42. Conflict With the Pharisees -- The Transfiguration

The Galilean springtime lasted for two years. During this time, at the words of the Christ the radiant lilies of the angels appeared to blossom in the perfumed air and the dawn of the Kingdom of Heaven shone over the attentive crowds. But soon the sky darkened, sinister lightning flashed; everywhere were omens of catastrophe. The storm finally broke over the little spiritual family like one of the tempests which sweep the Lake of Gennesaret, swallowing up the frail boats of the fishermen in its fury. If the disciples were dismayed, Jesus was not at all surprised, for he was expecting this. It was impossible for his preaching and growing popularity not to stir the religious leaders of the Jews. It was also impossible for the conflict between them and him to be other than a decisive one. More important still, light could come forth only from this encounter.

In Jesus' time the Pharisees formed a compact body of six thousand men. Their name Perishin meant "the separated" or "distinguished ones." With an exalted, often heroic but narrow, proud patriotism, they represented the cause of national restoration; its existence dated only from the Maccabees. Along with written tradition the Pharisees accepted oral tradition as well. They believed in angels, a life after death and the resurrection, but they drowned these glimpses of esoterism which had come to them from Persia, in the darkness of grossly materialistic interpretation. Strict observers of the Law, but entirely opposed to the spirit of the prophets who put religion in the form of a love of God and men, their piety consisted of rituals and ceremonies, fasts and public penance. On the high Holy Days they were seen walking through the streets, faces covered with soot, praying aloud with a contrite air and distributing alms ostentatiously. In addition, they lived in luxury and eagerly sought for offices and power. They were also the leaders of the democratic party, holding the people in the palm of their hands.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the priestly and aristocratic party. They were composed of families which claimed membership in the priesthood by hereditary right from the time of David. Conservative to the extreme, they rejected oral tradition, accepting only the letter of the Law and denying the existence of the soul and of a future life. They ridiculed the practices of the Pharisees as well as their extravagant beliefs. For them religion consisted only in sacerdotal ceremonies. They controlled the pontificate under the Seleucides, agreeing perfectly with the pagans, even becoming imbued with Greek Sophistry and refined Epicureanism. Under the Maccabees the Pharisees had been evicted from the pontificate, but under Herod and the Romans they had regained their positions. The Sadducees were hard and tenacious men. As priests they were fond of good living, believing only in their superiority while holding but one fixed purpose: to keep the power they held by inheritance.

What could Jesus see in this religion -- Jesus the seer of Engaddi, who sought in the social order the image of divine order where justice reigns over life, science over justice, love and wisdom over all three? In the Temple, in the place of supreme knowledge and initiation, he found materialistic and agnostic ignorance using religion as a source of power; in other words, priestly imposture. In the schools and synagogues, instead of the bread of life and the dew of Heaven falling into human hearts, he found a vested morality covered by a formalist devotion; in other words, hypocrisy. Far above them, sitting on a cloud of glory was the all-powerful Caesar, the apotheosis of evil, the deification of matter. Caesar, the sole god of the world at that time, was the only possible master of the Sadducees and Pharisees, whether they wanted him or not. Like the prophets, borrowing an idea from Persian esoterism, was Jesus wrong in naming this reign the rule of Satan, of Ahriman, that is, the dominion of matter over spirit, for which he wished to substitute the rule of spirit over matter? Like all great reformers he did not attack men, who with some exceptions could be excellent, but he fought the doctrines and institutions which shape the majority of mankind. It was necessary for Jesus to challenge, to declare war against the ruling powers of his time.

The struggle took place in the synagogues of Galilee, continuing under the porticoes of the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus made long visits, preaching and combatting his adversaries. In this, and in his entire career, Jesus acted with that mixture of prudence and boldness, of meditative reserve and impetuous action which characterized his marvelously balanced nature. He did not take the offensive against his adversaries; he waited for their attack in order to repel it. And he had not long to wait, for from the prophet's beginnings the Pharisees had become jealous of his healing activities and his popularity. Soon in him they detected their most dangerous enemy. Then they approached him with that mocking urbanity, with sharp ill-will, veiled by that hypocritical gentleness which they customarily employed.

