April 2015 Newsletter

The following articles are reproduced from the April 2015 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.

Holy Week


C. W. Leadbeater


An extract from The Inner Side of Christian Festivals

Our Christian brothers in other branches of the Church make this period of the Passion and the Resurrection the commemoration of terrible physical sufferings; and they read the detailed story of those sufferings in the Christ, dwelling upon their gruesome details in order to rouse in their people feelings of pity, devotion and gratitude to the Christ Who bore so much for them. We know through clairvoyant investigation that these events are not historical, and that therefore all through the ages a vast amount of the deepest sympathy and pity has been lavished upon a dream—upon something that, as it is generally understood, did not happen at all, for the body of the disciple Jesus was killed by stoning, and not by crucifixion. Whether on the whole that story has done more harm than good, it is not so easy for us to say. I cannot but feel it to have been responsible for a vast amount of harm; but on the other hand I see that the legend was in its way a noble legend, and that many may have been helped and benefited thereby.

Yet surely the truth is nobler and far more beautiful, for all of this is a splendid piece of allegory. The suffering, the cross, the passion, the death, the burial, the resurrection—all of these are symbols of what happens at the fourth of the great Initiations, that of the Arhat. I do not in the least deny; I do not wish for a moment to minimize, the suffering and the crucifixion that come as part of that great step; not physical suffering truly, but none the less real and terrible. But when we understand what it means we will regard that suffering from a very different point of view. It is true enough, it is terrible enough, and it will come to every one of us just as it came in His time to the Christ Himself. Remember what our hymn tells us:

And on the Holy Gross Christ hangeth but in vain,

Unless within our hearts it be set up again.

So when we look forward (as well we may, as indeed we are intended to do) through this period of the celebration of the Passion to the great Initiation through which one day we shall have to pass like all others, and while we know of the suffering, surely we too shall count it as joy in view of the glory and splendour and power which it will bring us, the power to help, the strength to forward evolution. It is for the sake of that that we dare it, that we meet it. It is not for us to whine over the personal sufferings or to exaggerate the horrors, but rather to look at it from the point of view of the good of the world.

Surely in that way we shall gain more from the contemplation of the thought of the Passion and the Crucifixion. Not that they are one whit less real to us when we take the spiritual interpretation, for we know that whether in that incarnation of the Christ the death and the resurrection took place literally in Palestine or not, they do take place in the life of every Christian man, and it is that which concerns us—not the particular happening in time, but the perpetual passing of developed humanity through these different stages. These things are facts; they do occur in human evolution, ordained by the unsearchable wisdom of God; so it is well that we should dwell upon them not from the point of view of horror and suffering, but as remembering the glory that lies behind and the inner meaning of it all.

I remember being taught as a child what was believed to be the sequence of events commemorated in that Holy Week which is the culmination and conclusion of Lent. It was explained that the popular excitement and acclamation of Palm Sunday was the direct and immediate result of the raising of Lazarus on the previous day. It seemed to me (and still seems) that the exigencies of the story require a somewhat longer interval between those two events; but perhaps that is only another instance of the characteristic which is so prominent in the Mystery-Drama of the gospels—that the whole presentation is not that of a continuous narrative, but of a number of separate scenes intended to be acted. At any rate those of us who know anything of the nature of oriental races can readily understand the commotion and the enthusiasm which would be aroused by the resurrection of Lazarus; we can imagine how people from the neighbouring villages would eagerly crowd into Bethany and wait about for the chance of seeing Jesus or Lazarus.

Just so they were all waiting to see Him on that Sunday morning when He started to go into the town, and the moment He appeared they all began to cheer. They crowded round Him, they made a sort of rough procession to escort Him; they tore great palm-leaves from the trees and waved them before Him; and as soon as the idea occurred to them that He was a great saint, a great prophet, they took off their outer garments and threw them down in His path—not only to do honour to Him, but to have the garments blessed by the touch of the feet of the Great One, or even the feet of the ass upon which He rode. To us this seems a strange, exaggerated action, but it is quite natural to an oriental. Of course we must not think of our ugly modern clothing, but of the loose flowing robes of the East—the shawl-like outer cloth which is thrown round the shoulders. I have seen the very same thing done before a Muhammadan saint who had the reputation of being unusually holy; and on at least two occasions the same quaint honour has been paid to me when I delivered some lecture which specially appealed to the religious enthusiasm of an Eastern audience.

