Today is the 2nd Sunday of Advent, and I wish to present a review and appreciation of some of the many symbols which abound at this time of year--symbols whose purpose it is: to remind us of those eternal verities implicit in their archetypal forms. We have already basked in the glow of one symbol of the season, the Advent Candle.
"The second candle of Advent is the Candle of Peace. It is sometimes called the Bethlehem Candle to remind us of the place in which preparations were made to receive and cradle the Christ child. Peace is a gift that we must be prepared for. God gives us the gift of peace when we turn to him in faith.
The prophet Isaiah calls Christ "the Prince of Peace." Through John the Baptist and all the other prophets, God asks us to prepare our hearts so that he may come in.
Our hope is in God, and in his son Jesus Christ. Our peace is found in him."
We have been seeking to "pump up the volume" of the spiritual resonance of the season, so that we can be as receptive as possible to the subtle mysteries that permeate the Christmas atmosphere; enhancing our receptivity to the magic radiance of the Christmas Symbols--enhancing our receptivity through acts of will--seems like a good way to pump it up. We can use the symbolic forms and rituals to direct our attention heavenward, away from the mundane occupations of life; furthermore, each symbol, affects us and directs us in a slightly different way, each one like a different Christmas melody.
Before we parade our list, however, I thought that Martin Luther had some interesting things to say in his:
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent; Luke 21:25-36 (A sermon by Martin Luther, taken from his Church Postil, first published 1522.) As usual, Luther's sermons preponderate on issues of hellfire and judgement, but he is always looking toward the joy in Christ. I have taken a few of the select paragraphs which warn of the coming of Christ's judgment, and of the fulfillment of waiting.
"I. THE SIGNS OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT.
3. The words of Christ in Luke 17: 24 say:
"For as the lightning, when it lighteneth out of the one part under the heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall the Son of man be in his day."
See here again that the day will break upon the world with the utmost suddenness. The same further appears in what follows in verses 26-29:
"As it was in the days of Noah, even so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise even as it came to pass in the days of Lot; they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but in the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. After the same manner it shall be in the day that the Son of man is revealed." These words abundantly show that people will rest so secure and will be so deeply buried beneath the cares of this life, that they will not believe the day is at hand.
4. There is now no doubt that Christ did not foretell these signs in the expectation that no one would note nor recognize them when they should appear; although few indeed will do so, just as in the days of Noah and Lot but few knew the punishment in store for them. Were this not true, the admonition of Christ would have been in vain: "When ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh." Then, "Lift up your heads, because your redemption draweth nigh." There must then be some, at least, who do recognize the signs, and lift up their heads and wait for their redemption, although they do not really know on what day that will come. We should be careful, therefore, to note whether the signs are being fulfilled now, or have been or will be in the future. . ."
Interpreting signs is a part of the preparation. As the moment of the coming of the Christ approaches I, myself, am beginning to get giddy with anticipation like a lover looking forward to the first marriage night, or a sick man about to face his death--I am afraid and I am hopeful, I am nervous, and I am calm, I am hot and I am cold. Jesus, come and resolve my conflicts as you dissolve my duplicities! Let me not flatter myself that I have everything figured out; and do not let my attention sink into inebriated lethargy, with the excesses of the season, but remain strictly observant of the progress of the star across the virgin sky.
Back to Luther:
"10. But the apostles have also prophesied concerning this self-security of men as the judgment day approaches. Paul says in 1 Thes. 5: 2-3:
"The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them."
Now we know that a thief never comes but when one feels most secure and least expects him. And 2 Pet. 3, 3-10 we read:
"In the last days mockers shall come with mockery, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? From the day the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.... But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise etc."
In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis talks about the various levels of humor, the lowest being flippancy. I myself have seen flippancy in action in the art world many times. Many artists pride themselves on being part of an in-crowd of intellectual snobs and elitists; they love to express their superiority by making fun and scoffing at everything outside the dogmatics of their own little group. (Not unlike many fundamentalist Christian groups.)
