Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Festivals and Their Meaning:
Ascension and Pentecost
GA 224

I. The Whitsun Mystery and its Connection with the Ascension

7 May 1923, Dornach

In the course of the evolution of mankind, the different world-religions have placed mighty pictures before humanity. If these pictures are to be fully understood a certain esoteric knowledge is required. In the course of years, such a knowledge, based on Anthroposophy, has been applied to the interpretation of all the four Gospels, in order that their deeper content and meaning may be brought to light.* This content is for the most part in the form of pictures, because pictures refuse to communicate themselves in the narrow, rationalistic way that is possible with concepts and ideas. People think that once a concept has been grasped they have got to the root of everything to which it is relevant. No such opinion is possible in the case of a picture, an imagination. A picture or an imagination works in a living way, like a living being itself. We may have come to know one aspect or another of a living person, but ever and again he will present new aspects to us. We shall not be satisfied, therefore, with definitions purporting to be comprehensive, but we shall endeavour to look for characteristics which contribute to the picture from different angles, giving us increasing knowledge of the person in question.1See lecture-courses by Rudolf Steiner on each of the four Gospels; also numbers of other published lectures.

To-day I want to bring two familiar pictures before you, and to describe certain aspects of them.

The first picture is that of the disciples of Christ Jesus on the day of the Ascension. Gazing upwards, they see Christ vanishing in the clouds. The usual conception of this scene is that Christ went up into heaven and so departed from the earth, and that the disciples were then left, as it were, to their own resources. Likewise all earthly humanity, for whose sake Christ fulfilled the Mystery of Golgotha, was by the Ascension left to its own resources.

The thought may occur to you that in a certain respect this belies the reality of the Mystery of Golgotha. We ourselves know that through His deed on Golgotha Christ resolved to unite His own Being with the earth, that is to say, from the Mystery of Golgotha onwards to remain forever connected with earth-evolution. The mighty picture of the Ascension might thus seem to be at variance with what esoteric vision of the Mystery of Golgotha reveals concerning Christ's union with the earth and with mankind.

We will try to-day to overcome this seeming contradiction in the light of actual spiritual facts.

The second picture is that of the scene ten days after the Ascension, when tongues of fire descend upon the heads of the assembled disciples and they are moved “to speak with other tongues.” What this actually means is that henceforward the disciples were able to impart the secrets of the Deed on Golgotha to the heart of every human being, irrespective of religion or creed.

Keeping these two pictures before our minds, we shall try to give some indication of their meaning. Anything more than this is not possible.

We know from our study of Anthroposophy, that the evolution of mankind did not begin on the Earth, but that Earth-evolution proper was preceded by a “Moon” evolution, this by a “Sun” evolution, and this again by a “Saturn” evolution, as described in my book An Outline of Occult Science. During the period of the “Saturn” evolution, man developed in his descent from the Spiritual as far as the rudimentary basis of the physical body. In that epoch, however, the physical body was a body of warmth only; that is to say, warmth of varying degrees, forces of warmth, gathered together around the being of soul-and-spirit.

During the “Sun” evolution man acquired an aeriform body, during the “Moon” evolution a kind of fluid, watery body, and a solid, earthy body, in the real sense, only during “Earth” evolution proper.

Let us think, now, particularly of the Earth-evolution. It fulfils its course in seven successive epochs, of which the first three are recapitulations: the first, a recapitulation of the “Saturn” period, the second of the “Sun” period, the third (the Lemurian epoch) of the “Moon” period. Earth-evolution proper really begins with the fourth epoch, that of Atlantis. We are living now in the fifth epoch, which will be followed by the sixth and the seventh.

The mid-point of Earth-evolution falls in the middle of the Atlantean epoch, and so in our present age the Earth has already passed the mid-point of its development. From this you will realise that the Earth is already involved in a declining phase of evolution, and in our time this must always be taken into account. As I have often said, it conforms entirely with the findings even of modern materialistic geology.

