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Adoption Day – 1/6/2013

There are many stories from the Hindu tradition of gods who take on human form and live fantastic but still mortal lives in order to learn something, or to teach something, or to accomplish something important. Hinduism is an ancient and spectacularly diverse religion, and there’s no way for me to give this one particular story an introduction that would cover everything you might need to know in order to fully appreciate it. So please just know that there is more to learn, as there always is with everything, and we’ll proceed.

In Hinduism, or at least in many forms of Hinduism, one of the most important gods is Vishnu, who forms a trinity of sorts – you thought that only Christianity had a trinity? No, no! – a trinity of sorts with Brahma and Shiva. Brahma is everything: all existence, everything that is. Shiva is destruction: the means by which anything ever ends so that new creation and change can happen. And Vishnu stands between them: the sustainer, upholding what is. Vishnu is the architect of order and justice, and many of the stories about Vishnu taking human form are about helping people to solve their internal conflicts, and freeing communities from oppression.

Vishnu’s most famous avatar – his most famous human life – is Krishna, who before he was even a teenager began defeating monsters and offering sage advice. But this story is from before all that. You see, before he was born, Krishna’s uncle, the cruel king Kamsa, heard that his brother’s next son was destined to liberate their kingdom. Hoping to keep his grip on power, Kamsa threw Krishna’s future parents into prison. Against the odds, Krishna’s mother gave birth in secret, and in order to save their child’s life, she and Krishna’s father had the boy smuggled out of their jail, to be raised by another family in the countryside.

Krishna’s adoptive mother was Yashoda, and she loved him very much, as she did all of her children. Krishna had a happy childhood with Yashoda and her husband, and got into just the same sorts of mischief that most children do. And so it was, that one day when Krishna was still very young, some of his older siblings rushed into the family home to tell his mother that little Krishna was eating mud. Yashoda went outside to investigate, and found Krishna sitting on the ground with his cheeks puffed out and his mouth clamped shut. She gave him a stern look, as so many mothers would, and told him to open his mouth right away. Krishna, really just a toddler at this point, obeyed his mother, but he paused for just a moment before doing so, like he was giving her a chance to change her mind.

And then, he opened his mouth. Yashoda looked inside, but she did not find what she was expecting there. Staring into the mouth of her young son, she saw, well, everything. Everything that is.: stars and planets, the sun and the moon, everything that lives and everything that does not live. Contained in this seemingly tiny child was not just our universe but every universe that might ever have been or could ever possibly be. All of these things were contained in Krishna because Krishna was, in truth, Vishnu, the sustainer of all worlds. In the moment that she saw this, how impossibly, cosmically huge the baby Krishna was, words fled from Yashoda. When her son closed his mouth and the moment had passed, Yashoda still stood there, gazing at her child in wonder and fear.

A sudden rush of insight or awareness is sometimes called an epiphany, from the Greek word for a manifestation or striking appearance. Such moments are a staple of the way we talk about science – Archimedes shouting ‘Eureka!’, a well-timed apple falling on Newton’s head – as well as religion. The epiphany is also a crucial element of many sorts of humor. Consider the famous story of a regular customer at a certain restaurant. He called the waiter to his table and asked him to try the soup. “What’s wrong with it?” the waiter asked.

“Just taste it,” the customer replied.

“Sir, I apologize if anything isn’t to your liking.”

“Really, I insist: taste the soup.”


“Taste it.”

Finally, the waiter relented and looking about the place setting in front of the customer said, “Fine; where’s the spoon?”


That same word, epiphany, is also used for a Christian feast day which happens to fall on today, by most calendars: the feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. It is a holiday focused on the early life of Jesus, who, for the various shades of Christian orthodoxy is God incarnate: a manifestation of God in human form. Several stories are associated with the festival, such as the Magi coming from the East to visit Bethlehem, following a star newly appeared in the heavens, looking for the newborn Jesus and his family.

Knowing what we now do about what stars are and how they form, the sudden appearance of a star in the sky seems even more impressive to me today than it would have been when it was first told: thousands or millions of light years ago, a star is born, or perhaps an old star reaches a new stage in its cycle of existence, becoming dramatically brighter, all so that millennia later, at just the right moment, its ancient light can reach a small distant planet, and announce a new child’s birth. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the only one of the four canonical Gospels in which the bit about the star and the Magi appears, the foreign astrologers are Jesus’ first out-of-town test audience: they are figures of wisdom, importance and authority. They are taste-makers of a sort – they know what’s good. They travel an awful long way, go to a lot of trouble, and when they finally meet the child, they seem quite satisfied that he is as wondrous and spectacular as they expected.

Such a singular, revelatory moment or experience is not just a creature of ancient times or cherished stories, however. Our tradition maintains – and we are not alone in this – that the heights of awe and revelation are accessible to all people in all places and times. Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk and social activist, reported his own moment of awakening in this same vein. He described his mystical experience – his epiphany – which came upon him at the corner of 4th and Walnut streets in Louisville, KY:

“in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud …. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”[i]

Merton cited that realization that everyone was walking around shining like the sun, as the insight that fueled his engagement with the world and his work for peace and justice.

