The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. The semester is finally ending, and in a few days, my grades will be submitted, and “Introduction to Hindu Ritual Theory” safely behind me. I hope now to add a few blogs this coming week, in light of the quickly arriving of Christmas - a few somewhat random insights adn recommendations on the birth of Jesus in light of Hindu wisdom.

Pre-note: As always and as with any comparative theme, we can assume at the start that Christ is unique, the Incarnation is unique, his impact on the world is unique. Comparison is not about relativism. Good comparisons never mean that all religions are the same, or in this case, that avatara and incarnation are the same, or that Jesus is the same as Krishna, or those who believe in Krishna have nothing to gain from encounter with Jesus. But once our values and convictions are in place, then good comparative learning can begin to take place; nothing about uniqueness or difference suggests that Christians have nothing to learn from Hindus, or that we’d be better off thinking of Christ without ever thinking deeply about Krishna.

So here is a first suggestion, to take a look at Kristin Johnston Largen’s Baby Krishna, Infant Christ: A Comparative Theology of Salvation (Orbis, 2011). (She is an Associate Professor of Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Gettysburg, PA.) This very thoughtful and insightful book is also a fine introduction to Hinduism from a Christian perspective, Krishna for Christian reflection, and how best to do comparative study. If you know little about Hinduism, fear not, you can start here.

Part I focuses on the baby Krishna, Part II on the infant Jesus. Each part begins with an account of the scriptural sources on the baby, those around him, the dangers to which he was submitted in becoming human – evil kings and the like – and how this baby was also shown, sacramentally and dramatically, to be the savior, God in human, accessible form. If you’ve never read the Hindu stories of the birth of Krishna and his childhood, this is a fine place to start. We hear for instance the famous story of how Yashoda, mother of Krishna, wanted to scold her son for putting dirt in his mouth – only to find, upon making the child open it, that he, the lord, held all the world, and her too, within himself: God hidden in, as the child. But Largen’s chapters on Jesus are also instructive for the Christian reader, providing excellent insights into what we learn of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, carefully complemented by the famed Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas. (Check the web on these.)

In each major part of the book, we find also a reflection on the grown-up divine figure, how the indications given in the stories of the divine infant remain pertinent and become all the more evident in the subsequent accounts of their lives and works thereafter. Key to her account of Krishna’s infancy, for instance, are insights into the charms and loveliness of the child, the playfulness that enchants his mother and the village women, the ways in which profound theological teachings on the sovereignty and freedom of God are at evidence in the whims and fancies of the child – and how, in all of this, the theme is affirmed over and again: here, in this child, God is accessible, the arduous journey to God made simple and direct. One need not climb to heaven; God is here. Similarly — in a way that cannot be summarized here — Largen also draws forth and summarizes how the canonical and extra-testamental accounts of the young Jesus are under-utilized resources for imagining love of God in the midst of our basic, human reality.

In Part Three, Largen draws together what her primarily Christian audience might learn from this extended reflection. Once we’ve excluded careless and overly general claims of similarity or difference, we are helped better to “think about salvation today… and to understand Jesus’ particular identity as savior.” The vivid accounts of the baby Krishna give a very human feel to the divine birth stories, and human responses to infants and children – noticed carefully in light of traditional Hindu materials – illumined as guides to how we can relate to God: the vivid and embodied nature of divine love; God’s love for us deeply engaged in the totality of who we are; the divine-human love as passionate and deeply enjoyed; opening up the mystery of God’s action among us with a more vivid sense of divine play and playfulness. Her headings on how we can learn anew from Jesus, infant and grown up, are illustrative: “expecting the unexpected;” “the life of Jesus is salvific;” “relationships matter for salvation;” “salvation happens ‘in the flesh;’” “salvation is in the mundane.”

