Great Teachers have appeared on earth from age to age to remind men of the truth about human nature and universal nature. Now in a certain book called the New Testament we read about one of these Teachers who was born into the world some two thousand years ago. There are four accounts of him, and they vary a good deal among themselves; so that what one gets is an impression of him, an appeal to the imagination, rather than a scientific account. But to the eye of the thoughtful student there emerges the picture of one of those beings who have evolved beyond the status of ordinary humanity, yet who return to help their brothers.
The way these ideal beings help the race is in doing what they can to remove ignorance. They tell mankind what the laws of the science of life are. They remind us of these laws, and insist on them. As a Christ or Buddha, they shine the light of their wisdom and compassion on the ignorance of mankind, to dispel it. They tell us, besides, that each one of us is such a Christ or Buddha potentially. Deep within us, at the very core of the core of our being, is a god: a being all divine, all compassionate, all wise. Were it not so, we could never evolve to its status; nor could any individual have so evolved in all the long ages of human history or prehistory.
This god at the root of our being becomes quickened in those who have contact with one of these Great Teachers. It becomes quickened in his disciples. From being ordinary men, they advance some steps on the way to godhood; indeed, he puts them through experiences which hasten their evolution. He forces them to discover the hidden realms within themselves: to conquer the evil in their nature, to bring into action the good. No one can grow and advance along the path of evolution, without benefiting to some extent all mankind.
What then are we? The great Nazarene said it all: Ye are Gods. If we can dig for it, we would find that the real self, the being beyond and above our minds, is a god. To find the reality, the essence, of ourselves we have but to follow to its source every noble thought or feeling that arises in us and drifts down to our minds. Start inwards from our body and personality; pass our desires, our mind and we can still travel inward to greater and greater heights, forever and forever. There, in those depths of the infinite is the place from which the laws of being flow outward; what we see are the last visible effects of causes which are within and within; and we can come by knowledge of those inner worlds and regions. Knowledge of the laws that govern them, of the geography of them, so to say, is attainable; and that is what is meant by the "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven." Jesus taught his disciples so that they could work upon their natures, stimulating their evolution, until they could know for themselves something, at least, of what those mysteries were. Unto them it was given to know "the mysteries of the kingdom"; but unto the multitude he must speak "in parables."
A parable is a story that contains a hint, a suggestion, an intimation, of the hidden wisdom the one who tells it desires his audience to know. There is the great fact, the most important of all facts we can know: that it is possible to rise above our common manhood and travel the path to wisdom; that it is possible to come to know the inward mysteries, and from men become gods. It was to keep in the minds of men the knowledge of that possibility that storytelling was invented.
In the old religion of the Greeks, for instance — Christianity is derived as much if not more from Greek paganism as from the religion of the Jews — there were, as in every other religion of those days, two sides. The one was for those who wished to know the mysteries in their fullness, and who could prove themselves worthy to receive that knowledge; the other was for those who were content to drift through life more or less, and never worrying what it was all about. In the latter category, no doubt then as now, the great mass of the people was to be included; but out of that great number there were always arising those to whom it occurred to think, to inquire, to aspire. When they did, they knew where to go for teaching.
I speak now of centuries before the time of Jesus. Then such aspirants went to be taught, in those early days, to an institution called the Mysteries — Greek Mysteria — the very word Jesus used. The chief sites of these Mysteries were at Eleusis near Athens and at Samothrace. The candidate underwent a long training with a view to freeing himself of all taint of selfishness; and when he was prepared, he was "initiated." Because there was great secrecy about these initiations, the word "mystery" has come to mean something secret and concealed.
But the same priests and hierophants who had charge of these sacred Mysteries, also had charge of the outer religion of the masses; and it was their business to see that through this avenue of teachings people should be reminded constantly of the possibility of their rising to the knowledge of the inner religion of the Mysteries. The outer religion consisted largely of festivals in honor of the gods held at different times of the year, and of stories about the gods. Everyone grew up with knowledge of these stories, but one did not have to go very far to hear that the stories were not to be taken too literally; that they had an inner meaning which you could learn only by applying for initiation into the Mysteries. They were parables of a sort. In symbolic form, they told the history of the soul on its journey from common human status to godhood, in the guise of an interesting or beautiful myth. About some great figure of ancient times legends would be built up; and the master-truths underlying life were worked subtly into these legends and in this manner the ancient truths were kept not very far from the public consciousness.