In his book The Face of the Earth, Eduard Suess has stated that the soil beneath our feet to-day belongs to an earth that is already dying. During the Atlantean epoch the earth was, so to say, in the middle period of life; it teemed with inner life; it had upon it no such formations as the rocks and stones, which are gradually crumbling away. The mineral element was active in the earthly realm in the way in which it is active to-day in an animal organism, in a state of solution out of which deposits will not form unless the organism is diseased. If the animal organism is healthy it is only the bones that can be said to take their form as deposits. In the bones, however, there is still inner life. The bones are not in the condition of death, they are not, like our mountains and rocks, in process of crumbling into dust. The crumbling of the rocks is evidence that the earth is already involved in a death-process.

As already said, this is now known even to ordinary materialistic geology. Anthroposophy must add to this knowledge the fact that the earth has been involved in this process of decline ever since the middle of the Atlantean epoch. Moreover, in the earth must be included everything that belongs to it: the plants, the animals, and, above all, physical man. Physical man is part and parcel of the earth. In that the earth is involved in a process of decline, so too is the human physical body. Expressed differently, in more esoteric terms, this signifies that by the middle of the Atlantean epoch, everything that was first laid down in a germinal condition in the warmth-body of the “Saturn” evolution had reached completion. The human physical body actually reached completion by the middle of the Atlantean epoch, and since then the path of its evolution has been one of decline.

Evolution does not, of course, proceed with complete uniformity. One race or people enters a phase of evolution earlier or later than another, but, speaking generally, at the time when the Mystery of Golgotha was at hand, the evolution of the physical constitution of man had reached a stage when humanity all over the globe was facing the prospect of finding further incarnation impossible on the earth; in other words, of being unable henceforward to accompany the earth in its declining evolution.

In the Schools of Initiation it was known, and can of course also be known to-day, that at about the time of the Mystery of Golgotha the human physical body had reached a degree of decline where the men who were then in incarnation or who were to be incarnated in the near future, that is, up to about the fourth century A.D., were faced with the danger of leaving an earth that was growing more and more desolate and barren, and of finding no possibility in the future of descending from the world of spirit-and-soul and building a physical body out of materials provided by the physical earth. This danger existed, and the inevitable consequence would have been the failure of man to fulfil his allotted earthly mission. The Ahrimanic and Luciferic powers working in combination had succeeded to the extent that at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, earthly mankind was face to face with the possibility of dying out.

Mankind was rescued from this fate through that which was achieved by the Mystery of Golgotha, whereby the human physical body itself was imbued again with the necessary forces of life and freshness. Men were thereby enabled to continue their further evolution on earth, inasmuch as they could now come down from worlds of spirit-and-soul and find it possible to live in physical bodies. Such was the actual effect of the Mystery of Golgotha.

I have often spoken of this, as for example in the lecture-course given in Carlsruhe under the title From Jesus to Christ.2Ten lectures, Oct. 5th—14th, 1911. Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co. The greatest hostility was aroused by these lectures because, out of a sense of esoteric duty, certain truths were presented which many people wish to keep concealed. Indeed it can be said that from a certain quarter the hostility to Anthroposophy started from these very lectures.

What I have described, however, is one aspect of the actual effect of the Mystery of Golgotha. This same fact can, of course, be expressed in many different ways. It was expressed differently in that lecture-course, but what I am now describing is the same fact, merely seen from another side. Through the Mystery of Golgotha, the forces promoting the growth and thriving of man's physical body were quickened anew, with the following result.—It was now made possible for man to receive, during his life of sleep, an impulse he would not otherwise have received. The whole evolution of man on earth takes its course, as we know, in the alternation of waking life and sleep-life. In sleep, the physical body and ether-body remain behind; from the time of falling asleep until that of waking, the ego and the astral body make themselves independent of them. During this state of independence in sleep the influence of the Christ-Force takes effect in the ego and the astral body in those men who through the requisite mood and content of their soul-life have made fitting preparation for this condition of sleep. Penetration of these higher bodies by the Christ-Force, therefore, takes place mainly during the state of sleep.

