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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Background to the Gospel of St. Mark
GA 124

XII. Mystery Teachings in St. Mark's Gospel

18 December 1910, Berlin

In the course of the years we have spoken about the deeper meanings of the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. John, and here in Hanover, too, about the mysteries of Christianity. You will have realised that each of the Gospels provides a special means of penetrating to the core of the Christian message. It is almost truer to say of the Gospel of St. Mark than of the others that if it is to help us to gain some understanding of Christianity, we must make a certain basic assumption.

In studying this Gospel it is essential to be aware of how language was used as a means of expression in past ages of evolution. The ancient Hebrew language opens up a wide horizon in this respect. Those of you who were present at the lecture-course in Munich on Genesis, must have realised how necessary it was to give an adequate translation of particular words before the six or seven days’ work of creation could be understood, and how essential it is to re-create these ancient records in order to bring to light the inner, spiritual truths they indicate. In the Hebrew language the vowels and consonants were used very differently from anything that is customary to-day. What a man saw round about him was indicated in that ancient language by the consonants; the vowels expressed inner experiences of the soul and were indicated by dots only. In those early times, and even in the Greek language, a word in itself was an indication of a supersensible reality. Everyone knew that a spoken word containing certain sounds or syllables would arouse in the soul a whole series of mental pictures. A very great deal could be conveyed in a few words because all these factors were operating. We must always bear this in mind when we are studying the Gospel of St. Mark. We must not restrict ourselves to the actual words, because the words by themselves cannot lead us into the secrets and mysteries of that Gospel.

Let me give you one or two illustrations. In earlier times, language was a means for the expression of realities of soul and spirit. In our day it is a means for the expression of abstract thinking and this is very far removed from the living, pictorial thinking which alone can point the way into spiritual worlds. If we want to recover that kind of living thinking we must alter the forms of expression in our language accordingly. Language has become pedantic, useful only as an expression of abstract thinking; it has entirely lost the living quality which is able to lead into higher regions through the words of language and to unite the soul with the mysteries of the Universe. In the Rosicrucian Mystery Play, The Portal of Initiation, beginnings have been made to infuse real life into language. It is often a matter of subtle nuances. Our language is crude, lacks suppleness, and it is only with a struggle that it can be made to express the delicate aspects of spiritual life. That is why I tried to manipulate language in such a way as to point to secrets of existence. In the Mystery Play I made an attempt to use other means to express a great deal that words cannot express. In the Play a man is striving to take the first steps towards Initiation, to hear spiritual tones resounding in his soul. The Play describes the many deep experiences undergone by Johannes in the course of his development. His progress is such that through the bitterest but at the same time the most powerful inner experiences, he reaches the realm of Devachan in the spiritual world where he is to be introduced to the life and activity of the elemental beings there. Any attempt to express this in ordinary words could only result in abstractions. And so I tried to present living people, expressing in their own nature the mysteries of how light and darkness interweave. In this way I tried to make audible in actual sounds things which, expressed in the words of modern language, would have seemed unreal. One must listen intently to the sound of the words and feel how the right sound occurs at the right place, sensing where a sound is appropriate and where it is not. This is a kind of spiritual alchemy. And by such means it is possible to indicate the interweaving life and activity of the spiritual forces in the Universe.

In the Mystery Play, Johannes is welcomed in Devachan by Maria and her companions, Philia, Astrid and Luna. Philia is the poetic representation of the sentient soul, hence the sound I (ee) occurs twice and A once in her name. Luna is the expression of the consciousness-soul, hence U and A occur once in her name. Astrid, the expression of the intellectual or mind-soul has in her name first the sound A then I (ee). In this way a great deal can be expressed more truly than in words. If a feeling for such things could be aroused there is a great deal which I might be able to omit. You must learn to feel the significance of the U with its dull, deep ring, the lightness of the I (ee) and the delicate significance of the AI or EI, with the sense of wonder it awakens in the soul. This brings a kind of understanding different from anything to be gained through ordinary words. The sounds of language make it a most wonderful instrument, infinitely wiser than human beings, and it would be well for us to pay heed to its wisdom. Far from that, however, men are doing what they can to destroy it. If we want to have any understanding at all of earlier times with their peculiar forms of expression, we must penetrate into what was then living in the souls of men.

When we read the lines at the very beginning of St. Mark's Gospel we can feel how necessary it is to think in this way about language and its secrets. In Luther's translation, which in most respects is still the best — Weizsäcker's is far inferior — the passage from Isaiah reads: ‘Behold I send my Angel before thee who shall prepare thy way before thee. It is the voice of the preacher in the wilderness: ”Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path”.’

