Sunday, March 4, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent

1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 / Matthew 17:1-9

Towards the end of the Bhagavad Gita, the prince Arjuna, having been instructed in deep wisdom by his charioteer, Krishna, has all but resolved his earlier despair about going to war against his unjust foes and being the cause of so many deaths, however righteous his cause. So deep and mysterious has been Krishna's wise counsel that Arjuna intuits Krishna to be far more than he appears to be, indeed that he is, as he claims, the Godhead. So, the prince asks his charioteer to unmask himself: So it is, O Lord Supreme! as Thou hast declared Thyself. Still I desire to see Thy Ishvara-Form, O Purusha Supreme. If, O Lord, Thou thinkest me capable of seeing it, then, O Lord of Yogis, show me Thy immutable Self. Krishna obliges, and begins to transform before Arjuna's eyes — Behold, O son of Prithâ, by hundreds and thousands, My different forms celestial, of various colours and shapes ... See now, O Gudâkesha, in this My body, the whole universe centred in one,—including the moving and the unmoving,—and all else that thou desirest to see.

Yet, more is necessary for Arjuna to take in this vision than his natural eyes with their native power to see. As Krishna notes, But thou canst not see Me with these eyes of thine; I give thee supersensuous sight; behold My Yoga Power Supreme. And, so empowered, the form of Krishna expands, to the delight, and then the awestruck wonder of the prince: With numerous mouths and eyes, with numerous wondrous sights, with numerous celestial ornaments, with numerous celestial weapons uplifted; Wearing celestial garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial-scented unguents, the All-wonderful, Resplendent, Boundless and All-formed. If the splendour of a thousand suns were to rise up at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of that Mighty Being. There in the body of the God of gods, the son of Pându then saw the whole universe resting in one, with its manifold divisions. Moreover, the vision does not stop there. Arjuna sees his once-mortal charioteer take on a terrifying aspect, into whose world-consuming, tusked and blazing mouth are consumed all of Arjuna's enemies, the mightiest warriors of all. Krishna reveals that he is Time itself, and that all Arjuna's enemies are already defeated in him; he need have no fear to go to battle.

Although comforted by the words of the Almighty himself, and empowered by divine grace to behold the myriad, even infinite forms of God, Arjuna nonetheless humbly requests that Krishna reassume his more accustomed form, because in the face of such a vision his mind is filled with terror. Krishna obliges, noting that Arjuna has seen what no amount of human contemplation or austerity could ever bring one to see, but graciously presenting a more pleasing appearance: Be not afraid nor bewildered, having beheld this Form of Mine, so terrific. With thy fears dispelled and with gladdened heart, now see again this former form of Mine. Faced now with God's human appearance, Arjuna becomes once again himself: Having seen this Thy gentle human Form, O Janârdana, my thoughts are now composed and I am restored to my nature. Yet, what might look like a narrowing of vision, a loss of understanding God's fullness through his reduction to a human scale, turns out to be instead a privileged way by which God himself can be known: Very hard indeed it is to see this Form of Mine which thou hast seen. Even the Devas ever long to behold this Form. Neither by the Vedas, nor by austerity, nor by gifts, nor by sacrifice can I be seen as thou hast seen Me. But by the single-minded devotion I may in this Form, be known, O Arjuna, and seen in reality, and also entered into, O scorcher of foes. He who does work for Me alone and has Me for his goal, is devoted to Me, is freed from attachment, and bears enmity towards no creature—he entereth into Me, O Pândava.

Why spend so much time on this classic piece of Indian literature and religious wisdom? Why, when preaching the clarity of the Gospel would we turn to the relative darkness of human efforts, however noble, to speak of the mysteries of God?

