God’s tears

6 04 2021

The entire beautiful body of the Lord was covered with dust and dirt. In this way it became transcendentally beautiful. At times, when cleansing the temple, the Lord shed tears, and in some places He even cleansed with those tears.

CC, Madya 12.86

For the time being, I have resigned myself to practicing two religions, if purely out of social obligation. It can’t be helped, and I don’t mind it terribly. To this end, I was really busy with Holy Week services, especially learning the chants and order of services. However, on Maundy Thursday, I took a break for a few minutes to visit a church literally down the street. It seems like the local Roman Catholic traditionalists have taken up residence nearby, so dropping in on them is literally like running to the corner store to get a gallon of milk.

This time I decided to catch the last part of Maundy Thursday services, mainly the stripping of the altar. I always found this a deeply moving ceremony: God in the form of the Blessed Sacrament is removed from His home and put somewhere else. All of flowers and decorations that indicate His presence are then stripped, leaving the sanctuary barren. The high altar is thus left looking like an abandoned cave.

Usually, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved elsewhere, often in another building. Since this group was meeting in a large meeting room, their Altar of Repose was built at the other end of the room. It was very beautifully decorated, but the destination of the procession removing the Blessed Sacrament to His temporary home was facing the stripped altar. This triggered a comparison with something I read recently in my practice as an aspiring Vaishnava.

The Altar of Repose

Pictured at the beginning of this reflection is Lord Chaitanya’s pastime of cleansing the Guṇḍicā temple in preparation for the ratha yatra in Jagannath Puri. This in an elaborate festival in which the Deities Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra are transported from the primary temple to reside temporarily at the Guṇḍicā temple at the other end of a three kilometer avenue. The Deities are pulled in massive chariots by hundreds of devotees, which is the etymology of the term, “juggernaut” in the English language.

For Vaishnavas, the Festival of the Chariots is a mystical echo (“reenactment”) of the pulling of Krishna back to His home in Vrindavan. The story goes that He is at Kurukshetra when His childhood friends come back and remind Him of simpler times before He became a great king and warrior. Lord Krishna’s eyes thus grow large with melancholic nostalgia, thus manifesting the forlorn look of Lord Jagannath in the traditional iconography.

The Guṇḍicā temple is the endpoint of the procession and thus symbolizes Vrindavan in the ratha yatra. Since the highest rasa of love in krsna-lila is separation, returning to Vrindavan in one sense is always temporary. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna in the mood of a devotee, thus brought His followers to the temple to prepare it for Krishna’s visit. It is in this mood that He and His followers scrubbed, bailed, and wiped the temple clean, even scrubbing using His own tears.

Ratha-yatra

This is an event that I also had in mind when we cleaned our own church in preparation for Holy Week. I thought back to more harrowing examples of preparing a church for a major event. The one whimsical example was in seminary, when the nuns were brought in to really clean the seminary church in preparation for an ordination ceremony. I saw one nun on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor so vigorously that her habit looked like a pile of black cloth having a seizure. Previously, the consecration of the church was preceded with an entire week of preparation for the four hour opening and consecration of the church. We worked almost day and night for six days straight, I must have run a lawnmower for three of those days all over the seminary grounds. We were thus exhausted and running on pure adrenaline when hundreds of people came to witness the rare elaborate ceremony.

Terribilis est locus iste :
hic domus Dei est,
et porta coeli

(Awesome is this place, this is the house of God and the gate of heaven…. Genesis 28:17)

A major realization in my spiritual life is the idea that God cries. In the Bible, Jesus cries on a number of occasions. He weeps looking at Jerusalem, a city of fond memories for any Jew at the time, the place where God dwells with His people, reflecting on how the city would be destroyed. Jesus weeps before the tomb of Lazarus, His friend, right before He raises Him from the dead. Jesus finally weeps in the Garden on Gethsemane and while He hangs on the cross naked. The idea in Christian theology is that, what God could not assume, He could not redeem. God had to become man so that He could redeem tears, and thus wipe them from every cheek.

The Vaishnava understanding is different. Tears are there at the beginning: they are eternal. Baby Krishna weeps hot angry tears when His mother Yasoda binds Him to a pillar to prevent Him from hurting Himself. Srimati Radharani and the gopis no doubt weep when Krishna disappears from their sight, and the rest of the inhabitants of Vrindavan are forlorn when Krishna goes to Mathura to carry out His obligations to punish the evil doers and restore right behavior to the world. And as we see at the beginning of this reflection, Lord Chaitanya, the most merciful manifestation of God, weeps so much that He can wash the floor and walls of the temple with His tears.

For me there is another parallel with the Bible:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7: 36-38)

I saw someone state recently that the goal of the Hare Krishna movement is not God, but the love of God. It’s not God as an abstract philosophical concept, but God as a Person who has relationships with others. We’re not even talking about God strictly speaking, we’re talking specifically about the cowherd boy Krishna. Thus, to paraphrase another saying, it’s no surprise that tropes in various devotional traditions don’t necessarily repeat themselves, but they do “rhyme”. I have stated elsewhere that the mood of Easter morning is a shadow of the reflection of the mood of Vrindavan. The women come to the tomb with feelings of great separation from the crucified Jesus, only to find the tomb empty. Jesus’ followers then frantically go about looking for Jesus. Then, once He appears, He disappears from sight again. There is joy in Easter, but also abrupt separation, which foreshadows a very long separation from Jesus that is the life of the Christian church.

The difference in the Hare Krishna movement that this separation exists in Heaven, in the highest experience of Divine play that is Goloka Vrindavan. Just as service there doesn’t end, neither does the anxiousness for Krishna’s pleasure and well-being. Our moods here, even the most “disordered” in Christian moral theology, are not marks of an original sin, but parodies of legitimate feelings we would feel in the spiritual world. Tears do not need to be wiped away, but shed for Krishna, for our separation from Him, and in anxiousness to do more for Him, for He has taken care of everything else.


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