Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
II. The Christmas Festival as a Symbol of the Sun Victory
14 December 1905, Berlin
Just think how few people today are able to awaken in their souls a clearly pertinent understanding of all the preparations now being made everywhere for Christmas. Clear ideas about this festival are scarce, and most of them correspond only in small degree with the intentions of those who in the past established the great festivals as symbols of the Infinite and Imperishable in the world. The preparations being made for Christmas that are published in our newspapers convince us of this. There is hardly anything more hopeless and alien to a true understanding of Christmas than the material being published today.
Now let us summarize in our souls the whole range of spiritual science that has been offered in various lectures this autumn. Let us not make it the pedantic summary of a schoolmaster, however, but one that will arise in our hearts when, from the standpoint of spiritual science, we connect it with a Christmas festival imbued with a spiritual-scientific concept of life that is not gray theory or an outer confession and philosophy, but life itself pulsing through us. Modern man, more than he thinks, confronts nature as a stranger — certainly more so now than in the time of Goethe. Who today can still experience the great depths of the words spoken by Goethe at the beginning of the Weimar period of his life? At that time he addressed a hymn or prayer to nature with its mysterious forces:
“Nature! By her we are encompassed and enfolded, unable to withdraw from her, nor yet to penetrate her deeper. Unbid and unforewarned, into the gyrations of her dance she lifts us, whirling and swirling us onward, until exhausted from her arms we fall.
“Unceasingly she generates new forms; what exists was never here before, what was does not return — all is new yet always the old.
“We live in the midst of her and are strangers to her. She speaks with us unceasingly and does not divulge her secret to us. We affect her constantly and yet have no power over her.
“She seems to aim in everything toward individuality, and does not trouble about individuals. Now she builds and now destroys, and her workshop is inaccessible.
“She lives in countless children, and the mother, where is she? She is the only artist: from the simplest substance to the greatest contrasts, without seeming exertion to the greatest perfection, the most exact acuteness, always clothed with gentleness. Each of her works has its own being, each of her phenomena the most isolated concept, and yet all is one. She acts a show: whether she sees it herself we do not know, and yet she plays for us who are standing in the corner.
“An eternal living, growing and moving is in her, and yet she does not advance. She is forever changing and in her, nothing for a moment still. She has not concept of rest and has attached her curse to stagnation. She is firm. Her tread is measured, rare her exceptions, her laws immutable ...”
We are all children of nature and when we believe we are not acting in the least according to its laws, we are acting perhaps all the more in accordance with the great law flowing through it and streaming into us. Who can feel deeply today these other significant words of Goethe in which he tries to express how man can penetrate with his feelings into the hidden forces common to himself and nature? Here Goethe addresses nature not as a lifeless being, as modern materialistic thought would have it, but as a living spirit:
Spirit sublime, thou gav'st me all, gav'st me all
For which I prayed. Thou has not turned in vain
Thy countenance to me in fire and flame.
Thou gav'st me glorious nature as a royal realm,
The power to feel and to enjoy her.
Not Amazed, cold visits only thou allow'st;
Thou grantest me to look in her deep breast
Even as in the bosom of a friend.
Thou leadest past a series of the living
Before me, teaching me to know my brothers
In silent covert and in air and water.
And when the storm roars screeching through the forest,
When giant fir-tree plunges, sweeping down
And crushing neighboring branches, neighboring trunks,
And at its fall the hills, dull, hollow, thunder:
Then leadest thou me to the cavern safe,
Show'st me myself, and my own heart becomes
Aware of deep mysterious miracles. 1From Goethe's Faust, translated and edited by George Madison Priest; copyright by, and reprinted here with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Here is expressed the mood through which Goethe, out of his feeling for nature, endeavored to enliven what flowed out of feeling allied with knowledge. This is the mood of a time when wisdom was in league with nature and there were created those signs of feeling united with nature and the universe, which we in spiritual science recognize in the great festivals. Now they have become abstractions, and the soul and heart meet them almost with indifference. In many instances today, the word, which we can dispute or swear by, means more than what it originally represented. What has become an external, literal word was really intended to be the representative, the herald, the symbol of the great creative Word that lives in nature and the whole universe and that can again arise in us if we truly know ourselves. The intention, when the great festivals were established on the occasions provided throughout the course of nature, was to make men conscious of this Word. Let us use the knowledge acquired in the course of our spiritual-scientific lectures to understand what the ancient sages expressed in the Christmas festival.
The festival held at Christmas time is not only a Christian event. It has existed wherever religious feeling was expressed. If you direct your gaze back thousands of years before our era to ancient Egypt, Asia or other regions, you find a festival being celebrated at the same time of year that Christianity recognizes the birth of Christ.
What was the nature of this primeval festival that was celebrated all over the earth at this time of year? In answering this question, we shall restrict our considerations today to those marvelous fire festivals that were celebrated in ancient times in regions of Europe, Scandinavia, Scotland, and in England by the ancient Celtic priests, the Druids.
