The Christian Mystery
VII. The Significance of Christmas in the Science of the Spirit
15 December 1906, Leipzig
Today the only connection many people still have to Christmas is to light the candles on the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is, however, the most recent symbol of Christmas. 81See also the lectures given in Berlin on 19 Dec. 1904 (GA 92) in The Supersensible in Man and World, tr. p. M. Allen, and 21 Dec. 1909 (GA 117) in Festivals of the Seasons Even in the regions where it first appeared, people have only known it for about a hundred years. It is not the ancient pagan tradition many people believe it to be. But whilst the Christmas tree is a recent development, the great festival for humanity that is about to come is old, indeed ancient. For as long as people on earth felt, had a sense of what it means to be human, and also knew of the principle that takes us beyond being human to being divinely human, taking us beyond ourselves, they have known this sublime Christmas festival. In John's gospel we find words that may be a leitmotiv for the idea of Christmas. ‘He must wax, but I must wane.’ 82John 3: 30. This points to the relationship between two important annual festivals. John bears witness that he himself must wane, whilst the other one, the Christ, waxes. When the length of day is greatest, it is St John's tide. But behind the external material and ephemeral phenomenon something arises which John put most beautifully into words: ‘And the light shone into the darkness’ 83John 1: 5. into the days which at St John's tide begin to get shorter. Within the darkness lives the light that is more luminous, more alive than all physical light phenomena—the light of the spirit. And the content of the Christian Christmas is the life of the great light in the darkness. When the festival was celebrated in all religions in ancient times, it pointed prophetically to Christ Jesus, the great spirit and Sun hero.
Today the science of the spirit helps us to understand Christmas, which for two millennia has been felt to be the feast of great idealism. When the service begins in that holy night, in the midnight darkness, and the candles are lit, they shine out into the darkness. It means that when the time comes and everything on earth is destined to die—everything that is purely human, too, will be subject to death—the soul triumphant lives in the body, as made to come true by the Christ, and rises from the shell of the body to live in the light, even if the earth, being physical matter, will shatter into countless atoms. Out of this darkness, this death of the earth, the soul of the whole earth will rise with all the human souls that will have been received into this earth soul. And Christ Jesus was the example, the ideal, to show that not only will the earth soul achieve this but all human beings on earth shall have the same certainty.
And so it is not only the physical sun which is a reflection of the Christ spirit but indeed the waxing sun of the spirit. When all energies will be transformed and love is aglow everywhere in the earth's body, the Christ principle will flow through every part of the earth. The light of Christmas is the symbol of this.
The three kings are symbols, as are their gifts, with gold the symbol of wisdom and kingly power, myrrh the symbol for overcoming death, incense the symbol for ether substances made spiritual in which the god enters into reality who has overcome death. With the three symbols we have Christ the king, the vanquisher of death, the fulfilment of all earthly evolution. That was the experience of the birth of the God child for every esoteric initiate, foreseen in the mysteries even before the Christ came and also experienced afterwards. The mysteries were not church establishments or schools in the ordinary sense but places of training where rites were also observed, where people learned wisdom, surrender and a faith that is both knowledge and insight. There were greater and lesser mysteries. In the lesser mysteries, people admitted after going through many trials would see dramatic presentations of the eternal truths which higher initiates experience in their own hearts. The greatest elements of human evolution may be compared, on a small scale, with the experiences someone who was born blind has after an operation. A completely new world opens up. An initiate has the eyes of the spirit opened. A world of the spirit opens up in light and colour, completely new and much wider than the physical world with all its spirits and inhabitants. All things seem full of life to him. This is the moment when initiates experience the birth of their higher self. It was known as the inner Christ festival. The experiences of those chosen people, experiences that can still be had by initiates today, were an ideal for those in the lesser mysteries, something they might hope to achieve, some sooner and some later. Anyone who knows that everyone has to go through many lives may be certain that for him, too, this awakening, this initiation will be reality one day; that the awakening of the Christ will be achieved in him, the holy night when the light will shine within him. Then the words of John will be reversed: ‘And the light shall be comprehended in the darkness.’