You would think that anyone who is honest with himself would have to admit that he can make nothing of this passage. To understand what it really means Spiritual Science must enable us to recognise what, according to Isaiah who was initiated in these mysteries, was to come to pass through the events of Palestine and the Mystery of Golgotha. In our day nobody is willing to admit that there are men who really can tell us something important about the most significant impulses in world-evolution. Consequently we have grotesque explanations of the Apocalypse and assertions that the writer had himself already experienced the happenings described. People talk about objective research but always start with the assumption that what they do not know cannot be known. In the words just quoted, Isaiah is giving voice to something he knew through Initiation, namely that an impulse of supreme importance is to be given to the evolution of humanity. Why did he, and all other Initiates, regard this event to which he was pointing as being of such significance? His picture of the evolution of humanity was true and he knew that in earlier times men possessed a natural clairvoyance, moreover that through the astral body they were able to see into the spiritual worlds. The astral body gradually lost the power of vision and became inwardly dark but man's progress lay in this very loss of astral clairvoyance. It was now to be made possible for the ‘I’ to function. Out of his Initiation-knowledge Isaiah might also have said: In those days men will speak only of their Ego and as long as that Ego is not filled with Christ it will be restricted to perception of the physical plane furnished by the senses and intellect. Men will be forsaken by the world of the spirit. But then Christ will come, bringing consolation, and human souls will be permeated more and more with the Christ Impulse so that they can again look upwards into the spiritual world. Before this is possible, however, they will experience the darkening of the astral body.

The very first beginnings of man's physical body came into being on Old Saturn, of his etheric body on Old Sun, of his astral body on Old Moon; and the Ego evolves on the Earth. Until the astral body lost its clairvoyant powers and became dark, the Ego had at first to work in the darkness. Before Earth-evolution began in the real sense a kind of recapitulation of the Moon-evolution took place. During that period man's astral body had developed to a stage where the activity of the whole Universe was mirrored within it. When the recapitulation of the Moon-evolution was completed the Ego began to enter into the process of evolution and Isaiah could say that Egohood would become more and more dominant on the Earth.

There were Beings who had reached the human stage on the Old Moon, others on Old Sun and Old Saturn. Man reached the human stage on the Earth. On the Old Moon the Angels reached the human stage and man has reached the human stage on the Earth. Consequently it devolved upon the Beings who were man's forerunners to make preparation for what man was to become on the Earth. The Angel-nature must penetrate into the astral body before the Ego can become active. Man's mission on Earth was prepared for by his forerunners — the Angels. Hence it is possible at certain times for an Angel to enter into a human personality. When this happens the Earth-man himself may well be maya, for a Being of higher rank is making use of his soul. The man is in truth the figure we see before us, yet he may be the sheath of some other Being. Thus it came about that the same Individuality who had once lived as Elijah and was reincarnated as John the Baptist became the vehicle of an Angel who spoke through him. In The Portal of Initiation a similar process takes place and another Being works in and through Maria:

Within our circle there is formed a knot
Of threads that Karma spins, world-fashioning.
Thy sufferings, my friend, are links in chains
Forged by the hand of destiny, whereby
The deeds of Gods unite with human lives.

(The Portal of Initiation. Scene 3)

A deed of the Gods mingles with human life and creates human destiny.

Thus in John the Baptist a deed of the Heavens was united with human destiny. A divine Being, an Angel, worked in and through him. What John achieved was possible only because, while the man John was maya, another Being lived within him, having the mission to proclaim in advance what man's destiny on Earth was to be. Consequently, if we are to translate the passage in a way that helps us to understand what is actually expressed, the rendering would have to be something like this. — ‘Take heed: the ‘I’ which is to appear in man's being sends in advance the Angel who prepares its way.’ The Angel is the Being who lived in the personality of John the Baptist, and the lesson to be learnt from Spiritual Science is that Moon Initiates must make preparation for Initiations that belong essentially to the Earth.

We must now consider how man's nature had developed up to the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. Think of what men must have felt when they looked back to those past ages when the astral body could see clairvoyantly into the spiritual world, and then, as incarnation followed incarnation, realised that this astral body was growing steadily darker. In earlier times, when they wanted to observe something in the spiritual world their astral bodies became luminous and radiant. But this gradually ceased and darkness in the astral body intensified until there was within man a state of isolation, a wilderness, ἔρημος. Even in Greek the expression is to be found. Then a voice awakens in the human soul, like a cry of longing for the ‘Lord’, for the ‘I’, to enter into the soul. This was the feeling accompanying the word χὐριοç, translated so baldly as ‘lord’. The soul was felt to consist of three forces: thinking, feeling and willing. Then a time came when the ‘I’, the kyrios, was to be received into the soul. This is what John the Baptist meant by the words: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!

