Last Sunday we took a tour through some background material on Advent, and suggested the proposition that the coming of the Christ consciousness is given through grace and taken through choice. We also talked, in a general way, about the signs and symbols of the time and how a childlike perspective on the season's archetypal energies may reveal phenomena of a pre-conscious quality--may, in fact, lead to a perception of these symbols at a higher-than-normal level of magical resonance.
This magical resonance may be said to derive from the deep past of Man's sojourn on Earth--from a time when Man's literal consciousness was not so dominant, and his "unliteral, or non-verbal consciousness" allowed shifts from one consciousness state to another with more freedom, less inhibition, than is typical in people today. I'm glad I can talk and I'm glad I can think, but I know the talking and the thinking have cost me something: they have cut me off from a more primitive version of myself. Indeed when I think of Santa's elves, or Narnia's centaurs, I think of something quite ancient, something buried quite deep in my collective memory. Perhaps Christmas is such a nostalgic time because the radiance of primordial light beacons out of these ancient symbologies like searchlights of memory, enlightening our vision, but directing our eyes BACKWARD.
When one asks oneself, "Am I better off now, with all my fancy pants ideas, expressions, and concepts? or was it better back then, when we traveled, unhindered, over the rolling planes of experience, in a relatively mindless medium of intuitive understanding, connected to the infinite, but lacking definition? In this regard, I am reminded of the remarks I made in the sermon on New Wine:
. . . let us not forget that, seen from the spiritual perspective, the new is always contained in the old, and we MUST keep the eternal in our sights, as we struggle to find new ways of articulating transient, temporal, earthly experience. . .
Jesus, lend us your divine intelligence so that we may see ourselves growing and changing in your transforming light. Prepare us to accept the new wine of your eternal changeless truth as it leads us ever upward to a heaven where all contradictions are moot, and all peace and love calm our clamoring voices into silence.
Yes, we must always have the infinite before us, regardless of the level of consciousness on which we may find ourselves at any given moment; and yet, eternity notwithstanding, the ancient images seem so much more powerful at this time of year than they do at other times. Is it the time of year that evokes the images, or do the images evoke the time of year? Perhaps it is, as C.S. Lewis says, the RHYTHM of the seasons that makes each phase seem unique and significant? that makes Christmas the special, stand-out time that it is.
We hear a lot about keeping the spirit of Christmas all year round. Yuck. True, Christmasy attitudes of generosity, cheerfulness, intimacy, and grace, are qualities we would like to see regularly inspiring all our daily doings with heavenly radiance; but to have Christmas ALL YEAR ROUND? Who could handle it? To me, Christmas is like a great oasis in the sea of life's journey. To enjoy the oasis is our pleasure and our right, but to stay forever at an oasis, when the rest of the journey is yet to be traveled? No way! I think our attraction to, and comfort in, the deep past works like this: when a child is first learning to walk, or do some other independent act, he may push off from his mother's lap, take a few steps, return, take a few more steps, return, take a few more steps, return, and so on, each time returning to the mother before taking bigger and bigger steps, off on his own; perhaps connecting with the ancient symbols for a season, and getting in touch with pre-conscious states, is the kind of motherly confidence builder we need to help push on out to sea in search of our own personal adventure, and, eventually, next year's oasis.
No matter how you cut it, we are in a season all of whose social conventions direct our attention to the mind states of ancient days; and although the symbols have been massively trivialized, so that nochildisleftbehindeverybodyisequalandgetsavoteGodblessuseveryone,
the latent power of these symbols still works its way into our pre-consciousness (where it belongs), and registers its presence as a background hum that sometimes sings louder, sometimes softer.
Today's featured work is Steiner's Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival, a lecture given in Berlin, December 17, 1906
The Christmas festival, which we are about to celebrate, gains new life through a deepened spiritual world view. In a spiritual sense the Christmas festival is a sun festival, and as such we shall become acquainted with it today. To begin, we shall hear that most beautiful apostrophe to the sun that Goethe puts in the mouth of Faust.
Refreshed anew life's pulses beat and waken
To greet the mild ethereal dawn of morning;
Earth, through this night thou too hast stood unshaken
And breath'st before me in thy new adorning,
Beginst to wrap me round with gladness thrilling,
A vigorous resolve in me forewarning,
Unceasing strife for life supreme instilling.
— Now lies the world revealed in twilight glimmer,
The wood resounds, a thousand voices trilling;
The vales where mist flows in and out lie dimmer,
But in the gorges sinks a light from heaven,
And boughs and twigs, refreshed, lift up their shimmer
From fragrant chasms where they slept at even;
Tint upon tint again emerges, clearing
Where trembling pearls from flower and leaf drip riven:
All round me is a Paradise appearing.