As wise teachers, as men of importance and authority, the Pharisees asked Jesus the reason for his dealings with tax collectors and men of low life. Why, also, did his disciples dare to glean wheat on the Sabbath? Why did he tolerate many serious violations against their regulations? Jesus answered them with gentleness and broadmindedness, with tenderness and forebearance. He used words of love. He spoke to them of the love of God which rejoices more at a repentant sinner than at a few righteous men. He told them the parable of the lost sheep and of the prodigal son. Embarrassed, they were silent. But, having come together again, they returned to the charge, reproaching him for healing the sick on the Sabbath. "Hypocrites," retorted Jesus, with a flash of indignation in his eyes, "do you not take the chain from the neck of your cattle to lead them to the drinking-trough on the Sabbath? May not Abraham's daughter be freed from the chains of Satan on that day?" Not knowing what to reply, the Pharisees accused him of driving out demons in Beelzebub's name. Jesus replied that the devil does not drive himself out, and he added that sin against the Son of Man will be pardoned, but not sin against the Holy Spirit, by which he meant that he thought little of the insults directed toward his being, but to deny the Good and the True when it was declared was intellectual perversity, supreme vice and irremediable evil.

This was a declaration of war. They called him a blasphemer. He answered, "Hypocrites!" They called him an imp of Beelzebub. He called them "A generation of vipers." From this moment on, the battle grew more and more vehement, more and more serious. Jesus displayed a terse, incisive logic. His words flayed like a lash and pierced like an arrow. He had altered his tactics. Instead of defending himself, he took the offensive and answered accusations with still stronger accusations, having no pity for vice and hypocrisy. "Why do you transgress the law of God because of your tradition? God commanded, 'Honor your father and mother'; you dispense with honoring your parents if money flows into the Temple! You follow Isaiah only with your lips; you are heartless bigots!"

Jesus never lost his self-control, but he became more excited, more vigorous in the struggle. As they continued to attack him, he took a higher stand as the Messiah. He began to threaten the Temple, to predict calamities which would overtake Israel, to appeal to the pagans, to say that the Lord would send other workers into His vineyard. At this the Pharisees of Jerusalem became deeply worried.

Seeing that they could neither shut his mouth, nor answer effectively, they changed their tactics. They planned to lure him into a trap. Therefore they sent deputations whose purpose was to make him utter heresy, which in turn would permit the Sanhedrin to seize him as a blasphemer in the name of the Law of Moses, or to have him condemned as a revolutionary by the Roman Governor. Hence the insidious question about the adulterous woman and about Caesar's penny. Always seeing through his enemies' schemes, Jesus disarmed them with his answers, which were those of a profound psychologist and skillful strategist.

Observing that these tactics failed, the Pharisees tried to intimidate him by harassing him at every step. Now the majority of the people, stirred up by the Pharisees, were turning away from Jesus, since it was clear that he would not restore the external kingdom of Israel. Everywhere, even in the smallest villages he met cunning and suspicious faces, spies who were watching him, treacherous emissaries sent to discourage him. Some came and said to him, "Get out of here, for Herod Antipas wants to kill you!" He answered proudly, "Tell that fox that a prophet does not die outside of Jerusalem!" Nevertheless, he had to cross the Sea of Tiberias several times, taking refuge on its eastern shore in order to escape these snares. No longer was he safe anywhere.

While these events were taking place, the murder of John the Baptist occurred. By order of Herod Antipas, he was beheaded in the Citadel of Makerous. It is said that when Hannibal saw the head of his brother Hasdrubel who had been killed by the Romans, he cried out: "Now I know the fate of Carthage!" In the death of his forerunner, Jesus could know his own destiny. He had no illusions about it from the time of his vision of Engaddi; he had begun his work by fully accepting his end in advance. Nevertheless this news, brought by the sorrowful disciples of the preacher in the desert, struck Jesus as a presentiment of his own death. He exclaimed, "They did not recognize him, but they have treated him as they wished. Thus shall the Son of Man suffer at their hands!"

The Twelve were troubled, for Jesus hesitated on his path. He did not wish to let himself be captured, but rather to surrender himself willingly, once his work was finished, and to die as a prophet at the hour he himself would choose. Already followed by his enemies for a year, accustomed to escaping them by circuitous travels, disheartened with the people, whose coldness he sensed after the days of their enthusiasm, Jesus decided once more to flee with his friends.

