Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit
XIII. Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
17 December 1906, Berlin
The Christmas festival which we are about to celebrate is given deep significance again and a new life in the spirit with the anthroposophical view of the world. Spiritually, the Christmas festival is a sun festival, and it is as a sun festival that we shall meet it today. To begin with, let us hear the most wonderful apostrophe 81In rhetoric, a passage where the speaker specifically turns away from the main discourse and addresses a present or absent person or thing. addressed to the sun, words Goethe wrote for his Faust:
The throb of life returns, with pulses beating Soft to ethereal dawn. O steadfast earth,
True through the night, you waited for my greeting,
Breathing beneath my feet in glad new birth,
And, clothing me afresh in joy of living,
In high resolve that banishes misgiving,
You stir my soul to prove life’s utmost worth. —
In gold of dawn the quickened world lies gleaming,
The forest is alive with myriad voices,
Through dell and vale the misty shapes are teeming,
But nature’s deepest heart in light rejoices;
Now burgeon, freshly quivering, frond and bough,
Sprung from the fragrant depth where they lay dreaming;
On flower and blade hang trembling pearls, and now Each colour stands out clear, in glad device,
And all the region is my Paradise.
Look up on high! — The giant peaks that stand In joy of light above the mountain-brow,
Are heralds of the solemn hour at hand,
That brings the blessing down upon our land.
Already, down the soft eternal stair,
The shine has reached the lower Alpine sward,
Where clarity and brilliance are restored,
As downward, step by step, the light is poured —
The dazzling sun strides forth, and fills the air.
I turn, from greater power than eyes can bear.
And thus it is, when hope with earnest striving Has toiled in aims as high as man may dare,And so I turn, the sun upon my shoulders,
Fulfilment’s open gates give promise fair,
But from those everlasting depths comes driving,
A fiery blast that takes us unaware:
We thought to light life’s torch, but now, depriving Our highest hope, a sea of fire surrounds us.
Such fire! Of love? Or the fierce glow of hate?
The blend of joy and sorrow that confounds us Sends us to earth: to veil our troubled state,
For benefice of Spring we supplicate.
To watch the waterfall, with heart elate,
The cataract pouring, crashing from the boulders,
Split and rejoined a thousand times in spate;
The thunderous water seethes in fleecy spume,
Lifted on high in many a flying plume,
Above the spray-drenched air. And then how splendid To see the rainbow rising from this rage,
Now clear, now dimmed, in cool sweet vapour blended.
So strive the figures on our mortal stage.
This ponder well, the mystery closer seeing;
In mirrored hues we have our life and being. 82Goethe, J. W. Faust 2, Pleasing landscape. Faust speaking. Translated by Philip Wayne. London: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd 1959.
These are the tremendous words Goethe lets his representative of humanity utter as the sun rises in the morning. It is not this sun, however, awakening anew every morning, which we are considering in connection with the festival of which we want to speak today. We want to let the true nature of the sun influence us in a much deeper sense. And the reality of that sun shall be our lodestar today.
We shall now hear the words that reflect the most profound meaning of the Christmas mystery. These words sounded as the pupils listened in deep devotion in the mysteries of all ages, hearing them before they were permitted to enter into the mysteries themselves.
Many people who today know only the Christmas tree with its candles believe it to be an institution that has a long tradition. This is not the case, however. The Christmas tree is in fact a fairly recent European institution. Even the earliest Christmas tree was only just over a hundred years ago. But young as the tree may be, the Christmas festival is old indeed.
Behold the sun
At the midnight hour!
In the lifeless ground
Build thy rocky tower!
So, when in depths thou mourn,
Find thou in death’s dark night
Creation’s pulse new-born With living morning light.
The powers on high make knownIn gloom thou livest —
The eternal word divine;
The deeps must guard their own —
Peace, in their sacred shrine.
Create anew a sun!