Thus the quotation from Isaiah at the beginning of St. Mark's Gospel points to the wisdom-filled guidance of human evolution up to the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. This utterance of Isaiah also indicated what we now know about John the Baptist. I have described under what con­ditions he was able to become the vehicle of an Angel. A certain Initiation was necessary for this — the Initiation which enabled the man receiving it to reveal to other men that the time had now come for the ‘I’ to penetrate into the human soul.

This could be proclaimed only by one who had received the Initiation known since ancient times as the Aquarius Initiation in the terminology used in the Mysteries. The language of the heavens was used to express the great secrets of the spiritual world made known to men through Initia­tion. The language of the heavens alone is able to express what happens to the human soul when it is initiated into the great Mysteries. Such things cannot be described by human words. Men looked up to the stars, observed their relations to one another and said to themselves: if we can frame adequate expressions for what the stars reveal, that is the most fitting way to indicate the nature of the mysterious processes operating in a man during a particular Initiation.

No matter what name was used in the various civilisations, it was always the great Ahura Mazdao to whom men looked up: they looked up to that Divine Being and to his hierarchy in the Sun. Christ is the supreme Spirit of the Sun Beings. There are twelve different ways in which Initiation into the sacred Mysteries of the Sun can take place and to explain this in human words is hardly possible. But if we think of the Sun standing in one of the constellations and sending its rays through that constellation to the Earth, and if we consider how it is related to other stars, we have a kind of script which expresses the fact that a particular man is initiated into the Sun-Mysteries in a way that makes him an Aquarius Initiate.

Take, for instance, the seven holy Rishis. The symbol of their Initiation into the Sun-Mysteries is the picture of the Sun in Taurus. When the Sun stands in the sign of Taurus the spectacle presented in the firmament reveals the mystery of the particular Initiation of the Rishis. This Initiation took effect through the seven personalities who were the seven holy Rishis. This is also expressed in the fact that the Pleiades, a cluster of seven stars, shine from the same region of the heavens. That is moreover the region where the whole solar system entered into the Universe to which we belong. So in order to specify the various forms of Initiation into the Sun-Mysteries we can use expressions indicating the Sun's position in a particular constellation.

John the Baptist had necessarily to receive an Aquarius Initiation, the expression indicating that the Sun was standing in the constellation of Aquarius. Try to understand it in this way: On the day or light side of the Zodiac lie Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, then Libra. The constellations on the night or dark side of the Zodiac are Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. Since the last two lie on the night side, the Sun's rays coming from them must not only traverse physical space but they must send the spiritual light of the Sun, which passes through the Earth, through spiritual space. Aquarius Initiates received this name because they were able to confer the water-baptism, that is to say, to enable men, while immersed in water, to be sustained by the power of the spiritual Sun.

It is the facts of the spiritual life here on Earth from which the names of the zodiacal constellations are derived, by transference to the heavens. Our so-called learned men, however, explain such things by saying that the names of the constellations in the heavens were given to certain personalities on Earth. The truth is just the opposite! Nowadays it is said that John the Baptist was called the ‘Water-man’ because that name had been derived from the constellation and applied to him. But that is really putting the cart before the horse. You will have heard of a certain savant's ironical attempt to establish that Napoleon was not an historical figure. The argument was that the name ‘Napoleon’ is easily derived from ‘Apollo’, the prefix N indicating comparative rank — therefore a kind of super-Apollo. Napoleon had six brothers and sisters and the star Apollo is included among the seven Pleiades. Napoleon's twelve Marshals are said to be the twelve signs of the Zodiac and Apollo's mother, Leto, becomes Napoleon's mother, Letitia ... and so on, in the same strain!

If we trace the course of the Sun in the heavens we find that as the physical Sun sets the spiritual Sun begins to rise. In its day or summer course the Sun progresses from Taurus to Aries, and so on; in its night or winter course it will reveal to us the secrets of the Initiation of Aquarius or Pisces. Physically, the Sun's course is from Virgo to Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, Aries; spiritually its course is from Virgo to Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn and Aquarius to Pisces. The spiritual counterpart of the course of the physical Sun is its passage from Aquarius to Pisces.

Consequently John could say: He must increase but I must decrease. My mission is one of which you will have a picture when the Sun passes from the sign of Aquarius to that of Pisces. I am an Aquarius Initiate and I am not worthy to give you the secrets of the Sun in Pisces. I am not worthy to unloose the shoe-latchet of the One I am to proclaim to you.