So Jesus rode on His way, the centre of a noisy, gesticulating crowd. Naturally people came running from all sides, asking what was happening; and when they were told: “This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, Who raised Lazarus from the dead,” they joined the procession, and shouted with the rest. The Jews had always the reputation of being a turbulent and riotous people, and when their authorities saw this huge, excited crowd approaching the city they became alarmed and ordered out their soldiers, fearing the beginning of a revolution. And even when they were reassured for the moment, their minds were still disturbed, and they consulted together as to what should be done with Jesus. They felt that He was becoming altogether too popular, that He had far too great an influence with the people—an influence which might easily be used (and indeed had to some extent already been used) in opposition to theirs, so that they feared the overthrow of their authority. They felt, too, that any one who upset the decent conventions of ordinary life by such a revolutionary innovation as raising a dead man to life was a dangerous person, who needed instant repression lest He should still further disturb the calm current of respectability which had floated them into positions of wealth and power. So they plotted for His removal by the simple process of judicial murder.

His disorderly but enthusiastic little procession reached the city, and He wended His way to the synagogue and began to talk to the people, as was His wont. He seems to have spent much time in this way during Monday and Tuesday; in fact, nearly half of His recorded utterances are said to have been delivered on those two days. He was something of a popular hero, not only through what He had done in the matter of Lazarus, but because of His fearless and scathing denunciations of the party in power; so the authorities were afraid to effect His arrest openly, lest they should provoke a rescue by the mob. They seem to have felt it necessary to act quickly, as huge crowds of excitable and perfervid pilgrims were daily pouring into the city in preparation for the great annual feast of the Passover; so they allowed it to be understood that they were willing to pay a good price to anybody who would arrange a convenient opportunity for His secret and expeditious capture. This aroused the cupidity of Judas Iscariot, who was the treasurer of the tiny peripatetic community, and he earned for himself the contempt and loathing of countless millions by offering to betray his Master into the hands of that unsavoury administration. This piece of rascality was concocted on the Wednesday, and we used to be told that it was because of the shame brought on humanity by that atrocious action that the Church of England orders its lugubrious litany to be recited on that day each week—on Wednesday in horror of the betrayal of the Christ, and on Friday because of His death. Why that most dreary of lucubrations should also be assigned to Sunday was not explained, unless on the theory that it was only on that day that a sufficient number of people could be depressed by its weird jumble of servility and gloom.

Thursday is always regarded and celebrated as the day of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, although many students consider that, when one takes into account the various happenings mentioned in the story, it must have been after midnight when that institution took place, and so really Good Friday morning. Certainly according to Jewish calculations it must have been Friday, for the Hebrew reckoned his days from sunset to sunset. I have explained in a previous book (The Science of the Sacraments) that the marvellous change which is produced in the sacred Elements by the act of consecration can be achieved only between the hours of midnight and noon—a fact which tells in favour of the ancient tradition which places the institution after midnight. However that may be, Thursday is commonly associated with the Holy Sacrament, so that if a church has only one week-night service, it is usually on that day.

The name Maundy Thursday is a corruption of the Latin mandatum, which is the first word of the special antiphon of the day. It means “commandment” and refers not only to the new commandment “that we love one another”, but also to the order first given on that day two thousand years ago: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

According to the gospel story many events are crowded into that fateful night between the Thursday and the Friday—the visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, the actual betrayal (what was commemorated on Wednesday was the plot for the betrayal) the arraignment before the Sanhedrim, before Pilate and before Herod, and the final condemnation. Of course as an attempt at a history of actual happenings it is manifestly impossible, but we must never forget that the writers had no such intention in their minds, and would probably have stood aghast if they could have foreseen the astounding yet almost universal misinterpretation which awaited their literary efforts. On the other hand, if any touch of prevision came to them, they would confidently rely on this obvious impossibility to prevent so strange a mistake. If these stories had not from the days of our childhood been surrounded for us by a kind of glamour of sacrosanctity, we should never have taken them for history; and when once the idea that they are the scenes of a religious Mystery-Drama is fully understood, it explains everything so clearly that one cannot doubt its truth.