To turn now to the biblical event of the Ascension, we must realise that at that time the disciples had become clairvoyant to a degree at which they were able to behold what is, in truth, a deep secret of earthly evolution. These secrets remain unnoticed by man's everyday consciousness, which is incapable of knowing whether at one point or another in the evolution of humanity something of supreme importance is taking place. There are many such happenings, but the everyday consciousness is unaware of them. The picture of the Ascension actually signifies that at this moment Christ's disciples were able to witness spiritually an event of untold significance, enacted “behind the scenes” as it were of earthly evolution.

What they witnessed revealed to them, as in a picture, the prospect of what would have come about for men had the Mystery of Golgotha not taken place. They beheld as a concrete spiritual happening what would have then befallen, namely, that the physical bodies of men would have so deteriorated that the whole future of humanity would have been endangered. For the consequence of this physical deterioration would have been that the human etheric body would have obeyed the forces of attraction which properly belong to it. The etheric body is being drawn all the time towards the sun, not towards the earth. Our constitution as human beings is such that our physical body has earthly heaviness, gravity, but our etheric body, sun-levity. Had the human physical body become what it must have become if the Mystery of Golgotha had not taken place, the etheric bodies of men would have followed their own urge towards the sun and have left the physical body. The existence of mankind on earth would inevitably have come to an end.

Until the Mystery of Golgotha, Christ's dwelling-place was the sun. Therefore in that the etheric body of man strives towards the sun, it is striving towards the Christ. Now picture to yourselves the scene on the day of the Ascension. In spiritual vision the disciples see Christ Himself rising heavenwards. A vision is conjured before them of how the power, the impulse of Christ unites itself with the etheric nature of man, in its upward striving; of how at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha man was facing the danger of his etheric body being drawn out into the sun like a cloud, but how, in its sunward streaming, it was held together by Christ. This picture must be understood, for in truth it is a warning. Christ is akin to those forces in man which naturally strive towards the sun and away from the earth, and will always do so. But Christ remains in union with the earth. Thus the Christ Impulse holds man securely on the earth.

In this picture of the Ascension, something more is manifest to the disciples. Suppose that the Mystery of Golgotha had not taken place and that numbers of men had become clairvoyant to the degree to which the disciples became clairvoyant at this moment. These men would have seen the etheric bodies of certain human beings departing from the earth in the direction of the sun, and they would have come to this conclusion: ‘This is the path man's etheric body is taking. The etheric-earthly element in man is being drawn away into the sun.’ But now, by carrying to its fulfilment the Mystery of Golgotha, Christ has rescued for the earth this sunward-striving etheric body. And thereby is manifest the fact that Christ remains united with mankind on the earth. Thus something else became apparent here, namely that through the Mystery of Golgotha Christ brought to pass within earth-evolution a cosmic event. Christ came down from the heights of spirit, linked Himself with humanity in the man Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled the Mystery of Golgotha, united His evolution with that of the earth. It was a cosmic Deed accomplished for the whole of humanity.

Mark these words: The Deed on Golgotha was fulfilled for all mankind. The eye of clairvoyance can never fail to perceive how, since that Deed, the etheric forces in man, with their urge to escape from the earth, are united with Christ in order that He may keep them in the earth-evolution. This applies to the whole of mankind.

This leads us to another consideration. Suppose that only a handful of human beings had been able to acquire knowledge of these facts that relate to the Mystery of Golgotha, and that a large section of mankind—as is actually the case—had not recognised its significance. If this had come about, the earth would be peopled by a few true believers in Christ and by a large number who do not acknowledge the essential content and meaning of the Mystery of Golgotha. What, then, is to be said of the latter? How are these human beings who do not acknowledge the Mystery of Golgotha related to it?—or, better put, how is the Deed of Christ on Golgotha related to these human beings?

The Deed of Christ on Golgotha is an objective fact; its cosmic significance does not depend upon what men believe about it. An objective fact has, in itself, reality of being. If an oven is hot, it does not become cold because a number of people believe that it is cold.—The Mystery of Golgotha rescues mankind from the decay of the physical body, no matter what men believe or do not believe about it. The Mystery of Golgotha was enacted for the sake of all men, including those who do not believe in it.—That is the cardinal fact to be remembered.