For example, legends were built up round Hercules, who was perhaps a very ancient Greek hero, and who, as the ages passed, came to be regarded as a Savior: a symbol of the inner god at the root of our being, with which we may unite ourselves, bringing its glory into our lives when it becomes our Savior in a very real sense. Now this inner god comes into the world only through a heart that has been made quite pure, free from all selfish desire. So they told that Hercules was born of a virgin mother; that his father was not a man, but a god, bright, bodiless, and free. This idea so worked into the consciousness of the people when they had forgotten its meaning in after ages, that it was quite a common thing to credit any great man with being born of a virgin; of having a god for his father. We find Alexander the Great making such a claim; and in the very time of Christ, the Roman emperors were just naturally thus credited. It was a very common notion and, strangely enough, while these great men were held to be sons of gods, miraculously conceived, people knew quite well that they had earthly fathers as well, the husbands of their mothers.
If we read the Gospels in the way all sacred scriptures of the world are intended to be read — as conveying by symbol, by suggestion, not merely historical truth as to something that happened long ago and once and for all, but spiritual truth as to what is happening now and always, in our own heart and nature — it is quite a different story. Then we have depths beyond depths to discover in them, actual light thrown on our journey through life; we have the secret places of the universe illuminated.
The Christ is born of a virgin mother; as was Krishna, a great Indian Savior who lived some three thousand years before him, and simply because it is only in the pure heart that the Christ-self, the god-self in each one of us, is born. This again is what Jesus taught when he said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. There he is teaching that it is possible to purify oneself, to evolve into something higher and nobler than we are; to become, from a man, a god.
Thus, the way to read the Gospels is to accept as historically true that which has the ring of historical truth; which is mainly that there was such a Savior, one of the great Order of Teachers who have appeared from time to time in the world to remind men of the truths they are so prone to forget. That has the ring of historical truth because we find Jesus announcing the same old verities, flaming with the same grand message that all his predecessors and all his successors have brought. This being the case, he would have lived in the world just as long as was possible; because every year, every extra month, in the life of such a Teacher, counts for the enlightenment of mankind. It need not surprise us to find in the early Church the tradition or belief, mentioned by the church father Irenaeus, that Jesus was alive and teaching many years after the supposed date of the crucifixion. Let us then look into the story of the crucifixion.
In those days when Greek civilization was the civilization of the age, and the core of its religion was the Mysteries of Eleusis and Samothrace, the central fact was that of initiation, by which a man became his higher self, a god. Long centuries before the time of Christ, it was the real thing; quite real. After years of preparation and training, the candidate was initiated. His body was tied to a kind of wooden cross and placed in a secret chamber; his soul, his mind, his consciousness, he himself, went out into the deep spaces of the inner universe, and discovered for himself the workings of the laws of nature; saw for himself the truth underlying life. For three days the soul was thus free, and the body lay in the cryptlike chamber. Then the soul returned to the body; and the man arose, glorified. The technical term for the one so initiated was the "Christos," the "Anointed."
We all remember that the cry of Jesus on the cross, Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, is translated, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Take it to a Hebrew scholar, and he will tell you that the phrase as given in the text is good Hebrew rendered in Greek characters, but that the verb sabachthani can rightfully be translated as how hast thou glorified me! You see, in the outer Gospel story, we are shown Jesus losing his courage on the cross, wailing in his despair, much as David cried out to his Lord (Psalm xxii). But many mere men have gone through deaths of as hideous agony as Jesus did and borne all cheerfully. No; this is an instance of the way the sacred tale is told; a hint for those who can understand; the meaning concealed from the multitude. "Cast not your pearls before swine," said Jesus; meaning that these huge truths, these secrets of the universe, must not be allowed to be desecrated by those not fit to hear them; and yet the world must be continually reminded of them. The cry, My God, my God, how thou dost glorify me! is the cry of the initiate, who rises glorified indeed, the wisdom of the universe made known to him; and the tale that was told is again the story of initiation: the story how man can become a god.
It is a myth, a legend, fastened on to the story of the life of a great initiate. Understand it, and it becomes living truth here and now. The Christ, the god-self in us, is crucified on these crosses of flesh and matter, our bodies, even now, and always; until through our own effort, through a determined struggle upward, through the pains and endeavor of initiation, it, our Christos within, rises from the dead, the god-self of us taking possession of our lives.
(From Sunrise magazine, April, 1976. Copyright © 1976 Theosophical University Press)