Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Who is Jesus Christ?

It is once again the Christmas season and while “Who is Jesus Christ” is a question one can ask at any time, it seems especially appropriate this time of year. Millions celebrate Christmas, whether religiously or only just socially. The life of the man who became known in history as Jesus Christ has influenced, nay, changed the course of the history of the western nations. His life has certainly affected every continent on this earth to some degree, better or worse, according to one’s point of view.

So, like, “Who is this guy?” Jesus himself asked his own disciples that question, according to the New Testament. Reading behind the lines of that report one can easily feel the disciples looking down and shuffling their feet nervously, fearing to get the wrong answer. Since Jesus actually asked “Who do men say I am?” some of the disciples felt to venture responses on the basis of what they had heard others say, rather than offering their own opinion. And their answers are revealing. One response is rather ignorant saying “John the Baptist!” I say “ignorant” because John was Jesus’ older cousin and had only recently been murdered by King Herod. So, even assuming one believes in reincarnation, that would have been well-nigh to impossible.

Others responded with the names of some of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Jeremiah). Why this aspect of the dialogue (which reveals that reincarnation was widely accepted and that Jesus made no attempt to deny or correct it when given a perfect opportunity to do so) hasn’t been noticed by Christians is an example of precisely what Jesus himself was frequently quoted as warning his listeners that his deeper teachings were “for those who have ears to hear.” (I have read that scholars have discovered that the doctrine of reincarnation had been taught for the first several centuries of Christianity but was intentionally removed in the fourth century A.D. Prior to that, one of the early teachers of Christianity, Origen, confirmed that the doctrine had been taught since apostolic times. Jewish scholars, too, can attest to the long-standing debate regarding its validity.)

Returning to our topic, it was, famously, Peter (bar Jonah, the “Rock”) who declared the true nature of Jesus: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” On other occasions, Jesus publicly declared “I and my father are one.” He alternated between referring to himself as “the son of man” (presumably a reference to his physical form and personality) and “the son of God” (presumably a reference to his divine nature). He further declared that “Before Abraham was, I AM.” By this shocking and seemingly blasphemous statement, he is saying that his spirit, being one with God, has, existed since all eternity, with God. But, now, just his soul? Or?

Now, let’s pause, after all, I am mostly just quoting Jesus himself. For that, you can read the New Testament yourself. Why, however, is this question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” a useful one to ask? Because the answer implies as much about whom you are as it does about Jesus.

Was Jesus Christ a special creation of God? Is he therefore unique and uniquely separate from the rest of humanity, despite his human form? Was he, then, like some spiritual alien? Did God Himself incarnate into the body of Jesus? (If so, who was minding the store for thirty-three years?)

When challenged by his self-styled tormentors, the scribes and the Pharisees (keepers of the Hebrew law), Jesus quoted back to them a phrase from their own scriptures (Jesus, mind you, was a Jew and he knew his Bible, too): “Do not your scriptures say, ‘Ye are gods’?” In reference to the many miracles Jesus is reported to have done, he told his disciples that they would do these and more, for he was soon to return to his father.

The beloved disciple, John, whose gospel stands apart from the other three evangelists for its impersonal presentation of the nature of Jesus, describes Jesus as the “Word made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” He states that the Word is God and is the co-creator of all things. Jesus is thus more than the human being whose life and teachings are described in the New Testament. But is he uniquely so? John the Evangelist goes on to write that “As many as received him to them give he the “power to become the sons of God.” 

Here then we see clearly and profoundly that Jesus was not uniquely different than you or I. It must be added, that to “receive him” must go beyond belonging to a church, being baptized with water or through mere intellectual or emotional assent. Whatever it is must be very powerful and life changing.
John is saying nothing less than we, too, are potentially sons of God as Jesus was “one with the Father.”

This teaching of our oneness with Jesus’ divine nature permeates the original teachings of Jesus in the early formative years of Christianity. The term “body of Christ” was used to describe both those who followed his teachings (and, in other contexts, all people) and to describe the sacrament of sharing bread and wine as symbols of the Christ presence in all creation and in all souls. That Churchianity later arose to make that an exclusive teaching is hardly a surprise given the exigencies and limits imposed upon it by history, culture, consciousness and circumstances.

The mystical saints of Christianity, however, attest in various ways to this universality, to this truly “catholic” teaching. St. Thomas Aquinas and later St. Theresa of Avila experienced the “formless Christ” as the eternal light that “lighteth all men” and which creates and sustains all things since the beginning of time. Their very experience of this formless Christ is testimony to its being our very essence (indeed, the essence of all creation!)

Now if you want to stop reading here, I’d forgive you. From where we, as westeners and Christians stand, we are not so shaken thus far in anything I’ve written (unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool believer). But from where Jesus stood, he was crucified for his unforgivable audacity in revealing himself as “the son of God.” 

We can’t fully appreciate how revolutionary this was, unless we are perhaps Jewish or Muslim.
Judaism (and later, Islam) represents a monotheistic tradition for which the appearance of a human being claiming to be God is the height of blasphemy. Insofar as the apostles were good “Jewish boys” they had an uphill climb to make. In the pagan cities of the Mediterranean, it was tough enough to sell a new religion based on the story of a poor Jew who died on a cross at the hands of the Romans and who was resurrected from the dead (not your usual, every day experience). But in some ways that line was easier with the pagans who believed in all sorts of things (after all Augustus was proclaimed a god, too!). But, for the boys back home in Judea, this was a tough sell. It’s hardly a surprise that Christianity ended up going its own way.

he idea that the Deity could incarnate as a human on earth required an entirely new understanding of creation and God’s role in it. This, in part, is what made Jesus’ teachings and message so revolutionary in its times. In fact, however, it is far more oriental in its message than we can possibly appreciate. I’m not about to write a book, so I won’t elaborate on that statement. Suffice to say that a broader understanding of divinity was needed. No longer would God be “wholly other” and outside human history except as He interjected himself through his messengers, the prophets. It was bad enough that Jesus took on the religious establishment of his time to expose their pusillanimity and hypocrisy in holding to the letter of the Mosaic law and not its spirit. 

But to declare the presence of God in human form would require the birth of a new religion that would change the world and, ironically, would, in fact, overthrow the Roman rule (which the Jews themselves yearned for). It would give birth to a new understanding of creation itself, though this was to take some time to formulate and articulate.

I will reserve a separate blog article on the teaching of the Trinity, for the triune nature of God has been taught in India since time immemorial and the fact that this teaching appears in early Christianity is no coincidence for its reflects this new and deeper understanding that Jesus came to initialize. But for now, during the Christmas season, let me say that we, too, are potential “Christs” and may only need to awaken, and then to perfect, this realization. It is on the basis of the recognition that we are all children of the One God that we can truly celebrate the Christmas spirit of giving and sharing.

Blessings to you this Christmas,
Nayaswami Hriman

The above is based upon and inspired by the teachings of the modern Yogi-Christ, Paramhansa Yogananda and the writings of Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple and founder of the worldwide work of the Ananda communities. For additional reading, see “Revelations of Christ,” by Swami Kriyananda, available from Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, or the East West Bookshop nearest you.