Now, in Western Christianity, the focus today is still on the figure of Jesus in his first days, a sort of epilogue to Christmas. But in the Eastern churches, and probably as the festival was originally created, Epiphany is about Jesus’ baptism. The four Gospels contained in canonical Christian scripture are usually described as all telling basically the same story. But each were written at different times, by different people, and they each present different views and understandings of the teacher Jesus. Some details are the same, or at least similar, and some of them are different, and those differences matter. The baptism story comes from the Gospel according to Mark, which was written the earliest of the four, probably about 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Mark doesn’t open with a birth story; he begins instead with John the Baptist. John is presented as a pious mystic, in the mold of the Hebrew prophets from centuries before him. He has introduced a new ritual, washing away people’s sins in the River Jordan, getting things ready as he says, “for the one who is more powerful than I”. And this is where Jesus first appears:

In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.[ii]

Those words are a combination of a line from the second Psalm and a passage from Isaiah.[iii] They invoke a concept of the ancient Hebrew kings: that at their coronation they are adopted, becoming sons of God. This moment is the beginning of Jesus’ story for the author of Mark because it is the moment at which his story begins to be extraordinary. This account does not see Jesus as preexistent before his own birth, as the Gospel of John does, or great because of a noble lineage and a spectacular birth, as Matthew and Luke do. One of the many early understandings of Jesus that we might consider proto-Unitarian or pseudo-Unitarian was called Adoptionism, and Mark seems to be its earliest advocate. It was the belief that Jesus attained his special quality of spiritual importance – whatever that was – at the moment of his baptism, when he was adopted by God.

Now even this heretical and comparatively modest view of Jesus’ importance is more than many of us here today, and many Unitarian Universalists in general, would be inclined to grant. Our tradition has its origins in Christianity, and today we generally afford Jesus a place of honor as a great prophet and teacher, but most of us steer clear of the son of God language, just as many of us avoid God language all together. But Jesus’ theological influence is so vast in the world we live in that his ideas about God are assured some influence on our thoughts and beliefs whether or not we consider ourselves Christians, and even if their only influence is in our reaction against them. One of the things that comes across clearly in the four distinct Jesuses presented in the Gospels is that they all share an understanding of God as a parent – that is their fundamental metaphor for understanding the source of all existence and the measure of all good. And when we pause to consider this metaphor as specifically being one of an adoptive parent, a new perspective opens up.

To fully take on the mantle and responsibility of parenthood is always a choice: it is never easy and never accidental. Yet we also know that a great many people, most of them fathers, do manage to meet the technical, biological definition of parenthood without having to work particularly hard, or even to intend it. But one adopts only ever out of choosing, and particularly in our day it is a choice full of challenges. In a recent essay on her personal experience of becoming an adoptive parent, Jennifer Hauseman pointed out that a domestic infant adoption in the United States costs thousands of dollars to accomplish and takes an average of more than a year (in cases where its successful).[iv] Same sex couples, like Hauseman and her partner, face many additional barriers: international adoption (which is full of its own struggles and expenses) is not an option, as no country in the world allows openly gay couples to adopt across borders. Many states in our own country have the same sorts of bans, the average wait is longer, and in almost all cases same-sex couples cannot adopt the same child together, as a couple – one of them has to be designated the official parent and go through the process technically on their own. Before coming to know their daughter, Hauseman and her partner went through the anguish of having an agreement in place, maternity leave taken, a nursery set up, only to have the birth mother decide against the adoption. It can be a hard way to become a parent.

And this is the model of understanding the human relationship to the divine that Jesus offered. Nothing random, or simple; something actively chosen, and made the more beautiful for its difficulty. For whatever he may or may not have believed about being the son of God, Jesus was clear in his preaching that all people are the children of God. Chosen. Loved. Perhaps that was a part of his own epiphany; when he saw the sky open up, and the spirit in the form of a dove descend.

And then there was Yashoda, remember? She was looking at her son, that tiny child who was somehow so big that he contained all of everyone and everything. Here was this strange, unknowable creature who had become a part of her family for mysterious reasons entirely its own. There was only one thing Yashoda could do about it. She scooped the baby Krishna up, cradled him in her arms, and took him inside for his feeding. Because whatever else he might be, whatever his origin, nature, and destiny, he was absolutely her son, and she was absolutely his mother. After the epiphany, after the grand revelation, everything is different – and everything is also still the same. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” Thomas Merton said. You can hear a revelation as much as you want, but to know it, you have to see it for yourself. So all there is to do once you know it, is to live your life in such a way that it might help other people see what you have seen.

[i] Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1996

[ii] Mark 1:9-11

[iii] Ps. 2:7, Isa 42:1-2 (see The Jewish Annotated New Testament note to Mark 1:11)



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