Sunrise Magazine Online

Spirits in Chains

By Grace F. Knoche

What has the mystery of Easter to do with you and me? Of what avail the Sacrifice of Christs and Messiahs for untold ages, with Man still chained in bonds of hate?

For centuries in every land where Christians live, in church, home and field of battle, Easter has been a time of dedication: for the story of Him who out of pure compassion left his divine home to enter the hell of earth remains the climax of human aspiration. And why? Because somehow, despite the clouding of dogma, the beauty of that sacred Event shines through, bringing each year at the vernal equinox a vibrant hope that one day man too will realize his link with God.

The story of the Gospels is held by some as straight history; by others as a record of the spiritual experience of every Savior that comes at his appointed hour. Some maintain that Jesus was the only Son of God, and that through believing in Him alone can man be saved. Others hold that Jesus is indeed a son of God, his glory being not in his uniqueness, but because he is one of a long line of Messiahs who come periodically "from age to age," for the purpose of dispelling wickedness and restoring righteousness. They recognize, as did Peter in his First Epistle, that Jesus suffered the crucifixion as an act of sacrifice, that he might come and "preach to the spirits in prisons," and thus more efficiently "bring us to God."

Whatever the view, one fact alone stands out: there can be no portion of mankind that is vouchsafed a 'descent of divinity' without all of humanity being a part of that experience. For testimony of untold ages affirms that every race has had its Saviors, its Messiahs, its Avataras — who have 'descended from divine spheres' to undergo here on earth the same procession of spiritual events: crucifixion on the cross of matter, death and burial in the tomb of darkness, and resurrection in light after conquest of the dread trials of the Underworld.

The pattern of the Christ story is universal, because Nature has one rule throughout, one law, one over-all method of bringing to fruition her evolutionary hope. The Persians tell of the trial and conquest of their Zoroasters, and their Mithras too; the Hindus have their Krishna and Rama crucified, and then glorified as risen divinities; the peoples of Asia Minor also crucified their Sun-gods, being sure that they suffered on the cross of matter, to be resurrected, as was Osiris of Egypt, into full-fledged Gods. And this, not merely to test the integrity of their would-be Saviors, but more important, to preserve in symbol and story the sacrifice thus made. And Jesus then in his 'descent' to "those in Hades, as well as to all in earth" as Clement of Alexandria put it, was but following the tradition of millenniums.

Crucifixion, death, resurrection: are these to be taken as literal events, a physical death by violence, burial in an underground tomb, and a bodily resurrection into the heavens above? Surely not. Do not these words signify in mystical language the crucial test of man's soul in trial, that trial which will make of him a god? — the crucifixion and death of all that is material, low and ungodlike, and, when successful, the rising from the tomb of humanhood into oneness with the Divine?

The birth of Jesus at the winter solstice and the culmination as Christ at the Epiphany is but part of the drama. After the years of ministry when he had gathered a few at least who seemed to understand and to trust, the hour came when Jesus had to prove his divinity. Ascending with his disciples to the Mount of Olives, we all know the betrayal by Judas — a betrayal so coarse and brutal that its lesson is plain: wherever the greatest light shines, there also are the deepest of shadows — which it is the challenge of the light one day to dispel.

But what of that other betrayal at Gethsemane — by the very disciples he had selected to stand guard in his moment of supreme trial? Not a conscious betrayal, to be sure; but nonetheless as poignant in tragedy. As Jesus knelt to offer all that he was to his Father — "Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done" — he had said to Peter, James and John: "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me." But after he had prayed and turned round to his disciples, he found them heavy with sleep. "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" Again Jesus said to them: "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

A second time Jesus prayed, and again the disciples slept. Three times he knelt in sacrifice — but alas, even the third time, those who had professed the greatest love and devotion betrayed their Master, their strength not sufficient. The lesson sears deep into the consciousness of those in every age who dare to give their lives in service: the spirit may indeed be willing, but is the desire to serve sufficiently powerful to sever the chains of matter?

And yet, that very betrayal would seem part and parcel of the initiatory trial: for in the supreme hour of test the soul must stand alone, without protection of friend or disciple, and — triumph. In the Easter experience as recorded in the Gospels, Jesus but fulfilled the ancient law: "Crucified, dead, buried, rose from the tomb on the third day, ascended to his Father in Heaven" — cryptic words portraying the despair and glory of the man proved divine, of the Jesus become Christ.

Of that moment of Agony, when the man, Jesus, bound on the cross of matter, is forsaken — forsaken by all but the integrity of his own self-disciplined soul — the Gospel writers have recorded two cries: the one in Greek, the other by retaining the Hebrew. The Greek follows the pattern of David in the 22nd Psalm, and is indeed a cry of anguish: "O my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" — a cry easily to be made by the man Jesus at that moment of complete and utter loneliness when the soul must descend, bereft of help, and conquer all. The Hebrew cry, however, is a cry of the Christ, Jesus triumphant: eli, eli lama shabahhtani — "O my God, how thou hast glorified me!" — for the verb shabahh means not to forsake or to loosen, but to glorify, bring peace, raise into triumph.* — O my God, how thou hast brought me out of darkness into the light!

* See The Source of Measures by Ralston Skinner and The Story of Jesus by G. de Purucker.

Every Savior in every land has come according to divine plan to experience the self-same Sacrifice — willingly, that the pattern of spiritual conquest might be so firmly fixed in the plastic consciousness of Man that it could act, for centuries to come, as a stimulus and guide. History records the tragedy of failure that has dogged our progress.

The prisonhouse of greed has for centuries closed round about us, and the chains of selfishness bound us fast. Yet as Easter comes, year after year, something of beauty enters the heart, breathing courage and faith. If legend and symbol reveal that the Passion of Christ was truly a universal experience, suffered by every Savior, does not this imply a promise of what every man might one day himself achieve?

The light shineth in darkness throughout unnumbered ages, and will continue to shine, despite the folly of man. And though the darkness comprehendeth it not, there is a higher history that testifies to the deathless power of the human spirit, which age after age surges forward to achieve.

"Spirits in chains" we may be, but we are spirits, not chains. And there is no son of the Divine who dare say that a chain, whether of iron or of gold, of earth or of heaven, has power to imprison forever the immortal spirit.

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A simple story in a monthly attracted my attention. A chaplain had been conducting a service aboard ship. At its conclusion a sailor came up to him and said:
"That was a great sermon, sir."
"Will you tell me why you thought so?" asked the chaplain.
The sailor thought a moment, then replied: "It was great, because it took something out of your heart and put it in mine."
Is this not the most beautiful way to convey a truth to another?
The heart — not the physical heart, but that spiritual center which is the core of our being — is an eternal source of forces that the human eye cannot see and the mind cannot grasp. But in those rare moments when we are completely unselfish, a "nobody" as far as our personal self is concerned, with an irresistible urge from within to sacrifice something from our heart for the benefit of others, a gate may be opened through which an impersonal stream of love and compassion can flow. Then we find words which have an energy behind them that is understood by the simplest individual who, through an effort to develop altruism in his own nature, catches the vibration and may even grasp the meaning of a deep religious or philosophical truth through intuition. — W. Fekken, Holland