In matter weaves —
Know spirit-bliss begun! 83Version as found in a notebook entry Rudolf Steiner made in 1906. Different versions appeared in later years. English version given here taken from Steiner R. Verses and Meditations. Translated by F. Melland. London; Rudolf Steiner Press 1979.
The Christmas festival was known and celebrated in all the mysteries of earliest times everywhere. It is not a mere sun feast but one that takes humanity to true perception or at least an idea of the wellsprings of existence. It was celebrated annually by the highest initiates in the mysteries at the time when the sun sent the least energy to the earth, gave the least warmth. It was also celebrated by those who could not yet take part in the whole of it, but knew only an outer reflection of the most sublime mysteries, a reflection in the form of images. And these secrets from the mysteries have survived through the ages and assumed a different garb among different peoples, depending on their beliefs. Christmas is the name given to the solemn night, this holy night celebrated in the great mysteries. These were occasions when the initiator would let the higher human being be resurrected in those who had been adequately prepared, or, to put it in present-day terms, when the living Christ was born in the inner human being.
People who do not know that spiritual principles are at work as well as chemical and physical principles, and that like chemical and physical principles these have their particular seasons in the cosmos, people like this are the only ones able to believe that it does not matter when the higher self is awakened. The essence of the great mysteries was that human beings lived through an event in which they were allowed to see the creative powers in the glory of colour, in bright light; were permitted to see the world around them filled with spiritual qualities, with many spirits; were permitted to see the world of spirits around them, and had the greatest experience a human being can have. One day this moment will come for all and everyone. All will know it, though perhaps only after many incarnations — but the time will come for all and everyone when the Christ will rise within them and new seeing, new hearing will awaken in them.
Mystery pupils who were being prepared for the awakening would first be taught what this awakening meant in the great universe. After this the final acts would come to bring awakening, and these acts were performed at the time when the darkness was greatest, when the sun was at its lowest in the outside world — at Christmas, for those who knew the true facts in the spirit knew that powers moved through cosmic space at this time that were helpful for such an awakening. During the preparation the pupils would be told that those who truly wished to know must know not only what had been happening on this globe through millennia but must also learn to have an overview of the whole of human evolution. They also had to know that the great festivals had been made part of the year and its seasons by leading spirits and that they must devote themselves to looking up to the great eternal truths.
The eye was guided to roam over millions of years. Look to the time, the pupils would be told, when our earth was not yet the way it is now, when there was no sun as yet, no moon, but the two were still one with the earth; when the earth was still one body with the sun and the moon. Human beings were there at that time, but they did not yet have a body. They were spiritual entities, and no light of the sun fell on those human souls and spirits from outside. The light of the sun was in the earth itself. It was not like the sunlight of today, which falls on creatures and objects from the outside. It was a light that had power of spirit in it, and shone forth at the same time in the inner life of every human being. Then came the time when the sun moved away from the earth. It separated from the earth and its light then fell on the earth from outside. The sun had withdrawn from the earth. Darkness had come to the inner human being.
This was where the human race began to evolve towards the future point in time when they would find the inner light shining again within them. Humanity had to gain knowledge of the things of this earth, using the outer senses. Human evolution tended towards the time when the higher human being, the spirit human being, would once again be aglow and alight within. From the light through the darkness to the light — that is the course of human evolution.
When the pupils had been prepared they would be guided towards awakening at the moment in time when as a chosen group they were to have an inner experience of something which the rest of humanity is only to experience in the distant future. Then they would see the light of the spirit with eyes that had been opened in the spirit. This solemn moment was to come when outer light was weakest, on the day when the sun shone least in the outside world. Then, on that day, the pupils of the mysteries would be brought together, and the inner light would open up for them.
Others who were not yet able to take part in this celebration were to have at least an outer image that would tell them: ‘You, too, shall one day know this great moment. Today you see an image. Later you shall experience the event you now see in the image.’