We do so because just as we might turn to philosophy of ancient Greece to make better known to us what has been revealed by God, so too we might make good use of the philosophical mythology of India when it suits us. In this case, the comparison seems apt, and the differences will be telling. As Krishna made his revelation to Arjuna alone, to his special companion, so our Lord Jesus Christ is transfigured not before all his disciples, nor even before all the Twelve, but only before his dearest companions, Peter, James, and John. Both Krishna and Jesus find their forms altered in dramatic ways, and both visions stretch our capacity, we who have not been graced with the same vision, to imagine. Where Krishna's universal form involves countless arms and stomachs and mouths, fire and tusks, embracing the whole of the cosmos, Jesus' is less descriptive, but no less mysterious, including his face shining like the sun, which suggests unbearable, and even to the eye ultimately invisible because all too visible, light; overshadowing, which would seem to imply darkness; and something which is both at once, namely, a bright cloud. Both revelations reaffirm the one transformed as the very God, in Jesus' case through the voice of the Father coming from the cloud: This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased. Likewise, the voice of the Father directs Peter, James, and John, as Krishna directed Arjuna, into an attitude of worship and discipleship: hear ye Him. Even as Krishna's transformation threatened to overturn Arjuna's mind, Peter finds himself confused how best to respond: Lord, it is good for us to be here: if Thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for Thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias. Furthermore, the final, conclusive revelation of Jesus as God's own Son, like the ultimate disclosure of Krishna as Vishnu, however inclining the disciples to worship, is also a source of dread: And the disciples hearing, fell upon their face and were very much afraid. Finally, as Krishna reassured Arjuna and condescended to return to his more pleasing form to remove his fear, Jesus likewise restores his disciples through resuming his more accustomed appearance: And Jesus came and touched them, and said to them: Arise, and fear not. And they lifting up their eyes saw no one, but only Jesus.

The parallels between the mythical transformation of Krishna and the mystery of Jesus Christ's transfiguration are striking. More striking, perhaps, is the likeness in the reason for transformation. In both cases, the recipients of the vision can be said to know the true identity of the one transformed. Arjuna has come to know Krishna as the Supreme One, and the disciples know Jesus to be the Christ. Now, to be sure, the transformation both deepens that knowledge to new and unanticipated depths and reveals the need for divine grace and mercy to disclose with certainty was had been dimly intuited by reason. Yet, more than that, this transformation also serves to ease and strengthen the heart of those to whom it has been granted.

Yet, it is here that the parallel ends and the depth and beauty of Gospel truth come to the foreground. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna's fear and despair stem from his duty to slay his enemies who, though unrighteous, are nonetheless kin. The assurance of Krishna, while at one level the revelation of the path of devotion to God in human form as the royal road to a true knowledge of God, is all the same a counsel to go to battle, to fight and slay victoriously. The assurance of Jesus Christ in the Gospel is altogether different. Here he aims to sustain his disciples not through their victorious battle with their enemies, but through his own Passion, his own agony, betrayal, defamation, mockery, torture, and painful and horrid execution. More than that, he seeks to comfort them in his abandonment by all who love him, indeed, in their own abandonment of their Savior and Lord. Theirs is not the burden of bloody glory which they need the courage to undertake, but rather the burden of their weakness, not so much physical as moral and spiritual, and the burden of being witness to the Passion of the Lord.

This is the glory of Christ's transfiguration, and it is the grace it offers us. It is not meant to promise victory over our foes. Quite the opposite, it all but assures us not only that we will be opposed on our journey in this dark valley, but that we ourselves will be among those, even chief among those, who oppose and distress us along the way. The light of Tabor is a reminder that even this darkness, even the darkness of our own hearts, cannot stand in the face of the glory of the Son of Man risen from the dead. More than that, it assures us that the royal road to that risen glory is not to be found seeking the bright cloud or visions bright as the sun. Rather, it is to be found in the gentle body of the Lord Jesus Christ, in his reassuring touch, and in his being broken upon the Cross out of love for us. This is the light by which we can see God with the greatest clarity. This is our Tabor: Christ crucified. May we, too, here his words, Arise, and fear not, and when we lift up our eyes, let us look to no one else to save us, but let us, too, see only Jesus.

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