the wealth of the nations, the drum of the Word
(cyprian, 6 Jan, 2016)
Because of all the study and work I did for so many years I always think of this as the feast day of inter-religious dialogue. There are different theologies of or, better to say, different approaches to inter-religious dialogue. One, the most conservative and one that is not in line with Catholicism, is the theology of replacement, which means one religion just comes in and completely wipes out the other. But Catholicism is so rooted in the fact that grace builds on nature that we don’t teach that, though we did operate out of the model for centuries. The mainstream view, in Catholicism at least, is a theology of fulfillment, which means that all other religious traditions are brought to their fulfillment in Jesus. And so, as the late Jesuit friend of Camaldoli Jacques Dupuis put it, other religions are not just pre-Christian, they can be seen as pro-Christian, pointing to Christ in some way. That was the point of view of even such a stalwart of Christian orthodoxy as G. K. Chesterton, concerning both the philosophers and sages such as Confucius and the Buddha: what they intuited is brought to its fulfillment in the Christ event.
Now, there are more liberal and progressive theologies of inter-religious dialogue (such as the theology of mutuality, and the theology of acceptance) but I will just stay with this one for now. And a favorite image for this, and this is why I bring it up on the feast of the Epiphany, is these three wise men from the East, who come bringing gifts, lay them at the feet of Jesus, and they are accepted. That’s a whole other homily, which I must have given before, but just keep that image in your mind for a moment: these wise men come from the East, but they don’t just come to receive; they bring gifts, and their gifts are received and welcomed. Now I want to take even that one step further by telling you this story.
When I was passing through Delhi, India in 2007, I visited a monastic community known as the Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ of the Church of North India (the Indian version of Anglicanism). Their monastery is where Abhishiktananda stayed often on his way through Delhi and is also the place where his scant archives are housed. The head of the community at the time was a man named Fr. Monodeep Daniel who was also the secretary of the Abhishiktananda Society. We had a long conversation and Monodeep was telling me how influential Abhishiktananda had been on their community. We spoke some about where to find the bridge with other traditions, and what to do about not just the uniqueness but the Christian insistence on the centrality and necessity of Christ for salvation, something which can be a real stumbling block in interreligious dialogue. I mentioned how I always fall back on a theology of the Word, meaning that wherever we discover Truth, Beauty or Goodness, we are encountering the Word, who we believe was made flesh in Jesus who is the Christ, which is right in line with this theology of fulfillment.
At that point Monodeep got very animated and told me how much Abhishiktananda’s theology of the Word had influenced the whole Church of North India, so much so that they practically quote him in their Eucharistic Prayer: “From age to age you sent wise men and women to show us the way to you.” He said any Indian would know that the rishis of India and the Buddha and the Jains and the Sikhs are all included in that phrase. So there’s this beautiful example of laying gifts at the feet of Jesus and him accepting them. Monodeep spoke about Abhishiktananda’s understanding of “bringing the wealth of the nations to Christ,” such as the truth of experience of advaita–non-duality, or the wisdom gathered from such spiritual practices as yoga and Buddhist style meditation.
But then he went a step further and explained what more that had meant for them, that Abhishiktananda might not even have known. Monodeep, as many Christians, especially Protestant Christians, was a dalit, that is, he was of the “untouchable” caste. And he said, “For myself as a dalit, not only do we bring the wealth of the nations to Christ, but then Christ distributes the wealth of the nations back to us.” He went on to explain how there was a time when the dalits were not allowed in the temple at all because they would pollute the place and the Brahmin priests. He told of an image that is used among Christians, “the drum of the Word,” which refers to the ironic fact that because Brahmin priests could not have contact with animal skin, they could not beat the drum that was necessary for certain rituals. So they had to get a dalit–an untouchable to do it for them from a distance. “So you see,” he said, “the dalits have been beating the drum of the Word all along.” And this, he said, is the tension between the Christian priesthood and the brahminical one: the Brahmins, at least at one time, were not allowed to touch the dalits or have anything to do with them, whereas, “I have been to many Roman Catholic ordinations and it says specifically in the rite that they have the power to sanctify, the duty to touch the so-called unclean, and they will actually lay their hands on them. Christian priests say, ‘You come and I will bless you.’” He said this was the same tension between the priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of Melchizedek that Abhishiktananda loved to point out: the priesthood of Aaron would not allow itself to be polluted by un-holy things, but the priesthood of Melchizedek is the cosmic priesthood that sanctifies the wealth of the nations for Christ. And then Christ distributes that wealth to everyone, which means a dalit like Monodeep––and this was the mind-blowing point––didn’t get the wealth of India from Hinduism; he got the wealth of India from Jesus. He gets advaita, yoga, everything, from Jesus who has gathered the wealth of the nations, the fullness of the Word, wherever it has manifested, and then spreads it with bliss bestowing hands.
I think that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard about the place of Christ in this whole economy of cosmic salvation, as well as the role of the church, as St. Paul says, and now this good news of reconciliation he has entrusted to us. Of course this is the dynamism, you might even say the choreography of the Eucharist. Like the three wise men, we lay our gifts––our lives and our loves, our sorrows, our joys, our talents––at the feet of Jesus, on the altar; and they are lifted up, consecrated and then given back to us, accepted, consecrated. And perhaps this is part of the epiphany, that what we have to offer is already good––grace upon grace––and acceptable. I don’t know if I could get people to confess that all things are brought to their fullness in Jesus. But I will stand by this philosophically: that when we put things in proper order, when we begin everything and anything by laying it at the feet of Jesus, by establishing right relationship with Spirit, then everything finds its fulfillment in incarnation, in the Word being made flesh.
The good news is always breaking out of its containers, just as it broke out of the container of Judaism. Let’s pray for the eyes to see this epiphany everywhere, and bring the wealth of the nations to Christ, allow him to lift them up and consecrate them, and give them back to us as Eucharist, as the energy to spread the good news of reconciliation.