Those were the lesser mysteries. They would show a reflection of what the initiate would experience at a later time. Today we’ll share in the experience of what happened in the lesser mysteries around the midnight hour. It was the same everywhere — in the Egyptian mysteries, the Eleusinian mysteries, the mysteries of Asia Minor, in the Babylonian and Chaldean mysteries and also in those of Persian Mithra worship and the Indian Brahma mysteries. Everywhere the pupils of those mystery centres would have the same experience around the midnight hour of that solemn night.
They would gather in good time on the eve of the event. In quiet thought they had to gain insight into the significance of this, the most important event. They would sit in absolute silence, having gathered in the dark. When midnight approached they would have been sitting in the dark room for hours. Thoughts of eternity went through their inmost minds. Then, towards midnight, mysterious sounds would arise, flooding the room, growing louder and then softer again. Hearing these sounds the pupils would know it to be the music of the spheres. Profound, solemn devotion filled their hearts. Then a faint light would come from a dimly lit disk. Those who saw it would know that this disk represented the earth. The luminous disk would then grow darker and darker until finally it would be quite black. At the same time the room around them would grow progressively lighter. Those who saw it knew that the black disk was the earth. The sun, which otherwise shone through the earth had been obscured. The earth could no longer see the sun. Then halo upon halo would develop around the earth’s disk, in rainbow colours, going outwards. Those who saw this would know that it was the iris. 84In Greek mythology, Iris was the messenger of the gods. In another set of notes it says: 'an image of St Iris'. And around midnight, a luminous reddish violet halo would arise in place of the black earth disk; a word was written on this. The word would be a different one, depending on the nations whose members were allowed to experience the mystery. In our present-day language it would be Christos. 85The Greek ὁ Χριστός means ‘the anointed’, corresponding to the Hebrew ‘the Messias’. The ‘χρηστος’, Chrestos, used by Gnostics and Manicheans means 'the good one'; according to Marcion (early Christian Gnostic, c. 100–165 AD), the most sublime good god as distinct from the demiurgos, the creator god who was merely just. 'Chrestos' was introduced in the 3rd edition of the special German booklet Zeichen und Symbole des Weihnachtsfestes, for Rudolf Steiner used it in the lecture he gave on 14 December 1905 (in GA 54; English in Christmas). The context was a different one, however, and a further review of the original records shows that 'Chrestos' does not appear in any of the sets of notes available to us (Literary Estate Administration in Dornach). Those who saw it would know it to be the sun. It appeared to them in that midnight hour when the world all around was lying in profound darkness. The pupils would be told that they had now experienced something in images which in the mysteries was called ‘to see the sun around midnight’.
A true initiate truly learned to see the sun around the midnight hour, for the material principle in him had been extinguished. The sun of the spirit alone lived in him, its light shining out over all the darkness of matter.
This was the most blessed moment in human evolution when the human being found himself released from darkness and living in the light of eternity. It was shown as an image in the mysteries, year after year, around the midnight hour of that solemn night. The image showed that there is a sun of the spirit as well as the physical sun, and like the physical sun this must be born from deep darkness. To make it even clearer to them, the pupils were taken to a cave after their experience of the rising sun, the Christos. The cave appeared to contain nothing but rock — dead, lifeless matter. They would then see ears of corn arise from the stones, a sign of life, a symbolic picture of life arising from apparent death, life being born in dead mineral. They would then be told that just as the power of the sun will wax again from this day onward, the day when it appeared to have died, so new life was forever rising from life that was dying.
The same event is referred to in the words ‘He must wax but I must wane’ in the New Testament. 86John 3: 30. John, herald of the coming Christ, of the light of the spirit when it is at its greatest height in the course of the year at midsummer, this John must wane, and as he wanes the power of the light that is coming waxes, growing more and more powerful as John wanes. Thus the new, the coming life is preparing in the seed which must perish and die so that the new plant may arise.
