Many pious people believed the Messiah was an Hasidic Jew living in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Until his death in 1994, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch movement. He believed in the imminent arrival of the Messiah and exhorted followers to perform acts of goodness and kindness that would hasten his coming. There is a tradition among Hasidic Jews that every generation has a Messiah who is ready to redeem the world if the human race merits it. Some of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s followers believed he might be the one. Schneerson himself hinted at this but never actually came forward to claim this distinction.
In every generation, it would seem, charismatic religious figures have been able to persuade themselves and others that they are the Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth was the most notable of these, and his promised return opened the door to a long succession of individuals whose appearance supposedly heralded the coming of a messianic age. As the example of Rebbe Schneerson indicates, fervent messianic hopes are by no means confined to Christianity. For Orthodox Jews, a descendent of King David -- the Moshiach, or “anointed one” -- will one day restore the kingdom of Israel and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Muslims await the coming of al-Mahdi (“the guided one”), a descendent of Muhammad, who will bring an end to history and restore Islamic purity. The Buddhist equivalent is the Maitreya, or “loving one,” who will bring enlightenment to the world. In Hinduism, a reincarnation of the god Vishnu called Kalki will arrive on a white horse to usher in a new age.
For Jungians, the prevalence of messianic figures in sacred myth suggests that the savior is an archetype embedded in the collective unconscious of humankind. This archetype is manifested as a psychological projection reflecting our yearning for deliverance from our mortal bonds. When projected onto purely mythic figures, it is harmless enough, although ultimately misdirected. But it can have damaging consequences when bestowed on an actual religious or political leader, particularly if the “anointed one” willingly assumes this role for himself.
As long as our messianic hopes are focused exclusively on a savior outside ourselves, we can never hope to find the Christ within. But this comes by grace rather than by intention. Asylums are full of deluded souls who think they are Jesus Christ. And if we ever come to think our destiny is to save humanity, we should remember that the savior of the world cannot save himself. If it is a personal coronation we seek, we will find we have reaped a crown of thorns.