The Gita in Lent IV: Waking Up, Slowly

Cambridge, MA. With the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Lent (B), we’ve reached a very obvious and yet very subtle moment in Lent: everything is simple, and everything is at stake. In the select section of John 3 we heard at Mass on March 15, the evangelist gives the teaching of Jesus in a very succinct form, of which the famous 3.16 is only a small part: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3; NRSV) The news is good news: God is intent on the salvation of all. It is as simple as that.

But in the simplicity there is a stark, take it or leave it choice: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Choose the light not the dark, choose the salvation God wants for us – or suffer condemnation. Take your pick, and the work of Lent will be over.

But the evangelist knows that the reception of this simple good news is complicated, because we are usually not ready for anything so simple. It is here that the Gita can shed some light on the Gospel. Given that the frame story for this teaching is Nicodemus’ night visit to Jesus, it is impossible not to think of Gita 2.69, “The self-restrained man is awake, when it is night for all beings; and when all beings are awake, that is the night of the right-seeing sage.” And so it is, that the verse usefully points us to three kinds of respondents: the asleep, the awake, and the awakening.

Who is asleep? Here, the leaders of the people, who see but do not understand the signs of Jesus, who have no place in their system for something so startling, new, immediate. They sleep right through the great drama of the Word made flesh – or perhaps see Jesus only in their nightmares.

And who is awake? In the immediately following scene, we meet again John the Baptist, that awakened soul who seems always to have known who Jesus is. He is the one who picks Jesus out in a crowd and recognizes him, and here he appreciates both the wedding feast already begun and the cost for himself, his imminent departure from center stage: “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” John needs no more information. He knows.

And then there is Nicodemus, the awakening person. He is the one religious leader who is curious enough about Jesus, yet hesitant enough, to get up in the middle of the night and come to see him, in the dark. He is baffled by Jesus’ words: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” He responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nor does any easy transformation of Nicodemus ensue. Chapter 3 says nothing more about him. He appears for a moment in Chapter 7, tentatively sticking his neck out to urge caution in judging Jesus. After that, he steps forward only at the crucifixion, daring to claim the body of Jesus precisely at the worst moment, when all seems night again, entirely lost. By Chapter 19, the words given him in Chapter 3 have done their work: he is awake, he had made his irrevocable choice, for life, for Jesus.

But it took him a while. It is here that another Gita passage comes to mind. In Chapter 6, Arjuna asks Krishna whether the small efforts we make to find our way aren’t often wasted, coming to nothing: “What is the end of him, O Krishna, who does not attain the consummation of his devotion, being not assiduous, and having a mind shaken off from devotion, though full of faith? Does he, fallen from both paths, go to ruin like a broken cloud?” (6.37-39 part; Talang translation)

Krishna responds to Arjuna that no right effort – or lucid thought in the night – is wasted: “O son of Pritha, neither in this world nor the next, is ruin for him; for, O dear friend, none who performs good deeds comes to an evil end. He who is fallen from devotion attains the worlds of those who perform meritorious acts, dwells there for many a year, and is afterwards born into a family of holy and illustrious men. Or he is even born into a family of talented devotees; for such a birth as that in this world is more difficult to obtain. There he comes into contact with the knowledge which belonged to him in his former body, and then again, O descendant of Kuru, he works for perfection… The devotee working with great efforts, and cleared of his sins, attains perfection after many births, and then reaches the supreme goal.” (6.40-43, 45) Even if we cannot simply embrace the teaching of Gita 6 on rebirth – even when reading of being born again/from above in John 3 – we can appreciate the slow but sure process to which Krishna points, the seeds planted, change from old and fixed ways gradually taking place, over what can seem to be a very long time.

Some don’t get the point at all; some already see; and some, perhaps most of us, need a little more time. In other words, The Gita is reminding us that there is a point to hearing this Gospel in the middle of Lent. The word is sure and the choice is clear, but the rest of Lent is the time for it to sink in, for us to fully wake up. (Or if you are in Boston: it is spring now, but it still takes time for all that snow to disappear.)

This is but one more small reflection, part of my Lenten series. You can go back to entries one, two, and three if you wish.