This was also presented in the mysteries. The great Christian event was a physical recapitulation of events every initiate had known in the mysteries, as images presented in the lesser mysteries and inside the human being in the greater mysteries. In the lesser mysteries the important experience of the inner Christ was shown at a particular time of the year, when the sun gives least light to the earth, in the longest night of winter—as is still done today at Christmas. Let us consider the image which symbolized the meaning of human inner development in the lesser mysteries. The people who were about to see it would be in a solemn mood, gathering in holy night, in the utter darkness of the midnight hour. Then a strangely booming, thundering sound would be heard, gradually changing into a wonderful rhythmic harmony—the music of the spheres. A faintly illumined body, a sphere shining dimly in the darkness would appear. This was meant to symbolize the earth. Gradually rainbow-coloured rings, one merging into the other, would arise from the dimly lit earth disk, spreading in all directions—the divine iris. That is how the sun would be seen to shine in ancient Atlantis, in the Niflheim of Norse mythology. The colours would gradually grow brighter, with the seven colours slowly turning into a faint gold and a faint violet. And the form would shine more and more brightly, with the light getting stronger, until it was transformed into the most luminous of the heavenly bodies, into the sun. In the middle of this sun the name of Christ would appear, written in the language of the people who were there. It was then true to say of those who had been present that they had seen the sun at midnight. This means that a symbol of spiritual vision had appeared to them. When their spiritual eyes had been opened they found that all matter became transparent, they saw through the earth, truly seeing the sun at midnight, having overcome matter. The sun at midnight would appear in reversed colour, a violet, reddish colour. For Christians, translated into human terms, the great cosmic symbol thus seen is Christ Jesus coming to the earth. We shall all of us see the sun at midnight. This also does not contradict the New Testament.
Christ is thus the spirit who will transfigure the elements that are still connected with the lower aspect, deify anything which is still connected with worldly aspects. He is the Sun in the realm of the spirit. That is how the Christian esoteric or theosophical Christian inwardly knows him to be. Spiritual awakening comes at the time when cold and darkness are greatest on earth because initiates know that it is the time when certain powers are present in cosmic space and the constellation is most favourable for the awakening. The pupils were taught that they should not be satisfied with ordinary human knowledge but must gain an overview over the whole of humanity, the whole of earth history. Consider the time—they would be told—when the earth was still united with sun and moon. Humanity then lived in the light of the Sun. The body that was later to become the earth was filled with a power of the spirit that also shone forth in every entity. Then the time would come when the sun separated from the earth, when the light shone down on the earth from outside and human beings were in inner darkness. This marked the beginning of their evolution towards a far distant future when they would have the light of the Sun in them again. The higher human being, Sun man, would then develop in them who bears light in him and has power to illumine.
The earth thus arose out of the light, is going through darkness and will come to have the light of the Sun again. Just as the power of the sun's rays decreases as autumn comes and in winter, so does the spiritual principle recede completely during the time when human beings must learn to perceive the external things on earth, perceive matter. But the power of the spirit waxes again, and at Christmas something happens which Paul described by using the parable of the grain of wheat. If the seed that is sown does not perish there can be no new fruit. 841 Cor. 15:35-44.
At Christmas time the old life passes away, with new life arising in its womb. The sap rises in the trees from this day on, new life wells up, light begins to wax again in the darkness that has been increasing until then. A Christian thinks of this translated into terms of the spirit. Everything that draws us down in the material world must perish to make room for new growth. The Christ came into the world so that from the depths of lowness the principle could be born that will take us to the highest. The stable in the gospel tale is a transformation, a variant of what most ancient wisdom knew as a cave. The feast would be celebrated in hollowed out rock, in different ways, depending on the nation. On the next day there would be a second feast, when it would be shown how sprouting life comes from the rock. This, too, was to show how the spiritual arises from the earthly when it dies.
In all the inner sanctuaries of Egypt, in the Eleusinian mysteries and in the Orphic cult of ancient Greece, in Asia minor, among the Babylonians and Chaldeans, in the Mythraic cult of the Persians and in the mysteries of the Indians—in all of these Christmas would be celebrated in the same way. Those who took part in the lesser mysteries would have presented to them in visible form what the initiates lived through inwardly. They would be shown a prophetic vision of the birth of the Christ in man. Initiates who had already reached that level were said to have reached the sixth stage. There were seven such stages. Stage one was the raven who mediated between the spiritual and the outside world. In the Bible we read of the raven of Elijah, 851 Kings 17: 4-6. legend tells of Wotan's raven or the ravens of Barbarossa. 86Frederick Barbarossa (redbeard) or Frederick I, Holy Roman emperor (1152–1190), king of Germany and Italy. Led the Third Crusade, during which he drowned. Legend has it that he sleeps in the Kyffhäuser mountain until the ravens come to wake him because he is needed again. Translator.
At the second stage the initiate would be an occult individual. He would be admitted to the sanctuary and be present within it.
The third grade was that of the warrior or fighter. Those who had reached this stage were permitted to stand up for spiritual truths before the outside world.
Someone who had reached the fourth grade would be called a lion. His conscious awareness had expanded beyond his own person and become awareness of the whole tribe. Think of the lion of the house of Judah, for instance.