Arriving at the top of a mountain with the Twelve, he turned around to look for the last time at his beloved lake, on whose shores he had wished to cause the dawn of the Kingdom of Heaven to appear. His eyes rested upon those towns lying at the edge of the water or built in terraces on the mountainsides, partly hidden in their green oases and shining in the golden sunset -- all these beloved places where he had sown the Word of Life, he was now abandoning! A foretaste of the future came over him. With a prophetic gaze he saw the country transformed into a desert under the avenging hand of Ishmael, and without anger, but filled with bitterness and sorrow, the words fell from his lips, "Woe to you, Capernaum! Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!" Then turning toward the pagan world, accompanied by the Apostles, he took the road which goes up the valley of the Jordan from Gadara to Cesarea Philippi.

Sad and long was the route of the fugitive band across the great plains of reeds and the marshy land of the upper Jordan, under the burning sun of Syria. They spent the night among herdsmen or with the Essenes who had settled in little communities in this desolate country. The sorrowful, anxious disciples lowered their heads; the sad and silent Master was lost in meditation. He was reflecting upon the impossibility of convincing people of the truth of his doctrine by preaching, of the dreadful schemes of his adversaries. The final struggle was imminent; he had arrived at an impasse. How was he to come out of it? Moreover, his thought dwelt with infinite concern upon his scattered spiritual family, and especially on the twelve Apostles who, faithful and confident, had left all -- family, trade, fortune -- to follow him, and who, nevertheless, were about to be heartbroken and disappointed in their great hope of the triumphant Messiah. Could he leave them alone? Had the truth sufficiently entered into them? Would they believe in him and in his teaching, in spite of all? Did they know who he really was? Under the influence of this last question, he asked them, "Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" And they answered, "Some say that you are John the Baptist; others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "And you, whom do you say that I am?" Then Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living. God!"

In Hindu, Egyptian and Greek initiation the term Son of God meant a consciousness identified with divine Truth, and a will capable of manifesting it. According to the prophets, this Messiah was to be the Son of Man, that is, the Elect of Earth and the Son of God, that is, the Messenger of Heaven, and, as such, having in himself the Father or Spirit, Who rules over the universe through him.

At this affirmation of the Apostles' faith, Jesus experienced tremendous joy. He knew that his disciples had understood. He would live in them, and the link between Heaven and earth would be reestablished. Jesus said to Peter, "You are blessed, Simon, son of Jonas, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." By this answer Jesus informs Peter that he considers him an initiate in the same sense as himself. Peter has attained this through his inner, profound vision of Truth. This is the real, the only revelation; this is the stone upon which Christ wishes to build his church, "against which the gates of hell cannot prevail." Jesus relies on the Apostle Peter only so long as he has this understanding. An instant later, when he has become the natural man again -- fearful and limited -- Jesus treats him differently.

When Jesus announced to his disciples that he was going to be put to death in Jerusalem, Peter began to protest, "God forbid, Lord, that this should happen to you!" But Jesus, as if he saw in this movement of sympathy a temptation of the flesh which was trying to shake his great decision, turned around sharply to the Apostle, saying, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an offense, because you cannot understand the things of God, but only those which are of men!" And the firm gesture of the Master seemed to say, "Forward, across the desert!"

Frightened by his solemn voice, by his severe look, the Apostles bent their heads in silence, resuming their way over the stony hills of Gaulonitide. This flight, by which Jesus led his disciples outside Israel, resembled a march toward the riddle of his Messianic destiny, the final solution of which he was seeking.

They came to the gates of Caesarea. The city which had turned pagan since the time of Antiochus the Great, was sheltered in a green oasis near the Jordan, at the foot of the snowy crests of Mount Hermon. It had an amphitheater, and it shone with luxurious palaces and Greek temples. Jesus passed through Caesarea and went to the place where the Jordan arises as a bubbling clear stream from a cavern in the mountain, like life bursting from the deep womb of eternal nature.

A little temple, dedicated to Pan, was there, and in a grotto near the river stood many columns, marble nymphs and pagan divinities. The Jews were horrified at these signs of an idolatrous cult, but Jesus looked at them without anger, and with an indulgent smile. He recognized in them the imperfect effigies of that divine beauty whose radiant archetype he bore in his soul. He had not come to curse paganism, but to transform it; he had not come to pronounce an anathema against earth and its mysterious powers, but to reveal Heaven to it. His heart was large enough, his doctrine broad enough to embrace all peoples, and to say to all cults, "Lift up your heads, and recognize that you all have the same Father!"