We realise, then, that the Deed on Golgotha was enacted in order that by this means mankind on earth might be quickened to the degree necessary for its rejuvenation. That has come to pass. It has been made possible for men to find on the earth bodies in which they can and will for long ages of future time—be able to incarnate. It is, however, fundamentally as beings of spirit-and-soul that men will pass through existence in these now rejuvenated earthly bodies, and it is as beings of spirit-and-soul that they will be able to appear on the earth again and again.

Now the Christ Impulse, which must have significance for the spiritual nature of man as well as for his bodily nature, can impress itself upon a man's waking state, but it can make no impression on his sleeping state unless this Impulse has been received into his soul. The Mystery of Golgotha, therefore, would have produced its effect in the waking life of men who had no knowledge of it; but it would not, in such circumstances, have affected them in their life of sleep. The inevitable result would have been that while men would have gained the possibility of incarnating time and again on the earth, nevertheless, if they had acquired no knowledge of the Mystery of Golgotha, the condition of their sleep would have been such that the connection of their spirit-and-soul nature with Christ must have been lost.

Here you see the difference in the relation to the Mystery of Golgotha of those men who have, so to speak, no desire to know anything about it. Christ performed His Deed for their bodies, in order that earthly life should be made possible for them, just as He performed it for utterly unbelieving non-Christian peoples. But to take effect in man's spirit-and-soul nature, the Christ Impulse must also be able to penetrate into the human soul during the state of sleep. And this is only possible if a man consciously acknowledges the import of the Mystery of Golgotha. The spiritual effect of the Mystery of Golgotha, therefore, can proceed only from a true recognition of its content.

Thus there are two things that mankind must realise: on the one hand that Christ holds back the ether-body in its perpetual urge towards the sun; and on the other, that man's spirit-and-soul nature, his ego and astral body, can receive the Christ Impulse only in the time between falling asleep and waking—and this is only possible when knowledge of this Impulse has been acquired in waking life.

To sum up: the urge of the etheric bodies of men to draw towards the sun is perceived by the disciples in clairvoyant vision. But they also perceive how Christ unites Himself with this urge, restrains it, holds it fast. The mighty scene of the Ascension is that of the rescue of the physical-etheric nature of man by Christ.

The disciples withdraw in deep contemplation. For in their awakened souls is the knowledge that through the Mystery of Golgotha complete provision was made for the physical-etheric nature of mankind as a whole. But what happens, they wonder, to the being of spirit-and-soul? Whence does man acquire the power to receive the Christ Impulse into his nature of spirit-and-soul, into his ego and astral body? The answer is found in the Whitsun festival.

Through the Mystery of Golgotha the Christ Impulse has taken effect on the earth as a reality which is within the comprehension of spiritual cognition alone. No materialistic knowledge, no materialistic science can understand the Mystery of Golgotha. Hence the soul must acquire the power of spiritual cognition, of spiritual perception, of spiritual feeling, in order to be able to understand how, on Golgotha, the Christ Impulse was united with the impulses of the earth.

Christ Jesus fulfilled His Deed on Golgotha to the end that this union might take effect, fulfilled it in such a way that ten days after the event of the Ascension He sent man the possibility of imbuing also his inner nature of spirit-and-soul, his ego and astral body, with the Christ Impulse. The permeation of the human spirit-and-soul with the power to understand the Mystery of Golgotha is the sending of the Holy Spirit. This is the picture of the Whitsun festival, the festival of Pentecost. Christ fulfilled His Deed for all mankind. But to each human individual, in order that he may be able to understand this Deed, Christ sent the Spirit, in order that the individual being of spirit-and-soul may have access to the effects of the Deed that was accomplished for all men in common. Through the Spirit man must learn to experience the Christ Mystery inwardly, in spirit and in soul.

Thus these two pictures stand side by side in the history of the evolution of humanity. That of the Ascension tells us: The Deed on Golgotha was fulfilled for the physical body and the etheric body in the universal human sense. That of Whitsun tells us: The single human being must make this Deed bear fruit in himself by receiving the Holy Spirit. Thereby the Christ Impulse becomes individual in each human being.