The evangelists disagree somewhat as to exact hours, as well they may; but their story is that Jesus died some time on Friday, and that His body was buried that same evening in a rock tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. It lay there all through Saturday, but was raised therefrom very early on the Sunday morning—directly after midnight, according to one tradition of the Church. This gives the body about thirty hours in the tomb, thus just satisfying the requirements of the statement that “on the third day He rose from the dead,” but by no means fulfilling the prophecy that the Son of Man should be for three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Other traditions extend the time in the grave to forty hours, as has already been said.

“Which things are an allegory,” and a remarkably accurate allegory. I have explained that the whole drama is intended to put before us a vivid presentation of the progress of the Initiate, and that its stages indicate the great Initiations which are, as it were, milestones on that mighty journey of the human soul. The events attributed to the Holy Week and to Easter symbolize the fourth of these steps, and indeed closely follow its essential characteristics. Those who have passed through that trial are bound by vows of secrecy as to detail, just as is a Masonic neophyte; but they violate no pledge when they tell us that this gospel story follows its broad outline with considerable fidelity. The candidate seems always to meet with a certain amount of earthly triumph and recognition, and he takes advantage of that to do what he can in the way of teaching and helping others, that being the duty laid upon him. His endeavours stir up envy, hatred and violent opposition, and among those who have received help from him there is always found one who will turn upon him with treachery, bear false witness against him, traduce his fair name and misrepresent his actions. Shame and obloquy of all sorts are heaped upon him, and though modern laws do not permit physical crucifixion, the amazing spite and bitter vindictiveness of his persecutors show how gladly they would revive the fires of Smithfield if their furious malignity were not restrained by the advance of civilization.

Ruysbroek, the Flemish mystic of the fourteenth century, writes of such candidates: “Sometimes these unhappy ones are deprived of the good things of earth, of their friends and relations, and are deserted by all creatures; their holiness is mistrusted and despised, men put a bad construction upon all the works of their life, and they are rejected and disdained by all those who surround them; and sometimes they are afflicted by divers diseases.” And another great mystic, Madame Blavatsky, writes even more forcibly and truly: “Where do we find in history that messenger, grand or humble, Initiate or neophyte, who, when he was made the bearer of some hitherto concealed truth, was not crucified and rent to shreds by the dogs of envy, malice and ignorance? Such is the terrible occult law; and he who does not feel in himself the heart of a lion to scorn the savage barking, and the soul of a dove to forgive the poor ignorant fools, let him give up the Sacred Science.” (The Secret Doctrine, Vol. V, page 106, Adyar Edn.)

When the outburst of insanity has culminated, there comes a period of peace and obscurity, and then (if the candidate has borne the trial satisfactorily) he attains the step for which he has so long been striving, and the success which crowns his efforts is so much greater than he has ever dreamed, that it is indeed a resurrection into a nobler life and a higher world. But the poor ignorant persecutors never know that.

The compilers of the gospels evidently knew the Egyptian form of the fourth Initiation, for many of its details emerge in their presentation of it. The introduction of the cross itself is part of the Egyptian symbolism, for it was never a Jewish method of execution, and at the real date of the death of the body of Jesus the Romans had not yet annexed Palestine. The “preaching to the spirits in prison” on Saturday also points to the plan adopted on the banks of the Nile.

Owing to the lamentable materialization of the sublime allegory into physical history, the Church services for Holy Week early took on a gloomy tinge, and presently became so dismal and depressing that the name “Divine Service” could no longer in any sense be applied to them. The Roman ceremonies are very complicated and elaborate, and show distinct traces of the pre-Christian worship of the Sun-God. The Church of England has carefully eliminated all the picturesqueness of the traditional rites, and left us nothing but a series of long and inexpressibly wearisome readings. Some of her more ritualistic churches, however, have ventured to go a little beyond the dreary prescriptions of her prayer-book and have introduced the old office of Tenebræ. They have also invented a new liturgical item to commemorate the three hours from twelve to three on Good Friday during which Jesus is supposed to have hung upon the cross. This usually consists of the recitation of the seven Words or sayings to which He is represented to have given utterance at that time, each being followed by a short address and the singing of a litany.

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