Nevertheless, there he was on the extreme boundary of Israel, hunted like a wild beast, pressed upon, stifled between two worlds, each of which rejected him. Before him was the pagan world which did not yet understand him, in which his word was powerless; behind him was the Jewish world, which stoned its prophets and stopped its ears in order not to hear its Messiah. There the Pharisees and Sadducees awaited their prey. What superhuman courage, what extraordinary deed was necessary to break all these obstacles, in order to pass beyond pagan idolatry and Jewish hardness to the very heart of this suffering humanity which he loved with all his being, and to make it hear his word of resurrection?

Then with a sudden turn his thought again followed down the course of the Jordan, the sacred river of Israel; it moved from the temple of Pan to the Temple of Jerusalem; it measured the entire distance which separated ancient paganism from the universal thought of the prophets. Finally, like an eagle returning to its nest, it passed from the distress of Caesarea to the vision of Engaddi! And again he saw surge forth from the Dead Sea that terrible phantom of the cross! . . . Had the hour of the great sacrifice come? Like all men, Jesus had two consciousnesses within him. The earthly one gently comforted him with illusions, saying to him, "Who knows? Perhaps I shall avoid fate!" The other, the divine consciousness, firmly said, "The way to victory passes through the gate of suffering." But was it necessary to obey the latter after all?

In every great moment of his life, we see Jesus withdrawing to the mountain to pray. Did not the Vedic sage say, "Prayer sustains heaven and earth and rules the gods?" Jesus knew this power of powers. Usually he did not allow any companion to share the times when he descended into the arcanum of his consciousness. However, on one occasion he led Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, John and James, to a high mountain in order to spend the night there. Tradition has it that the place was Mount Tabor. There that mysterious scene which the Gospels describe under the name The Transfiguration took place between the Master and his three most initiated disciples.

According to Matthew, the Apostles saw the luminous, diaphanous form of the Master appearing, in the transparent shadows of an oriental night, his face shining like the sun, his garments radiant as light. Then two forms, which they took for those of Moses and Elias appeared beside him. Trembling they came out of their strange prostration, which seemed to them like both a deep sleep and an intense waking state. Beside them they saw the Master, who touched them in order to awaken them completely. The transfigured Christ was never erased from their memory.

But what had Jesus himself seen, what had he experienced during that night which preceded the decisive deed of his prophetic career? He passed through a gradual disappearance of earthly things under the fire of prayer and an ascension from sphere to sphere on wings of ecstasy. Slowly it seemed to him that through his deep consciousness he was returning into a previous existence, which was entirely spiritual and divine. Far from him were the suns, worlds, earths, whirlwinds of painful incarnations, while in a homogeneous atmosphere was a fluid substance, an intelligent Light.

In this radiance legions of heavenly beings formed a moving canopy, a firmament of ethereal bodies, white as snow, from which emanated gentle rays of light. On the shining cloud where he himself was standing, six men in priestly clothing and of powerful stature are lifting a gleaming Chalice in their united hands. They are the six Messiahs who already have appeared on earth; the seventh is he himself, and this Cup signifies the Sacrifice which he must experience by becoming incarnate on earth in his turn. Beneath the cloud the thunder rolls, a black abyss opens, the circle of generations, the gulf of life and death, the earthly hell appear before him. With a supplicating gesture the Sons of God elevate the Cup. Heaven waits motionless ...

With a gesture of acceptance Jesus spreads his arms in the form of a cross, as though he embraces the world. Then the Sons of God kneel, faces to the ground; angels with long wings and lowered eyes carry the shining Chalice upward into the vault of Light. Hosanna! rings out from heaven to heaven, melodious and ineffable . . . But without even hearing it, he plunges into the abyss ...

This is what once took place in the world of Archetypes, in the Bosom of the Father, where the Mysteries of eternal Love are celebrated, and where the movements of the stars pass in waves of living Light. This is what Jesus had sworn to fulfill; this is why he was born, this is why he had struggled upon earth. And now the mighty promise gripped him again at the end of his work, through the fullness of his spiritual consciousness, by means of which he had entered into the revelation of a divine ecstasy.

Impressive vow, dread Chalice! Nevertheless, it was necessary to drink from it. After the rapture of ecstasy, he awakened in the depths of the abyss, at the brink of martyrdom. There could be no further doubt; the time had come. Heaven had spoken, earth cried aloud for help.

Then, slowly retracing his steps, Jesus again went down to the valley of the Jordan and took the road to Jerusalem.


43. Last Supper, Death and Resurrection

The Great Initiates