Look up! —
The peaks, gigantic and supernal,
Proclaim the hour most solemn now is nearing.
They early may enjoy the light eternal
That later to us here below is wended.
Now on the alpine meadows, sloping, vernal,
A clear and lavish glory has descended
And step by step fulfils its journey's ending.
The sun steps forth!
— Alas, already blinded, I turn away, the pain my vision rending.
Thus is it ever when a hope long yearning
Has made a wish its own, supreme, transcending,
And finds Fulfilment's portals outward turning;
From those eternal deeps bursts ever higher
Too great a flame, we stand, with wonder burning.
To kindle life's fair torch we did aspire
And seas of flame — and what a flame! — embrace us!
Is it Love? Is it Hate? that twine us with their fire,
In alternating joy and pain enlace us,
So that again toward earth we turn our gazing,
Baffled, to hide in youth's fond veils our faces.
Behind me therefore let the sun be blazing!
The cataract in gorges deeply riven
I view with rapture growing and amazing.
To plunge on plunge in a thousand streams it's given,
And yet a thousand, downward to the valleys,
While foam and mist high in the air are driven.
Yet how superb above this tumult sallies
The many-colored rainbow's changeful being;
Now lost in air, now clearly drawn, it dailies,
Shedding sweet coolness round us even when fleeing!
The rainbow mirrors human aims and action.
Think, and more clearly wilt thou grasp it, seeing
Life is but light in many-hued reflection.
Goethe lets his representative of mankind speak these mighty words in the presence of the radiant, rising morning sun. But it is not this sun, awakening anew every morning, with which we have to deal in the festival we will speak about today. This sun is a being of much profounder depths, and the nature of it shall be the leitmotif of our present considerations.
We shall now hear the words that reflect the deepest meaning of the Christmas Mystery. These words have been heard by the pupils of the Mysteries of all ages before they entered the Mysteries themselves:
Behold the Sun
At midnight hour,
And build with stones
In lifeless clay.
So find in world decline
And in the night of death
Creation's new beginning
And morning's youthful strength.
Let heights above reveal
The Gods' eternal word,
May depths preserve and seal
The peaceful treasure-hoard.
In darkness living
O now create a Sun!
In substance weaving
O know the Bliss of Spirit.
Many people who today merely know the Christmas tree with its candles believe that to have a tree symbolizing Christmas is a traditional custom dating from ancient times. This, however, is not the case. On the contrary, the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas is most recent and does not date back more than a few centuries. The custom of decorating a Christmas tree is a recent phenomenon, but the celebration of Christmas is old. The festival at Christmas time was known in the most ancient Mysteries of all religions everywhere, and has always been celebrated.
It is not merely an outer sun festival, but one that leads man to a divination of the sources of existence. It was celebrated annually by the highest initiates in the Mysteries at the time of year when the sun's force was weakest and bestowed least warmth upon the earth. It was also celebrated by those who were unable to participate in the entire celebration, but were permitted to experience only the outer pictorial expression of the highest Mysteries."
It is worth it to interrupt the flow here, to comment on the subject of "parable". Remember, we have commented profusely on Jesus' use of the parable in transmitting his good news. We have mentioned how Jesus' message is appreciable on many different levels of meaning--that there is in it, indeed, something for everybody. My point here is that, yes, you guessed it, Christmas has something in it for everybody. The glitter, and the tinsel, and the fluorescent lights can never completely shout down those mystic voices singing to us from distant peaks, crooning the old songs. I think it must be impossible for any individual to be completely unaffected by the celebrations of the season, but I'm sure there are various degrees of inspiration.
This brings us to us: we can enhance the degree of inspired connection with the spiritual potentials of the season through acts of choice and will--we can use this heightened psychic atmosphere to pump up the volume, and get more out of the time than if we just passively let it happen to us. I'm saying that one of the prime spirits of Christmas should be enthusiasm. I'm saying we should "seize the day" and hasten its blossoming with blessings of power. I'm saying we should get going while the going is good. I'm saying we should look into some candles around here and see Baby Jesus smiling back His fragile, pathetic smile.
Back to Steiner:
"This imagery has been preserved throughout the ages and has assumed forms in accordance with the various religious confessions. The celebration of Christmas is the festival of the Sacred Night, which, in the great Mysteries, was celebrated by those personalities who were ready to bring about the resurrection of the higher self within their inmost being. Today we would say, "Within their inmost being they gave birth to the Christ."
. . . Those who were prepared for the awakening, as were pupils of the Mysteries, were first taught what the awakening signifies in the great universe; only then was the rite of awakening performed. It took place at the time when darkness on earth is greatest, when the outer sun has reached its lowest point at Christmas time, because those who are acquainted with spiritual facts know that at that time of year, forces stream through cosmic space that are favorable to such an awakening.
