supposed to be spared such suffering, and it wasn’t supposed to end like this, because she had written a different contract.
But Jesus said, “It isn’t going to happen that way.” Not because there was less in her future, but because there was more than she could imagine. And that’s true for all of us. That’s our lives. That’s our incarnations.
Sometimes it will come to fruition in one lifetime. Sometimes we’ll die in the middle of the story. Sometimes the people around us will die and we’ll think we cannot possibly live through the experience. But we do, and we need to keep strong in our faith.
Swamiji pointed out an extremely important aspect of the crucifixion. He took pains to remind us that Jesus appeared to his disciples on the night of the day he was crucified. They had gathered together, and it’s such a simple point that we can easily miss it. Because even though they had no idea what would happen to them, they kept strong in their faith, and so they came together instead of losing faith and abandoning one another, because they knew that their power was to be with others who believed.
And then the door opened and Jesus came in. And as Swami said, it was not a vision, and it was only possible because of their faith.
He appeared to them multiple times, and he would cook food and they would share the food together. And it seems like such an odd thing for him to do, but he was telling them that nothing is greater than the power of God, and nothing is greater than the power of God in you, and I am here among you as the living proof.
It’s a story for us all. God says, “You think you have joy now, but let Me show you what your heart is capable of. I will take you through the fire to the joy on the other side.”
“Peace be with you,” Jesus said, “And have no fear. The world may torment you,” he said, “But here is the good news – be of good cheer, for I have conquered the world.” And in our love for him, he can take us with him.
God bless you.
(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 1, 2018.)