An initiate of the fifth grade not only had awareness for the tribe but had taken in conscious awareness of the spirit of the nation. He would therefore be given the name of his nation, being called a ‘Persian’, for instance, among the Persians. Jesus called Nathanael ‘a true Israelite’, 87John 1:47. recognizing him for an initiate of the fifth grade.
The name given to someone who had reached the sixth stage refers to an important quality. Looking at the world of nature around us, we see life forms develop from the lowest ones up to the human being, and from the average human being up to the one who let the Christ be born in him. Among the lower life forms we always see rhythm in life, a rhythm imposed by the sun. Plants always flower at the same time of the year, depending on the species, and open their flowers at the same time of day, depending on the species. Animals, too, show an annual rhythm in their most important vital functions. Only man is gradually losing this regularity. He is coming free of a rhythm that originally was also imposed on him. Yet when love for everything that is awakens in him, flows through him, a new rhythm is born that is his own. This is as regular as the sun's rhythm, which never deviates even the least bit from its orbit—one can hardly imagine what the consequences would be otherwise. An initiate of the sixth degree would be seen to reflect the movement of the sun as it pours its blessings into cosmic space, an image of the Christ in man and in the world of the spirit. The sixth degree initiate would therefore be called the sun hero.
Shivers would pass through the soul of a pupil when he saw such a sun hero in whom the Christ had been inwardly born. This was an event that was felt to be a birth on a physical plane. Initiates of the early centuries put the birth of the historical Jesus at the darkest time of the year, for the soul of the spirit had then risen. It is also why the midnight mass was introduced among the early Christians, a rite held at the dark midnight hour during which a sea of lights would be lit on the altar. The highest degree would then be that of father. 88See also Steiner R. An Esoteric Cosmology (in GA 94), lecture of 30 May 1906. Tr. R. Querido. St George 1978.
These things, which had happened so often in the individual mysteries, far removed from the affairs of the world, took place in the open, in world history, with Christ Jesus. There can be no more sublime experience for the human soul than the events that happened in the outer, physical world with the conqueror of death who brought the pledge of life everlasting for the soul. The new life fruit that grew from a dying world the initiates of old felt to be the birth of the Christ child in the world of the spirit. Anyone who does not think of the spiritual as separate from the physical world feels a deep connection between the sun at holy night and the life of the spirit that develops out of the world's life. In that holy night we have the birth of the greatest ideal that exists for this world and will come to realization when the earth reaches its goal. Now told in prophesy, it will one day be reality. Love conquering death shines in the lights on the Christmas tree, and in future it will come alive in all of humanity. Now it is the prospect before us.
We can thus sense that the meaning of Christmas is something that comes to us from far ahead but has also been celebrated in earliest times. Seen in the right way, the feast will again have much higher significance for us. The tree, too, will become more important to us as a symbol of that tree in paradise which you all know from the Book of Genesis. Paradise is a picture of man's higher nature, with no evil attached to it. Insight could only be gained at the price of life. A legend can show us how those who had the knowledge saw it. 89See also Steiner R. The Temple Legend (GA93), especially the lecture given in Berlin on 29 May 1905. Tr. J. Wood. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1985. When Seth wanted to return to paradise, the cherub with the fiery sword allowed him to enter. He found that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge had intertwined. The cherub told him to take three seeds from this united tree. The tree shows what man will be one day, something which only initiates have so far achieved. When Adam died, Seth took the three seeds and put them in Adam's mouth. A flaming bush grew out of them, with the words ejeh asher ejeh appearing in it—I am he who is, was and shall be. The legend goes on to tell that Moses made his staff with magic powers of its wood. Later the gate to Solomon's temple is said to have been made of it. A piece of it is reputed to have dropped into the pool at Bethesda and given it special powers. Finally, it is said, the cross of Christ was made of it. It is an image for life that is dying, passing away in death, and has the power in it to produce new life.
A great symbol stands before us—life that has overcome death, the wood from the seed taken from paradise. This life, dying and rising again, is the Rose Cross. It was not without reason that Goethe, that great man, said:
So long as you don't have it,
this word: ‘Die and become!’
you're but a miserable guest
here on this earth. 51Goethe, West-östlicher Diwan, poem ‘Selige Sehnsuch’
It is a wonderful thing to see the relationship between the tree of paradise, the wood of the cross and the new life that grows from it. To gain an inner feeling for the birth of the eternal human being in temporal life—let that be our Christ idea, our Christmas. Man must apply it to himself even now: ‘The light shines into the darkness’, and the darkness must gradually come to comprehend the light. All the souls in whom Christmas ignites the right spark will be alive to the principle that comes to birth in them at Christmas, the ability that will become a power in them to see, to feel and to will it that the gospel words are turned around to become: ‘The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness has gradually come to grasp the light.’