And now something else can be added to the picture of the Ascension. Spiritual visions such as came to the disciples on the day of the Ascension always have a bearing upon what man actually experiences in one or another state of consciousness. After death, as you know, the etheric body leaves the human being. He lays aside the physical body at death, retains the etheric body for a few days, and then the etheric body dissolves, is actually united with the sun. This dissolution after death betokens union with the sun-nature streaming through the space in which the earth, too is included. Since the Mystery of Golgotha, man beholds, together with this departing etheric body, the Christ Who has rescued it for earthly existence through the ages of time to come. So that since the Mystery of Golgotha there stands before the soul of every human being who passes through death the Ascension picture which the disciples were able to behold that day in a particular condition of their soul-life.

But for one who makes the Whitsun Mystery, too, part of his being, who allows the Holy Spirit to draw near to him—for such a one this picture after death becomes the source of the greatest consolation he can possibly experience: for now he beholds the Mystery of Golgotha in all its truth and reality. This picture of the Ascension tells him: You can with confidence entrust all your following incarnations to earth-evolution, for through the Mystery of Golgotha Christ has become the Saviour of earth-evolution.—For one who does not penetrate with his ego and astral body—that is to say, does not penetrate with knowledge and with feeling—to the essence of the Mystery of Golgotha, for him this picture is a reproach until such time as he too learns to understand it. After death, the picture is as it were an admonition: Endeavour to acquire for the next earthly life such forces as will enable you to understand the Mystery of Golgotha!—That this picture of the Ascension should, to begin with, be an admonition, is only natural; for in subsequent earthly lives men can endeavour to apply the forces they have been admonished to acquire, and gain understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha.

You can now perceive the difference between those who with their inmost forces of faith, knowledge and feeling put their trust in the Mystery of Golgotha, and those who do not. The Mystery of Golgotha was fulfilled for mankind as a whole, in respect of the physical body and etheric body only. The sending of the Holy Spirit, the Whitsun mystery, signifies that the soul and spirit of man can partake of the fruits of the Deed on Golgotha only if he finds wings to bear him to actual understanding of the essence and meaning of that Deed.

But because this essence and meaning can be fully grasped by spiritual knowledge alone, not by material knowledge, it follows that the truth of the Whitsun festival can be grasped only when men realise that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the challenge to humanity more and more to achieve Spirit-knowledge, through which alone the Mystery of Golgotha can be understood.

That it must be understood—this is the challenge of the Whitsun Mystery. That it came to pass for all mankind—this is the revelation given in the Ascension.

And so it can truly be said that Anthroposophy enables us to understand the relation of the Whitsun Mystery to the Ascension revelation. We can feel Anthroposophy to be like a herald bringing illumination to these festivals of Spring, and to its many facets we have added yet another, essentially belonging to it.

This should convey to you the mood-of-soul in which the true feeling for the festivals of the Ascension and of Whitsun can arise. The pictures which such festivals bring before the soul are like living beings: we can approach nearer and nearer to their reality, learn to know them more and more intimately. When once again the year is filled with spiritual understanding of the festival seasons, it will be imbued with cosmic reality, and within earthly existence men will experience cosmic existence.

Whitsun is pre-eminently a festival of flowers. If a man has a true feeling for this Festival he will go out among the buds and blossoms opening under the influence of the sun, under the etheric and astral influences—and he will perceive in the flower-decked earth the earthly image of what flows together in the picture of Christ's Ascension, and the descent of the tongues of fire upon the heads of the disciples which followed later. The heart of man as it opens may be symbolised by the flower opening itself to the sun; and what pours down from the sun, giving the flower the fertilising power it needs, may be symbolised by the tongues of fire descending: upon the heads of the disciples. Anthroposophy can work upon human hearts with the power that streams from an understanding of the festival times and from true contemplation of each festival season; it can help to evoke the mood-of-soul that conforms truly with these days of the Spring festivals.