[There's the answer to my question about whether the season brings the symbols or the symbols bring the season.]
In his preparation, the pupil was told that the one who really wished to know should not merely know what has taken place during thousands and thousands of years on earth, but he must learn to survey the entire course of human evolution, realizing that the great festivals have their place within this, and that they must be dedicated to the contemplation of the great eternal truths.
. . .The pupils were prepared by these teachings, which were constantly impressed upon them. Then they were led to their awakening. The moment arrived when, as chosen ones, they experienced by means of their awakened spirit organs, the spiritual light within them. This holy moment came when the outer light was weakest, on the day when the outer sun shines least. On that day the pupils were gathered together, and the inner light revealed itself to them.
Those who were still unable to participate in this celebration were able to experience at least an outer likeness of it from which they learned that for them, too, the great moment would come.
[Here we return to "parable". Note the reference below to "lesser Mysteries.]
"Today," they were told, "you behold only an image; later you will experience what you now see as a likeness." These were the lesser Mysteries. They showed in pictures what the neophyte was to experience later.
We shall hear today of what took place in the lesser Mysteries on Christmas eve. . . Everywhere the pupils of these Mystery Schools had the same experience at the midnight hour on the Night of Consecration.
The pupils gathered in the early evening. In quiet contemplation they had to make clear to themselves what this most important event signified. In deep silence they sat together in the darkness. By the time midnight drew near, they had been sitting in the dark room for hours. Thoughts of eternity pervaded their souls. Then, toward midnight, mysterious tones arose, resounding through the room, up welling and diminishing. The pupils who heard these tones knew that this was the music of the spheres. Then the room became dimly lit, the only light emanating from a dimly lighted disc. Those who saw this knew that this disc represented the earth. The illumined disc became darker and darker, until finally it was quite black. Simultaneously the surrounding space grew brighter. Those who saw this knew that the black sphere represented the earth. The sun, however, which ordinarily irradiates the earth was concealed; the earth could no longer see the sun. Then around the earth-disc, at the outer edge, rainbow colors formed, ring upon ring. Those who saw it knew that this was the radiant Iris. At midnight a violet-reddish circle gradually arose in place of the black earth sphere. On it a Word was written. . . Christos.
Those who saw it knew that this was the sun, which appeared to them at the midnight hour, when the world around rests in deepest darkness. The pupils were now told that what they had experienced was called, "Seeing the sun at the midnight hour." . . .
[That it was] a symbolical indication of the fact that from apparent death life springs forth . . . They were told that just as the sun force, after it had seemingly died, waxes anew from this day on, so does new life forever arise out of dying life.
The same event is indicated in the Gospel of St. John in the words, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John, the herald of the coming Christ, of the Spiritual Light, whose festival day falls in the course of the year in mid-summer — John must decrease, and simultaneously with his decrease the force of the coming light waxes, increasing in strength as John decreases. In like manner the new, the coming life prepares itself in the seed that must wither and decay in order that the new plant may spring forth from it.
The pupils of the Mysteries were to experience that in death life resides, that out of decaying matter the new, glorious blossoms and fruits of spring arise, that the earth teems with the forces of birth. They were to learn that at this time something happens in the inner being of the earth — the overcoming of death by life that is present in death. This was shown them in the conquering light. This they felt and experienced when they saw the light arise and shine in the darkness. They beheld in the stone cave the sprouting life arising in splendor and abundance out of the seemingly dead. . . the spiritual essence will remain with all men who have become radiant in their innermost nature through the spiritual Light. Earth and humanity will then awaken to a higher existence, to a new phase of existence.
When Christianity arose in the course of evolution, it bore this ideal within it in the highest sense. Man felt that within Christianity the Christos was to appear as the great Ideal of all men, that He had been born on the Night of Consecration about the time of deepest darkness as a sign that out of the darkness of matter a higher man can be born in the human soul. . .
Everything in the cosmos takes its rhythmic course. The stars as well as the sun follow a great rhythm. Were the sun to change this rhythm but for a moment, were it to leave its orbit only for a moment, a revolution would result in the entire universe of quite unheard-of significance. Rhythm rules all nature, right up to man. Only with man does the situation change. The rhythm that rules until death throughout the course of the seasons in the forces of growth, propagation, etc., ceases with man. He is to stand in freedom, and the more highly civilized he is, the more does this rhythm decrease. Just as the light disappears at Christmas, so apparently has rhythm disappeared from the life of man and chaos prevails. Man, however, gives birth to this rhythm out of his own initiative out of his own inner nature. He must so fashion his life out of his will that it takes its course within rhythmical boundaries, steadfast and sure, like the course of the sun. Just as a change in the course of the sun is unthinkable, even so is it unthinkable that the rhythm of such a life be interrupted.