In these words John speaks of himself unambiguously as an Aquarius Initiate. Pictures in old calendars indicate the meaning of his words when he says: ‘The latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose’. In old pictures of the zodiacal constellations the Waterman is shown kneeling. His whole posture indicates the reverence he must feel for the Sun as it passes him by and rising in Pisces reveals what is to come. This is the picture of John the Baptist: the Sun passes on and he cannot detain it; he can only proclaim in advance what is to be.

The prophet Isaiah knew that when the Sun progressed to Pisces a new dispensation was to come. This progression signifies the advent of men or beings connected with the Pisces Initiation. That is why the sign for Christ Jesus in the earliest Christian times was the fish or two fishes still to be seen in the catacombs of Rome. Why did Jesus say to His disciples: ‘I will make you fishers of men’? John the Baptist prepared for the Pisces Initiation which the Nazarene had to undergo if the Christ was to descend into him. The events in Palestine, the most important in the whole process of world-evolution, are inscribed in wonderful signs in the Zodiac. What came to pass step by step in Palestine is explained in its depths not through any human script but through a heavenly script which must be consulted for any real understanding of a process so exalted that it is directly related to the Macrocosm. What the physical eye saw moving about Palestine in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth — was that all? If you remember the indications I have given, it was maya, illusion. Actually the whole spiritual power, the central spiritual power, of the Sun was present in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth moving about Palestine; the figure that appeared physically as Jesus of Nazareth was maya.

Everything Christ Jesus did was connected with macrocosmic events. Think of how often in St. Mark's Gospel it is said that Christ performed His acts of healing after the Sun had set or before it had risen. Thus we are told: In the evening, when the Sun had set, they brought to Him all manner of sick and possessed. (i, 32). Why were the sick and possessed brought to Him at just that time? Because the Sun had set and its forces were no longer working physically in Jesus, but spiritually; what He was to do was not connected with the physical forces of the Sun. The physical Sun had set, but the spiritual Sun-forces worked through His heart and body. And when He wanted to unfold His greatest and most powerful forces He had necessarily to exert them at a time when the physical Sun was not visible in the heavens. So also when we read: ‘Before the Sun had risen’ — the words have a definite meaning. Every word in St. Mark's Gospel indicates great cosmic connections between processes in the universe and every step taken and every deed performed by Christ in the body of Jesus of Nazareth here on Earth. If you were to draw a map of the paths He trod and the deeds He performed and were then to study the corresponding processes in the heavens, the picture would be the same: processes in the heavens would seem to have been projected down to the Earth.

Whence did a man like Kepler derive the principles of his astronomy? In his life as Kepler he did not find the powers which enabled him to epitomise the fundamentals of astronomy in his three great laws. These three laws describe in words the movement of the planets around their fixed star. Kepler was able to discover them only because his enthusiasm caused certain memories to arise in him. In a previous incarnation he had been a pupil of the old Egyptian Mysteries. In him, and in many others too, those experiences rose up again as dim intuitions. Such men had in their life of soul much that was an expression of the harmony of the spheres. Kepler studied the wonderful constellations to be seen in the heavens during his life. He observed the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Moon and through it sought to explain the star by which the Three Wise Men from the East were guided. Abstractions as appalling as the Kant-Laplace theory had not been devised in Kepler's day.

The Gospel of St. Mark gives expression to the wonderful harmony between the great Cosmos and what was to come to pass once on our Earth through the deeds of Christ Jesus and the Mystery of Golgotha. We cannot understand this Gospel unless we can decipher the writing of the stars and that requires insight into the secrets of the language of the heavens. When the Gospel says that the Sun had set, this does not indicate merely that the Sun was no longer shining but also that the spiritual Beings of the Sun-Hierarchy had moved into a world of stronger spiritual powers because they must now work through the Earth, through the physical substance of the Earth. All this was felt by men when they were told of what came to pass through Christ Jesus after the Sun had set. A whole world of meaning lay in the words.

I hope that these few indications will help us to penetrate more deeply into the secrets of the Gospels. Particularly through the study of St. Mark's Gospel the human soul can rise to an understanding of wonderful mysteries of cosmic happenings. Every word in that Gospel is of great significance.

Answers to Questions

What is the meaning of the temptation of Jesus by Satan? Are Satan and Lucifer identical? How can the highest of all Beings be tempted by one of a lower order?