The following was written after a particularly upsetting composition seminar:
"At 12:00 til 2:00 I sat in the very same room with a different group of, I want to say people, but that is not what I mean--prejudices, maybe. This time I remained anonymous. I revealed nothing, made no visible sacrifice, though this feeling began then. The room shivered with laughter, no, not laughter for there was no joy here-start again- The room shivered with chittering cuteness, lips upturned in derision not for me but for "them" (secretly me), as posture after posture was defended to preserve the isolated autonomy of, (I don't know), identity, traveling in cognito, protected by the proper contemporaneous, individually derived (sic) stock-in-trade. It doesn't matter how often we say "Thou fool" as long as no one in the room is offended, because we are all cool, it is everybody else who is wrong, or stupid, or dangerous--everybody outside this room I mean.
Dear ones! your coldness shatters me. Your cute grins sear me, I burn, I freeze! What would I tell you? How might I instruct you without first crying, "Mercy! Mercy!" Is escape my only course, or shall I run for office, teach a seminar at the universe-ity and force you to understand as a token of respect? My heart, yes my heart, my stupid, seen-from-within, no-matter-how-many-others-say-it HEART is broken. I bleed. And my blood rises above me and redeems me, even when I speak the lie that is nothing. I suffer at your hands, your unknowing hands, your ignorant (how could you know?) hands, and my suffering gives me peace."
How often we confuse fun for joy, inertia for peace! How easy it is to magnify trivialities, and pass the mysteries by, immensities unimaginable contained in a mustard seed, or in a candle flame, or a branch of spruce!
Back to Luther; in this section the theme of the sun and the rhythm of the seasons is revisited:
"12. This sign to be given in the sun is that it will lose its brightness, after the manner in which it has often occurred, as Math. 24,29, says:
"The sun shall be darkened."
I will not trespass here again but express my opinion. Some think that the sun is to be darkened as never to shine again; but this cannot be the meaning, for day and night must continue to the end, as God foretells, Gen. 8, 22:
"While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease."
This sign must therefore, not interfere with day and night and still be fulfilled before the judgment day, for it is a token of its coming. It cannot, therefore, be more than a darkening of the sun in its accustomed course. . ."
The next section touches, once again on the significance of the symbols of the season, and on the importance of recognizing and responding to the symbols:
"29. By the powers of heaven some understand the angels of heaven. But since Christ speaks of signs, and says we shall see them and in them recognize the coming of the last day, they must surely be visible tokens and be perceived with the bodily senses. For those people whose consciences are in distress and whose hearts are failing from fear, though this be an affection of the soul, yet manifest it by word and countenance. Therefore these powers of heaven must be such as can be really shaken and so perceived. 30. But the Scriptures speak in a two-fold way concerning the powers of heaven. At one time they are spoken of as the powerful heavens or the heavens which are among all creatures the most powerful, as is written, Gen. 1, 8, "And God called the firmament"--that is, expanse or fortress- "heaven"; for every creature under heaven is ruled and strengthened by the light, heat and movements of the heavens. What would the earth be without the heavens but a dark and desert waste? Like princes and nobles in the world, the Scriptures call the heavens powerful because they rule over the bodies beneath them. 31. At another time the powers of heaven signify the hosts of heaven, as Psalm 33, 6 says:
"By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth."
And Gen. 2:1 :"And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them."
It is the common custom of the Scriptures to speak in this way of the powers of heaven. And it is clear from these passages that the hosts or powers of heaven include all that is in them; in the heavens, the sun, moon, stars, and other heavenly bodies; on earth, man and beast, birds and fish, trees, herbs and whatever else lives upon it. II. THE COMFORT CHRISTIANS HAVE WHEN THESE SIGNS APPEAR. "And when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh."
37. Here you may say, who can lift up his head in the face of such terrible wrath and judgment? If the whole world is filled with fear at that day, and lets fall its head and countenance out of terror and anxiety; how shall we look up and lift up our heads, which evidently means, how shall we manifest any joy in and longing for these signs? In answer I would say that all this is spoken only to those who are really Christians and not to heathen and Jews. True Christians are so afflicted with all manner of temptations and persecutions that in this life they are miserable. Therefore they wait and long and pray for redemption from sin and all evil; as we also pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come", and "Deliver us from evil." If we are true Christians we will earnestly and heartily join in this prayer. If we do not so pray, we are not yet true Christians.