Christ Jesus was also a Sun Hero and was conceived as such in the first centuries of Christianity. His birth festival was, therefore, placed at the time of year when, since primeval days, the birthday of the Sun Hero has been celebrated. This is also the reason for all that was linked with the life story of Christ Jesus. The Midnight Mass, which the first Christians celebrated in caves, was in memory of the Sun Festival. In this Mass an ocean of light streamed forth at midnight out of the darkness as a memory of the rising sun in the Mysteries. Christ was thus born in a cave in remembrance of the cave of rock out of which, symbolized in the growing stalks of grain, life was born. Earthly life was born out of the dead stone. So, too, out of the lowly, the Highest, Christ Jesus, was born!
Thus, in the meaning of the Christmas Festival, we feel something echoing to us from the most ancient ages of mankind, and it has come down to us in the special coloring of Christianity. In its symbols we find images for the most ancient symbols of mankind. The Christmas tree with its candles is one of them. For us, it is a symbol of the Tree of Paradise, which represents all of material nature. Spiritual nature is represented by the tree in Paradise that encompassed all Knowledge, and by the Tree of Life.
There is a narrative that imparts clearly the significance of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life:
Seth stood at the Gates of Paradise and begged to be allowed to enter. The Archangel guarding the portal let him pass. This is a sign for initiation. Seth, now in Paradise, found the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge closely intertwined. The Archangel Michael, who stands in the presence of God, let him take three seeds from these intertwining trees, which, standing there as a single tree, pointed prophetically to the future of mankind. Then the whole of humanity shall have been initiated and shall have found knowledge. Only the Tree of Life will still exist and death will be no more. For the time being, however, only the initiate may take the three seeds from this Tree, the three seeds that signify the three higher members of man.
When Adam died, Seth placed these three seeds in Adam's mouth, and from them grew a flaming bush. From the wood cut from this bush, new shoots and green leaves continually burst forth. Within the flaming circle of the bush, however, was written, "I am He Who was, Who is, Who is to be." This points to the entity that passes through all incarnations, the force of evolving man repeatedly renewing himself, who descends from light into darkness and ascends from darkness into light.
The rod with which Moses performed his miracles was carved from the wood of the flaming bush. The portal of Solomon's Temple was fashioned from it. This wood was carried to the waters of the pool of Bethesda, and from it the pool derived its power.
From the same wood the Cross of Christ Jesus was fashioned, the wood of the Cross that shows us life passing into death, but which at the same time bears the power in itself to bring forth new life. The great world symbol stands before us here — life, which overcomes death. The wood of this Cross grew out of the three seeds from the Tree of Paradise.
The Rose Cross also expresses this symbol of the death of the lower nature and, springing from it, the resurrection of the higher. Goethe expressed the same thought in the words:As long as you have not
Died and been reborn,
You are but a gloomy guest
Upon the darkened earth.
What a wondrous connection there is between the Tree of Paradise and the wood of the Cross! Even though the Cross is a symbol of Easter, it also deepens our Christmas mood. We feel in it how the Christ Idea streams toward us in new welling life on this night of Christ's Nativity. This idea is indicated in the living roses that adorn this tree. They tell us that the tree of the Sacred Night has not yet become the wood of the Cross, but the power to become this wood begins to arise in it. The roses that grow from the green symbolize the Eternal that grows from the Temporal.
At this point, Steiner gets into describing a group of geometric shapes and detailing their symbolic significance. He does this with everything--I have a book in which he gives the precise spiritual significance of every single musical interval. I'm cutting most of this, but the last one, the star, is of great interest:
Finally, all that permeates the cosmos is present in man and is symbolized in the pentagram at the top of the tree. The deepest meaning of the pentagram may not now be mentioned, but it is the star of mankind, of mankind developing itself. It is the star that all wise men follow as did the priest-sages in ancient ages.
It symbolizes the earth that is born on the Night of Consecration, because the most sublime light radiates from the deepest darkness. Man lives on toward a state when the light shall be born in him, when one significant saying shall be replaced by another, when it will no longer be said, “The Darkness does not comprehend the Light” but when the truth will resound into cosmic space with the words, “Darkness gives way to the Light that radiates toward us in the Star of Mankind, Darkness yields and comprehends the Light.”
This shall resound from the Christmas celebration, and the spiritual light shall radiate from it. Let us celebrate Christmas as the festival of the most lofty ideal of the Idea of Mankind, so that in our souls may rise the joyful confidence: Indeed, I, too, shall experience the birth of the higher man within myself. The birth of the Savior, the Christos, will take place in me also.
Let us pray: Jesus, we call you to come to us in as many guises as you care to put on. We will look for you in candle flame, in wreaths of red, in decorated trees, and tinsel. Most of all we will seek you in the eyes of our friends. Amen.