The inner feeling pupils were meant to develop was that life lies dormant in death, that new, magnificent flowers and fruit arose from death and putrefaction, that the earth was filled with the power to give birth. They had to come to believe that something happens in the inner earth at this time — the overcoming of death through life. When they were shown the conquering light they were shown the life that was present in death. They experienced this inwardly, they lived through this when they saw light arise and shine out in the darkness. They now saw sprouting life in the rock cave, life arising in glorious abundance from something that was seemingly dead.
That is how the pupils were trained to develop this belief in life, and belief in what may be called the greatest human ideal was made to grow in their hearts and minds. They learned to look up to this, the greatest human ideal, to the time when earth will have completed its evolution, when light will be radiant in the whole of humanity. The earth itself will then fall to dust, but its spiritual essence will remain, with all the human beings who have grown inwardly luminous through the light of the spirit. And earth and humanity shall awaken to a higher form of existence, a new stage of existence.
When Christianity arose in the course of evolution, this was its ideal in the highest possible sense. It was inwardly felt that the Christos, being the immortal spirit of the earth, was to appear as the foundation not only of all material, sprouting life, but also of spiritual rebirth, the great ideal of all humanity; that he was born around Christmas time, the time of greatest darkness, as a sign that a higher human being can be born out of the darkness of matter in the human soul. Before people came to speak of a Christos, they would speak of a sun hero in the earlier mysteries; he was seen to be connected with the same ideal as the Christos of Christianity. The individual connected with the ideal was called the sun hero. Just as the sun completes its cycle in the course of the year, as its light increases and decreases, just as its heat seems to be withdrawn from the earth and then radiates again, just as its death holds life, letting it stream forth once again, so the sun hero has become lord over death and night and darkness because of the power of his life in the spirit.
Seven degrees of initiation were known in the Persian Mithras mysteries. The first was the ‘raven’, someone able only to go as far as the portal of the temple of initiation. The ravens became mediators between the material life of the outside world and the spiritual life of the inner world; no longer belonging to the material world they were not yet part of the spiritual world. We find these ravens come up again and again, always playing the same role as messengers going to and fro between the two worlds and conveying knowledge between them. We also have them in our Norse and German myths and legends — Odin’s ravens and the ravens flying around the Kyffhäuser mountain. The second degree, that of the ‘occult person’, took the disciple from the portal into the inner initiation temple. There he matured until he reached the third degree, the ‘protagonist’ who would go out and make known to the world the occult truths he had experienced in the temple. The fourth degree, that of the ‘lion’, was gained when his consciousness was no longer limited to the individual but to a whole tribe. Hence the Christ was known as the ‘lion of Judah’. Someone whose consciousness extended even further, embracing a whole nation, would have reached the fifth degree. He would no longer have a name of his own but would bear the name of the nation. Thus people spoke of a ‘Persian’, or an ‘Israelite’. We can see why Nathanael 87John 1:47. was called a ‘true Israelite’; it was because he had reached the fifth degree of initiation. The sixth degree was the ‘sun hero’, and we need to understand what this means. We shall then come to see that pupils in the mysteries would feel a shudder of veneration if they knew something about a sun hero and were able to share in the festival to celebrate the birth of a sun hero at Christmas.
Everything in the cosmos takes its rhythmic course. All the stars follow a great rhythm, as does the sun. If the sun were to abandon this rhythm for even a movement, if it were to leave its orbit for just a moment, this would cause a revolution of unheard-of importance in the whole of the universe. Rhythm governs the whole of nature, from lifeless nature all the way to the human being. We see it in the plant world — a violet, a lily flowering at the same season. Animals are on heat at given times in the year. This changes only in humans. Rhythm, active in powers of growth, reproduction and so on all the way up to the animal world, comes to a halt in human beings.