Satan is Ahriman. In the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Lucifer is meant; in the Gospel of St. Mark, Ahriman. An impressive description is given in that Gospel of how hideous animal forms make their appearance when a man enters the spiritual world in the usual way. There are people who believe that entrance to the spiritual world can be achieved by adopting some special diet and other material practices of a similar kind. But everything they then see, particularly when it takes the form of sublime figures of light, is only a reflection of their own self, an Ahrimanic deception. Both Lucifer and Ahriman are tempters; and Christ in human form showed how man must resist them when he begins to find his way into the spiritual world.

Shall we see in higher worlds those who belong to us?

Spiritual seeing is very different from physical seeing. In the spiritual sense we shall certainly see again those who belong to us. The fact that Mary Magdalene did not immediately recognise Jesus is an indication that the Risen Christ cannot be recognised by everyone; certain powers must first have been developed. These powers began to function in Mary Magdalene only when Christ spoke her name. Much of what Spiritual Science teaches is regarded as heretical, although the Gospels confirm it. The Risen Christ could be recognised only by clairvoyant sight.

Are not the contents of the Babylonian Tables and the Ten Commandments practically identical?

People who speak about similarities in such a case are not aware of the essentials. This is very evident in the case of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible does not say: ‘yours is the kingdom of heaven’, but: ‘you will find the kingdom of heaven within yourselves’. The Ten Commandments too are fundamentally different from anything previously in existence. Hebraism and Christianity added the impulse of the ‘I AM’ to what was already contained in earlier religions. When such things are studied in depth they are extraordinarily enlightening.

How is the doctrine of reincarnation to be reconciled with the Bible?

It is not yet possible to understand the Bible fully. Each epoch has translated it in the way that suited itself. The Bible has nothing to fear from the doctrine of reincarnation. It used to be thought that every discovery of a new scientific truth constituted a danger to the Bible.

What is the relation between Christ and Lucifer?

It is not easy to explain this briefly. We have often spoken of how man has passed from incarnation to incarnation and how the Luciferic power took root in very early times in the astral body and Ahriman later on in the etheric body. With the coming of Christ all this acquired a new meaning. We are only at the beginning of Christian evolution. If the Gospels are understood they make it clear that Christ was obliged to deal with Lucifer and Ahriman. But there are very few who realise to-day that the stories of the Temptation differ in the Gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke. Occultists know that there is not only a Luciferic temptation by way of man's desires, but also an Ahrimanic temptation — when a man carries his own passions out into the Macrocosm and sees all manner of animal figures and forms. The Gospel of St. Matthew describes a Luciferic temptation: in the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus is ‘with the wild beasts’ of human nature. In all occult writings Lucifer is pictured as a serpent, Ahriman as a hound.

These stories of the Temptation point to deep mysteries. Just as the advent of the Luciferic and Ahrimanic powers was a necessity in order that man might become a free, independent being, so he must tear himself away from them again through the power of Christ in his soul. The spheres of Lucifer and Ahriman will gradually be reversed. Men will take the Christ Impulse into themselves, confronting Ahriman in the outside world. Up to now, and at present, the opposite has been the case. Such things can be studied in The Portal of Initiation. You should pay attention to the vowel sounds. These things are in accordance with an inner necessity. The verses in the first part change in the second into their opposite. This is intentional.

Question not recorded.

It is true that Jesus did not write anything. There is actually a theologian who discusses whether He could write at all! — In four hundred years people will call what is said nowadays about Copernicus and Galileo a modern form of mythology. Theosophists of all people should not talk about ‘Ptolemaic childishness’.

A question about the authenticity of the writings of Dionysius.

It is usual nowadays to regard the actual writer as more important than the spiritual originator and inspirer. (Rudolf Steiner here referred to his own experience in connection with Goethe's prose-hymn, Nature, the authorship of which had been disputed by some philologists.) Dionysius, the disciple of the Apostle Paul, actually wrote nothing down because in those days to have done so would have seemed unimportant. But his successors, who, as was customary in those times, were also called Dionysius, presented a faithful account of his teachings as handed down by tradition. These were the writings of the so-called pseudo-Dionysius.

To ‘believe in good faith’ is not enough; everyone should convince himself of the truth. People to-day have no conception of what is possible and what is impossible. Things become tragic in this respect when, for instance, the Bible is ruthlessly analysed by scholars. Erudition and nonsense often go hand in hand!

Can Christ Jesus appear to men on Earth?

In the way in which He appeared to St. Paul, this is possible. When this happens it is a kind of Initiation which can sometimes take place without previous training. From the middle of the twentieth century onwards many people will have this experience.