I was barely 15 years old in 1979 when I first traveled to India with my parents to see Sai Baba. The notion of a Guru or ‘God in human form’ was alien to me as all my early life was spent in a conservative Catholic school. My parents explained that Sathya Sai Baba was an Avatar, the Divine descended in human form, like Christ, walking on earth again. They also told me that this isn’t surprising because God incarnates from age to age when goodness declines in the world. Therefore, accepting Swami came easily and spontaneously to me.
True Spirit of Christmas in Sai’s Presence
From 1980 onwards, many of my Christmases were celebrated in the divine presence of Swami at Prasanthi Nilayam. That was when I learned how Christmas should be celebrated away from the commercial buzz, feasts, and parties that are the standard in America. Instead, in Prasanthi Nilayam, especially in those early years, Christmas was a simple celebration that was deeply spiritual with the least pomp and show.
All the foreigners would get together for satsang and practice singing carols which would be sung in Swami’s presence on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we would have the morning Nagar Sankirtan, marching around the Mandir singing Christmas Carols with lighted candles, ending in front of Swami’s residence. He would come to the balcony in His white robe with a bright glow all around Him. Tears of devotion and gratitude would well up in our eyes as our hearts and tongues sang “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night,” and other popular and immortal carols. It felt like spending Christmas in the presence of the Heavenly Father!
Reviewing His discourses during that time, the insights Swami gave on Jesus Christ’s life, proving His Omnipresence, always amazed me. After listening to His discourse, we would enjoy a drama related to the life of Christ presented by His students. Then, late in the evening, Swami Himself would give each of the 1,500 or more devotees a plate of food, bringing to life the lines from the Lord’s prayer – ‘Give us this day our daily bread!’
Christmas Celebrations: Behind the Scenes
From 2005 onwards, Swami blessed my father, Mr. John Behner, with the honor of being the Chairman of the Christmas Committee to coordinate the Christmas celebrations by the overseas devotees, which had become a 3-4 day event. My father shared many stories about these events, which are recounted below. Based on his experience in running a large food company, my father organized teams of devotees to take charge of different aspects of the Christmas celebrations - decorations, adults’ choir, children’s choir, sevadal (volunteers), Christmas feast, transportation, rentals, audio-visual systems, photography, video coverage, reporting, and the prasadam to be distributed to the devotees. Everyone put in their best efforts, but it was, and always is, Swami who silently orchestrates everything, like puzzle pieces coming together.
Here are some incidents that illustrate His Omniscience, Omnipresence, and Omnipotence!
What does Swami See in Our Offerings?
Volunteers with artistic talents would lovingly make many greeting cards and offer them to Swami during Christmas. One year, one of the cards shaped like a Christmas tree looked quite ordinary, and my father felt it should be put aside and not offered. But at the last minute, he discovered that there was no card for the children’s drama group to present their program to Swami. Thus, the ‘rejected’ card was finally selected! When Swami received the card together with the drama outline, He held it in His hand for the whole length of the drama! It became clear to us that Swami was seeing the devotion and dedication of the artist and not her artistic abilities. After the evening’s program, the lady who made the card was waiting outside the men’s exit, and she asked my father if Swami had seen her card. He replied, “Seen it! He held it in His hand during the entire program, which rarely happens.”
Lord Sai Blesses the Children
Though my father was the primary coordinator, he delighted in engaging with the kids, telling them a story every day about Swami’s childhood along with tips on how to behave during darshan. He told them, “If you ever see Swami point His finger in your direction, He is calling you, not someone else. You should get up immediately and go to Him.” During one Christmas, the children were all seated in Sai Kulwant Hall, waiting to present their drama. Unexpectedly, due to a medical emergency of a devotee, Swami had to leave for the hospital. When the car came for Him to get in, Swami motioned to one of the children. The next instant, His car was surrounded by all the children. With great delight, Swami blessed each of the children with a packet of vibhuti from His divine hand. When He returned from the hospital, the children happily presented their drama.
Devotion Also Needs Discipline
Another Christmas, all of us were in for a real surprise. As the children waited expectantly to present the drama, Swami sat on the stage reading letters. Suddenly, He got up and left the hall in His car. He did not return, leaving us all wondering what went wrong.
When my father returned to his room, my mother told him that Swami had been signaling by rotating his fingers when He passed her in darshan. My mother surmised that it meant disharmony or some dispute was going on in the group. When my father investigated, he found out that the mothers of the children were all too eager to see their children perform. So they broke in through the entrance ignoring all instructions given by the volunteers about their assigned seating. My father called these mothers and asked them if they wanted to see their children perform. Of course, their answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ He explained to them how important discipline was to Swami and that they would have to follow protocol and directions from the volunteers. In the morning darshan the next day, he asked Swami if the children could perform that afternoon. Swami readily agreed, and the mothers behaved like angels that afternoon!
The Constant Evolution
The experiences during Christmas are gifts from Sai with the sole objective of our spiritual transformation and growth. He has also beautifully explained this process of evolution from the life of Jesus himself. During the discourse delivered on December 25, 1982, Swami explained the journey Jesus undertook into Oneness with the Divine Essence or Christhood.
First, Jesus announced Himself as being a ‘Messenger of God’, where He identified the body as being given to him as an instrument for serving humanity, or as Swami mentioned, “He denied the demand of the flesh and devoted His skills and strength to relieve agony and pain.” Then Jesus’ consciousness rose to the level of the mind when he declared, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Swami continues explaining that on the last part of Jesus’ journey, "He strove hard to discover the distinction between Appearance and Reality, between Truth and Mental Image, and He became aware of the higher level of consciousness which transcends the vagaries of the mind. From that peak of intelligence, He became aware that 'I and My Father are one'."
In this same discourse, Swami said: “Jesus was a messenger of God; but note this also, all of you are messengers of God. Jesus was not the only Son of God; you are all His children. Jesus and His Father are one. You and God are also one, and you should be aware of it.”
This is a powerful message that Swami gives. That is the evolutionary path that we need to follow. Today, walking that path for me is Christmas with Sai in Prasanthi Nilayam.
About the Author:
Mr. Eric Behner hails from a family of staunch devotees of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. He was involved in the formation of the Sathya Sai Center of El Salvador. He is the President of the Central Committee of the SSSIO of El Salvador and a member of the Sri Sathya Sai Foundation of El Salvador. Eric holds an MBA with more than 20 years of experience in Telecommunication. He is the Director for Business Solutions of Telefonica Movistar, El Salvador.
First published in Eternal Companion Vol. 1, Iss. 10