Humanity is meant to be embedded in freedom, and the more civilized people are the more is this rhythm on the decrease. Just as the light vanishes at Christmas time, so has rhythm apparently completely disappeared from human lives, and chaos prevails. But human beings are meant to bring this rhythm to birth from within and do so on their own initiative. They are meant to shape their lives of their own free will so that they run within rhythmic boundaries. Life’s events are meant to follow one another as firmly and securely as the sun’s orbit. And just as it is unthinkable that the sun’s orbit should ever change, so it should be unthinkable that the rhythm of such a life could be broken.
The sun hero was the embodiment of such a life rhythm. With the strength of the higher human being who had been born in him he gained the strength to govern the rhythm of his own biography. This sun hero was also the Christ Jesus for the first two centuries, and this is why the celebration of his birth was moved to the time when the birthday feast of the sun hero had been celebrated from time immemorial. Hence also everything connected with the life story of Christ Jesus, hence also the midnight mass, celebrated in caves by the early Christians in memory of the sun festival. At this mass, a sea of light shone out in the darkness of midnight in memory of the spirit sun that rose in the mysteries. Hence the story goes that Jesus was born in a stable, in memory of the rock cave out of which life was born in those ears of com that were the symbol for life.
Just as life on earth was born out of dead rock, so was the highest — Christ Jesus — born out of the lowest. The legend of three priestly sages, the three kings from the east, was connected with his birth. They brought gold, the symbol of external power full of wisdom, myrrh, the symbol of life vanquishing death, and incense, symbol of the cosmic ether in which the spirit lives.
In the deeper meaning of the Christmas festival we can therefore sense echoes from man’s earliest times. And this has come down to us in the particular quality which Christianity has. Its symbols reflect the earliest symbols known to humanity. The tree with its candles is such a symbol. It is an image of the tree of paradise for us. 88See 'Der Baum des Lebens und der Erkenntnis des Guten und des Bosen. Die Geheimnisse der Kunst' in GA 162. That tree represents the life-giving principle and the gaining of knowledge in paradise. Paradise itself is the whole, complete sphere of material nature. Spiritual nature is represented by the tree in the midst of it, the tree that encompasses knowledge and the tree of life. Knowledge can only be gained at the cost of life.
A story tells us the significance of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. Seth stood before the gates of paradise and asked to come in. The cherub guarding the entrance let him enter. This is to indicate that Seth became an initiate. When Seth was in paradise he found that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were firmly intertwined. The archangel Michael, he who stands before god, allowed him to take three seeds from the intertwined tree.
This tree prophesies the future of humanity. When the whole of humanity has gained insight and has been initiated, it will bear within it not only the tree of knowledge but also the other tree, that of life. Death will then be no more. For the time being, however, the initiate was only allowed to take three seeds, the three seeds that signify the higher principles of the human being.
When Adam died, Seth placed the three seeds in his mouth and a flaming tree grew on Adam’s grave. This had the property that new shoots and leaves would grow from any wood cut from it. In the bush’s circle of flame were written the words ehjeh asher ehjeh, meaning ‘I am the one who was, who is and who shall be’. This signifies the principle that goes through all incarnations, the power of man to renew himself, come into existence again and again, descending from the light into the darkness and ascending from the darkness into the light.
The rod Moses used to perform his miracles was cut from the wood of this bush. The gate of Solomon’s temple was made of it. Wood was taken from the bush and put into the pond at Bethesda and gave it the power of which the story tells. And the cross of Christ Jesus was made of this wood, the cross which shows life dying away, life perishing in death which nevertheless has the power in it to bring forth new life. Here we have before us the great symbol for the world — life that overcomes death. The wood of the cross had grown from the three seeds that came from paradise.
The same symbol — of the lower principle dying and the resurrection of the higher principle sprouting forth from it — is also shown in the Rose Cross, and the red roses. Goethe put it in these words:
For as long as you do not have
this word ‘die and become’,
you are but a troubled guest
in the darkness of this earth. 89In ‘Selige Sehnsucht’, Westöstlicher Diwan.