It is hard to summarize what Largen does with the Hindu material, since she is not nearly so abstract and dry as I’ve been in the preceding paragraphs. A scholar of Hinduism with special attention to the literary traditions, she is doing more than simply summarizing in a loose fashion stories of Krishna. She is rather looking into some lovely, moving poetry of the baby Krishna, and drawing forth the themes she enunciates. Just one example must suffice, a lovely passage quoted from Barbara Powell’s anthology of Hinduism, Windows into the Infinite:

“Naughty Krishna, though exasperating, brings supreme joy to His elders. Their anger never lasts long. He bats His lotus-like eyes, pouts His pretty lips, sheds a few counterfeit tears and before you know it the adult is overcome with love and sweeps the child up in her arms. The naughtiness is also partly a guise designed to obscure His Godhead from them. Were His contemporaries aware of His true identity, they would be too over-awed to exchange the natural loving intimacies for which he incarnated Himself. They must mistake Him for an ordinary boy and so, like a regular boy, Krishna is sometimes a pest.” (Largen, p. 57; Powell, p. 307)

This passage will seem odd and out of place next to the simple and austere Gospel accounts so familiar to us, though the extra-canonical Gospels reach some of the same imaginative range. Again, there is room for just one example. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, after some of the boy Jesus’ more amazing and confounding exploits – he had not yet learned to discipline his divinity – Zacchaeus confesses: “Poor me, I’m utterly bewildered [at what turn out to be the wise deeds of the boy], wretch that I am. I’ve heaped shame upon myself because I took on this child… I can’t endure the severity of his look or his lucid speech. This child is no ordinary mortal; he can tame fire! Perhaps he was born before the creation of the world. What sort of womb bore him, what sort of mother nourished him? — I don’t know.” (Largen, p. 99; Ronald Hock tr.) I therefore recommend to you Baby Krishna, Infant Christ, and I am sure that if you order it right away, you could have it in hand before Christmas. But in the meantime, I suggest two simpler meditations. First, attend carefully to your own varied responses to babies and small children, and meditatively bring those into play in a contemplation of the new-born and baby Jesus. Second, find some way to shift your reflection on some other religion away from the large and difficult questions of doctrine – for a moment at least – to imagine, enjoy, learn from the stories and poetry and images of that religion. Trust your imagination. And, as Largen shows us, these ancient traditions of Krishna are a fine place to start.

(I hope to add several more suggestions before Christmas.)

Comments

Shane Parker | 5/30/2014 - 7:07am

The time for a baby then and now is so changed. In that time parents are not very serious about baby products. Baby products gradually increase and parents give a deep concentration to wards these. This blog is about lord Krishna. The childhood of Krishna was really interesting. But it really not happen in case of a normal baby. Babies are depends on their parents for their growth. http://babystealsa.blogspot.in/2013/04/different-baby-products-for-first...

Beth Cioffoletti | 12/18/2011 - 4:08pm
wow.  Matt- thanks for that reflection.  Makes it all real, here and now.
MATTHEW NANNERY | 12/18/2011 - 10:33am
that's a nice twist on the whole idea of an ignatian exercise, padre... imagining oneself in the stories of other faiths. it's a thought i had not had until i read your post.

what follows is a mediation on zechariah's feelings about his baby son, the infant john the baptist. seminarians were permitted to give homiletic reflections in the diocese where i did my pastoral year. this one was for advent:

John the Baptist shouldn't have been born.

His mom and dad were too old.
And his father-though he prayed and prayed for a child-didn't believe it could happen.

But God, who levels mountains and makes rough ways smooth, made the impossible easy.
And when this little miracle baby ''was'' born, his disbelieving dad was over the moon.
And Zechariah began to chant.

It's the great song of praise and thanksgiving that all priests and nuns and religious brothers promise to chant every morning: The Benedictus.
And in the middle of it, Zechariah looks down into his arms, at the child who shouldn't by any stretch of the imagination be looking back at him,
and he starts to sing...

''And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the most high.
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.''

And now we find John-30 years later in today's gospel-doing just what his dad said he'd do: ''proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,'' and arguing that all will see the salvation of God.