38. If we pray aright, our condition must truly be such that, however terrible these signs may be, we will look up to them with joy and earnest desire, as Christ admonishes: When these things begin to come to pass, look up." He does not say, Be filled with fear or drop your heads; for there is coming that for which we have been so earnestly praying. If we really wish to be freed from sin and death and hell, we must look forward to this coming of the Lord with joy and pleasure. St. Paul also says, in 2 Tim. 4:8 :"Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day: and not only to me, but also to all them that have loved his appearing."
If he gives the crown to those who love his appearing, what will he give to those who hate and dread it? Without doubt, to enemies, eternal condemnation. Titus 2:13 says:
"Looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the Great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ."
And Luke 12:36 :
"And be ye yourselves like unto men looking for their lord, when he shall return from the marriage feast."
40. But to believers that day will be comforting and sweet. That day will be the highest joy and safety to the believer, and the deepest terror and anguish to the unbeliever; just as also in this life the truths of the Gospel are exceedingly sweet to the godly and exceedingly hateful to the wicked. Why should the believer fear and not rather exceedingly rejoice since he trusts in Christ who comes as judge to redeem him and to be his everlasting portion. . .
43. Therefore we must above all things lay aside all hatred and abhorrence of this day, and exercise diligence that we may really desire to have our sins taken away. When this is done, we may not only calmly await the day, but with heartfelt desire and joy pray for it and say, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." In this you must cast aside all feelings and conceit, hold fast to the comforting words of Christ, and rest in them alone.
44. Could he admonish, comfort, and strengthen you in a more delicate and loving manner? In the first place he says, "You will hear of wars, but you should have no fears." And when he tells you to have no fears, what else does he mean than that he commands you to be of good cheer and to discern the signs with joy? Secondly, he tells you to look up; thirdly, to lift up your heads; and fourthly, he speaks of your redemption. What can comfort and strengthen you if such a word does not? Do you think he would deceive you and try to lead you into a false confidence? . . .
53. Therefore, my dear hearer, examine your life, probe your heart to ascertain how it is disposed toward this day. Do not put your trust in your own good life, for that would soon be put to shame; but think of and strengthen your faith in order that the day may not be a terror to you as to the damned, but be your joy as the day of your salvation and of the kingdom of God in you. Then when you think or hear of the same, your heart will leap for joy and earnestly long for its coming. If you do not wish to pronounce judgment upon yourself, then do not think that you would be able to stand in that day even with the meritorious deeds of all the saints.
[Notice that Luther can't resist one last poke at the grace/good works controversy, but at least he ends on a positive note:]
"Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all things be accomplished. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away."
The following is from Rudolf Steiner's Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival, I, The Birth of the Light, Berlin, December 19, 1904. It highlights (haha) the significance of light and sun, and points to the resonance of destiny that accompanies the symbols of the season:
"Christianity stands as the external mystical fact for the birth of the light. Christ brought to the earth what had existed from the beginning, although it was hidden from mankind throughout the ages we have been speaking of. Now, however, a new climax was reached. Even as the light is born anew at the winter solstice, so . . . the Savior of Mankind, the Christ, was born. He is the new Sun Hero who was not only initiated in the depths of the Mystery temples, but who also appeared before all the world so that it could be said, “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). When it was recognized that the Divine could descend into a personality, the festival celebrating the birth of the Sun Hero, the Christ, came to replace the festival celebrating the birth of the light."