This is a wonderful connection between the tree of paradise and the wood of the cross! The cross may be a symbol for Easter, but it also deepens the Christmas mood for us. We can feel the new life welling forth in the Christ idea as we contemplate it in the night when Christ Jesus was born. We see the idea reflected in the living roses decorating our tree here. They tell us that the tree of holy night has not yet become the wood of the cross but the power to be this wood is beginning to arise within it. The roses growing among the green are a symbol of the eternal conquering the temporal.
The square of Pythagoras (Fig. 12) is a symbol for the fourfold nature of man — physical body, ether body, astral body and I.The triangle (Fig. 13) is the symbol for the threefold higher nature of man — spirit self, life spirit and spirit human being.
Above it we have the tarot symbol (Fig. 14).
The initiates of the ancient Egyptian mysteries knew how to read it. They also knew how to read the Book of Thoth, which consisted of 78 cards telling of all the world’s events from beginning to end, alpha to omega (Fig. 15). One could read them by placing them in the right order. The images showed life dying down into death and sprouting up again in new life. Someone able to combine the right numbers with the right images would be able to read it. And this numerology, the wisdom given in images, had been taught from earliest times. It still played an important role in the middle ages, with Raymond Lully, 90Lully (or Lull), Raymond (c. 1232–1315). See Steiner R. World History in the Light of Anthroposophy (GA 233), lectured dated 5 January 1924. Tr. G. & M. Adams. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1977. for instance, but little remains of it today.
Above it is the tao (Fig. 16), the sign reminding us of the image our earliest ancestors had of God. Before Europe, Asia and Africa were cultivated land, those ancestors lived on Atlantis, which has gone down beneath the waves. Norse mythology still holds memories of Atlantis in the legends of Niflheim, home of mists. For Atlantis did not have clear air. Vast, mighty masses of mist rolled and boiled above the soil, similar to the experience we may have today walking in the clouds and mists at high altitudes. Sun and moon were not clearly visible in the sky. On Atlantis they appeared surrounded by rainbow haloes the sacred iris. People were then still much more able to understand the language of nature. The lapping waves, the sound of the wind in the trees, the whispering leaves, the rumble of thunder still speak to us today, but we no longer understand them. The ancient Atlanteans did. They felt that a divine element was speaking to them in all these things. In the midst of all those speaking clouds and water and leaves and winds a sound reached the ears of the Atlanteans: tao — it is I. The essence of the whole natural world lived in that sound. Atlantis heard it. The tao later became the letter T. The circle at the top is the sign for the all-encompassing nature of God the Father.<.p>
Finally the principle which is present in the whole of the universe and exists as the human being is shown in the symbol of the pentagram (Fig. 17) which we see at the top of the tree. It is not permissible to speak of the deepest sense of the pentagram here and now. It does show us the star of evolving humanity. It is the star, the symbol of the human being which is followed by all who have wisdom, as the priestly wise men did in the distant past. It is the meaning of the earth, the great sun hero who is born in holy night because the most sublime light shines out in the deepest darkness.
Humanity will live on into a future when the light will be born in them; when words pregnant with meaning will give way to others and it will no longer be said that the darkness cannot comprehend the light. Truth will sound out in cosmic space, and the darkness will comprehend the light that shines out for us in the star of humanity. Darkness shall yield and comprehend the light, that is, will be taken hold of by it. And this is meant to sound out for us from our inmost being in the Christmas festival. Only then will we be celebrating Christmas in the right way, for it will then tell us that one day the light of the spirit will shine out from the inmost human being into the whole world. And we’ll then be able to celebrate Christmas as the feast of the most sublime ideal for humanity. It will then have real meaning again, be alive again in our souls, and the Christmas tree, too, will once more have its true meaning as a symbol of the paradise tree, truer than the meanings it is given today, however thoughtful. In our hearts, celebration of holy night will lead to joyful hope and to understanding that yes, I too shall experience within me what we must call the birth of the higher human being; in me, too, the birth of the saviour, of the Christos, will come.