It's not just some sweet story; It's a historical event.
And Luke is very clear to tell us exactly when it happened.
It was the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar;
Pontius Pilate was the govenor of Judea.
His brother Philip was the lieutenant govenor.
Annas and Caiaphas were running the temple.

It was an event that-compared to everything else that was going on in world-wasn't gonna grab the attention of anybody, great or small...
There was a pitched political struggle for control of the temple.
Regular people were struggling just to put food on the table.
Intrigues were rife in the corridors of the Roman senate.
Caesar's armies were moving in Europe.

But while the eyes of the world were turned elsewhere, Luke tells us the spirit of God was also moving...
in backwater towns along the Jordan river.
The word of God... had come to John.
And Jesus-who was living quietly as a carpenter in an unimportant town 60 miles north of Jerusalem-was about to break 30 years of silence.

It would be John... who spoke first:
''Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths,
Every valley will be filled up.
Every mountain leveled.
Winding roads will be made straight,
Rough roads made smooth.
And all flesh will see the salvation of God.''

Jesus breaks his long silence pretty soon after John baptized him.
He walks that 60 miles back to his home town.
He goes up to the ambo in the local synagogue,
an ambo probably a lot like this one,
and he begins his public ministry... doing just what John said he'd do:
Telling everybody within earshot that all people
-not just the ones you might think-will see the salvation of God:
Prisoners will go free and blind people will see.
He quotes the Torah again and again, saying that God has been healing people of all nations and faiths for years.

God ''was there.''
He walked among us in the second year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar;
He walked that 60 miles back home.
And he was standing there, flesh and blood, at that ambo.
He'd come... to talk to anybody who'd listen.

Three years later, he was dead.
A short, sweet life of a very kind man...
who you gotta think
didn't get to talk with as many of us as he'd have liked to.

2000 years have since come... and gone.
But Jesus keeps coming.
How can that be?
The Lord's life on Earth that Luke is so careful to set in a historical framework is OVER.
He's not walking among us any more.
He was crucified.
We have this cross over the altar. Right here. (POINT TO CROSS)
How can Jesus keep on coming?

You know, it's funny.
Sometimes, I don't know if we listen to what Jesus says in the gospels.
Because so many of those questions we ask... are ones that he answered,
with his own lips.
This was one of them.
Before his earthly life ended, Jesus told his friends that he must die
if he was gonna send his spirit to be with them:
It's his spirit... that keeps coming.

Our world-where we walk today-
is not so unlike the world where Jesus walked.
The eyes of the world are STILL turned elsewhere.
And we may not notice it,
but the Spirit of God is moving, again...
in the hallways of schools, and in supermarket aisles;
in prisons and in hospital rooms;
at funerals and in maternity wards;
amid the cubicles of office buildings downtown,
on farms far from the city, on buses and trains,
in big cities ''and'' in unimportant towns like the one where Jesus grew up.
And in the quiet of your kitchen before the rest of the family gets up.

Jesus keeps doing what John said he would do.
He keeps... coming...
Looking for anybody who's lost; reconciling all;
bringing them so close to his heart... that they can hear it beat.

Sometimes, if we're quiet enough, or humble enough,
or just not so caught up in chasing what the world tells us is important,
...we hear.
And when we answer, something very special is happening.

Do you know what that is?

It's conversion.
That's what conversion IS.
When we ''hear'' and we ''answer.''
It's that interaction.
And, in that moment,
Jesus wraps his fingers tightly around your hand and won't let go.

It's a moment that's too rare, but it doesn't have to be.
Jesus keeps sending us his spirit... but we just don't hear him.
Other things have our ear,
''real,'' ''tangible'' things that we're ''told'' we need,
A new car, a bigger house
The best running shoes,
That corner office.
Pride and esteem,
And the respect of those around us.

Not things of the Spirit...

And when we don't hear God... we can't answer, can we?
What we've done... is allow the world to get in the Lord's way. (PAUSE)

Don't.

Clear the way.

This Advent, listen to John:
Prepare the way of the Lord.