[Sidebar: Thanks to these sermons, I have learned that there is a lot more to this "Sun" aspect of Christmas than I ever thought. As I watch the days getting shorter and shorter, and the afternoons dimmer and dimmer, slanting into night like lazy rivers of black, I am filled with fear at the coming dark; but I am also filled with hope. C.S. Lewis spoke against the idea of hope, because it invested man's energy in an intangible and unpredictable future, distracting his attention from the eternal 'Now". However, if Hope can be linked to the idea of faith--faith in a communion of saints who watch over us, and keep us, and bless us--then maybe hope is okay; maybe hope is just dealing with the delay of what we know in our hearts must eventually come? maybe hope links our eternal now with an equally eternal now in the future? Back to Steiner:]
"What formerly was impossible could now be attained. Man could now give birth to light in his own soul. He could do this because the principle of light had incarnated in a human being for the first time. In this way the festival of the winter solstice was of necessity brought together with the Christ festival. The whole significance of the preceding evolutionary periods is determined by the establishment of the festival of the birth of Christ at the time of the festival of the winter solstice. Wisdom and light first appeared to men externally, but now, after the Christ event, the light must be kindled in man's own heart. Christ Himself must be born in man. It was for that reason that the Event of Palestine — a mystical as well as an historical fact — had to occur."
To summarize the above quoted Steiner, he is saying two simple things:
1. it is no accident that this time of year, the sun-hero time, is the time when Jesus incarnation is celebrated, and
2. that the rhythm of life had dictated that what came to pass must ALWAYS have come to pass, as a pre-ordination of destiny.
Thus, contemplation of the symbols of this season must result in an enhanced connection, for us, with the flow of destiny and the mythological resonance on our own lives.
Here begins the promised review of some familiar Christmas symbols. We will be focussing, at first, the symbolism of light:
First, this from the (happywink.org) website:
"Some interpretations of Christmas tree lights:
"The decorations on the Christmas trees draw their root in traditional values. The crystal balls symbolizes the fruit of redemption, the electric light or the candles are ancient symbols that stand for the triumph of spring over the darkness of winter. The light also symbolizes the light that Jesus Christ cast upon the lives of the people."
"When I work out symbolism in my own heart and mind, I work with the basics. Meaning, I fall back to tried-and-true stepping stones like the sun, the moon, the elements (fire, earth, air, water), directions, etc. - real grass roots stuff.
And so, Christmas symbolism, in my view, is rooted in the presence of Light. Whether it's the Christ light, or the Sun light returning back to our focus with the lengthening of days - to be true - this time of year (around the winter solstice) is a time to "See the Light."
This time of year marks the least amount of light shining upon the northern hemisphere of the earth. Each consecutive day after the winter solstice is a day imbued with promise because the sun lingers just a wee bit longer. And although the grips of winter are still firm and often cruel, the promise of lengthening Light insures hope will be restored (crops will flourish once again, warmth is a promise just around the bend).
So, in the spirit of renewal, and welcoming the Light of Understanding and Inner Illumination, here are a few thoughts on various Christmas symbols we see this time of year. . .
Angels are commonly showcased in the collective consciousness this time of year because, I believe, they are beings of light. And, as we are welcoming the renewal of Light (in its many forms) this time of year, it makes sense Angels will accompany our illuminated celebrations. Angels are symbolic of messages from the Divine, and what better time of year than Christmas to open up our channels of understanding to allow for Pristine communication. As Light Beings, what if Angels lived in every light particle? That's a lot of Divine energy available for our contemplation and access. Divine light meets our awareness at every turn - take advantage of this special time of year to communicate with Angels and vice versa.
Candles are a miniaturized version of the behemoth element from which they come: Fire - The Sun. As we are talking about Christmas symbolism, and honoring the return of the light (in terms of the Christ Light, or the Sun's rays lingering longer upon the body of Earth), it makes sense to use candles as a way to galvanize the passion touching our hearts this time of year. Candles are light bringers, and so they are vessels for pure positive energy in the form of spiritual illumination. Remember my earlier question about Angels? There's no evidence to refute Angels living within every flame we ignite - so honor the light beings with every candle you light this season. Candles can speak to our souls because fire is a foundational element of our spiritual combustion. Consider this, and imagine the warmth of your spiritual presence spreading out to all of humankind - light a candle in the name of your brother, in honor of your sister, for the human family - this kind of soul-warming is present within you as the heat is inherent to the candle flame.
This collection of brief summaries of some Christmas symbols is fun:
Four candles placed on a wreath. One candle is lit each Sunday before Christmas in anticipation of Christ's birthday.
An angel told the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. Angels come in many forms for Christmas decorations including the tree topper.
Church bells rang to announce the birth of Jesus. They still ring today.
Camels are the animals the wisemen rode following the star to where Jesus was born.
Candles represent the light that Jesus brought to earth. Pagans who converted to Christianity used candles on the sacred evergreen tree.
For many years, private notes of good tidings were sent at Christmas time. In 1843, Sir Henry Cole had 1000 special designed cards printed. The custom of sending Christmas cards began.
Caroling is a medieval custom of singing and dancing around a Christmas tree. Early carols weren't holy enough for singing inside a church, so caroling was done outside.
Originated with pre-Christian Romans who gave sweet cakes to their senators.
A Danish postal clerk sold Christmas stamps (Christmas seals) to show that users had given to a worthy cause.
There is a legend associated with the origin of Christmas stockings. St. Nick, who wanted to remain anonymous and help a poor family, threw gold coins down their chimney. They fell into a stocking that was hanging there to dry.
Christmas Tree Lights
The lights represent Christ as being the "Light of the World." Lights also represent stars. Candles were first used as lights on the Christmas tree.
A manger scene representing the Jesus' place of birth.
Donkeys, Lambs, and Cows
Donkeys, lambs, and cows were animals close to Jesus at the time of his birth. They are usually part of the Creche.
The evergreen tree was decorated by the pagans at the feast of the winter solstice. The evergreen tree was a sign that winter would end.
The first Christmas gifts were given by the Wisemen to Baby Jesus.
Holly is a shrub with spiny leaves and red berries. The leaves remain green throughout the year. Pagans thought its greenness was a promise that the sun would return. Early French and English families hung holly over their doors to symbolize a home in which Christ's birth is celebrated.
Icicles are sometimes used as a tree decoration. As per an old story, the Christ child took shelter for a night under a pine tree. When the tree realized that it was caring for Jesus, tears of happiness fell from its branches. The tears froze into icicles.
Mince Meat Pie
Mince meat pie is full of spices and fruits. It represents the exotic treasures of the East that the Wisemen brought to Jesus.
Plum pudding originated by an English king that was stranded in a blizzard one Christmas Eve. He used what he could find to make a special holiday dish.
This flower was brought to the U.S. by Dr, J.R. Poinsett in 1825. He was the first first United States ambassador to Mexico. Because of its flame leaf, the poinsettia is sometimes called the Christmas Star. A Mexican legend explains how this flower got associated with Christmas.The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.
Reindeer were the animals chosen by St. Nicholas to pull his sleigh. His reindeers' names are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is the most famous.
Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was a kind bishop who brought presents to children and needy people.
Shepherds tend sheep. They came to the manger to honor Baby Jesus.
The Star of Bethlehem guided the Three Wisemen to Baby Jesus.
There is a legend associated with this thin metalic foil strip decoration. It tells about parents who trimmed a tree while their children were sleeping. Spiders came to see the tree, leaving cobwebs all over it. The Christ Child came to bless the tree and turned the cobwebs to silver.
Three Kings travelled far to see Jesus. They brought their best treasures for gifts.
Gold - a precious metal associated with the power of kings
Frankincense - A resin from a rare and sacred tree used as incense
Myrrh - A resin from a shrub used in making perfume.
A wassail is a salutation of good health or well wishes by means of a toast. The drink is a mixture of mulled eggs, curdled cream, apples, nuts, and spices. Usually poured from a punch bowl while exchanging Christmas greetings.
The word "yule" means "wheel," a symbol representing the sun. Before Jesus was born, pagans thought the sun stood still for 12 days at the end of the year. A log was cut large enough to burn for this time period to burn away last year's evil.
Well, I don't know about you, but I'm stoked, I'm down wid it, I'm NEARLY ready. I'm looking at the world with completely new eyes, because I don't want to miss any of it; the birth of the Christ into the world. Wow! Good deal! Let's go!
Let us pray: Jesus, as the deep of winter approaches, let us be protected from our fears by a certainty of belief that You will emerge from the blackness and shine, and shine, and shine. Amen.