What was the nature of their celebration? They celebrated the end of the winter season and the approach of spring. Though, to be sure, winter deepens as we move toward Christmas, nevertheless, a victory proclaims itself in nature at this time that is the symbol of hope, confidence and trust for man. In this way the victory of the sun over the counter forces of nature was expressed in most languages. Today we have felt how the days have grown shorter, which is an expression of the withering and falling asleep of the forces of nature, and this will continue until the day we celebrate as Christmas, a day that was also celebrated by our ancestors. From this day on, the days begin to grow longer. The light of the sun celebrates its victory over darkness. Materialistic thought does not reflect much on this event, but for those endowed with vital feeling and knowledge, it was the living expression for a spiritual experience of the Godhead that guides our lives. As an important and decisive event is experienced in the individual personal life of a man, so the winter solstice was experienced as a decisive event in the life of a higher being — as the memorial of something uniquely sublime. We are thus led to the fundamental concept of the Christmas festival as a cosmic festival, a festival of the first order for humanity.
In those ages in which genuine esotericism was alive and active like the very life blood of people — a fact that is denied by the materialistic world view of today — one observed an event taking place in nature at Christmas time that was considered a monument, a memorial of a great event that once had taken place on earth. During those days the priests collected the faithful ones, the teachers of the people, around them at the midnight hour and endeavored to divulge a great secret. What they said to them was somewhat as follows. I am not relating something here that has been discovered and thought out by abstract science, but what has lived in the Mysteries, in the secret shrines, in those earlier times.
Today, so said the priests, we see the victory of the sun over darkness ushered in. This also once took place on earth in a larger sense when the sun celebrated its great victory over darkness. Up to that time, everything physical, all bodily life on earth had only reached the level of development of the animals. The highest kingdom on earth at that time, prepared itself for the reception of the immortal human soul. Then, in this primeval age, the great moment in the evolution of mankind arrived when the immortal soul descended from divine heights. The surging life had developed to the point where the human body was able to receive the imperishable soul. This human ancestor was at a higher stage than that imagined by materialistic naturalists, but even so the spiritual, immortal part did not live in him yet. The human soul descended to earth from a higher planet, and the earth was now to become its field of action, its dwelling place.
We call these human ancestors the Lemurians. They were followed by the Atlanteans, who preceded the present-day Aryans. The human bodies of the Lemurians were fructified by the higher human soul — a great moment in the evolution of man that spiritual science calls “the descent of the Divine Sons of the Spirit.” Ever since Lemurian times the human soul has worked in and formed the human body for its higher development. I can only give an indication of what I am now going to say, but I have spoken in detail about these things in other lectures. Those who are here for the first time should take this into consideration and not take what I say as mere fantasy.
At the time when the human body was first fructified by the imperishable soul, the situation was quite different from the way materialistic natural science conceives of it today. An event took place in the universe that belongs to the most important in the evolution of man. Gradually, the constellation of earth, moon and sun arose that made the descent of the souls possible. It was in that period that the sun gained its significance for the growth and prospering of man on earth, and also for his fellow creatures, the plants and animals. To grasp this connection of sun, moon and earth with earth-man in the right way, one must make spiritually clear to himself the whole development of man and earth. There was a time — so ancient wisdom taught — when the earth was united with the sun and moon, forming one body. At that time, the earth beings of today had different shapes and appearances that conformed with the consolidated cosmic body of sun, moon and earth. Every living thing on earth received its being through the fact that first the sun, and then the moon separated from the earth and formed an external relationship to it. The mystery of the union of the human spirit with the universal spirit is connected with this development. In spiritual science the universal spirit is called the Logos. It embraces the sun, moon and earth, and in it we live, weave and have our being.
Just as the earth was born from the body that also comprised the sun and moon, so is man born from a spirit or soul to which the sun, earth and moon belong. When man looks up to the sun or the moon, what he sees should not be limited only to these external physical bodies, but he should perceive them as the external bodies of spiritual beings. Modern materialism can no longer accomplish this. Yet, one who is unable to see the sun and moon as bodies of spirits, will be unable to recognize the human body as that of a spirit. As truly as the human body is the bearer of a spirit, so the celestial bodies are likewise bearers of spiritual beings. Man belongs to these spiritual beings. His body is separated from the forces that rule in sun and moon but his physical nature nevertheless harbors forces that are active in them. The same spirituality is active in his soul, however, that governs the sun and moon. By becoming an earth being, man became dependent upon the sun's activity as a separate body shining upon the earth.
Our ancestors felt themselves to be spiritual children of the whole universe and understood that we have become human beings through what the sun spirit had called forth as our spirit. For us, the victory of the sun over darkness signifies a memory of the victory for our soul when for the first time the sun shone down upon the earth as it does today. It was a sun victory when the immortal soul descended into the physical body and immersed itself in the darkness of instincts, desires and passions.
Let us visualize the life of the spirit. For early man, darkness, which followed upon a previous sun period, preceded the victory of the sun. But the human soul, which sprang from the Divinity, had to dip down into unconsciousness for a time in order to form there the lower nature of man. It was the human soul that gradually built up the lower nature of man so that later it could come to dwell in it. If you imagine an architect using the best forces in himself to build a dwelling into which he subsequently moves, you will have an adequate likeness of the entrance of the immortal human soul into the physical body. At that early time, however, the soul could work only unconsciously on its dwelling place, and it is this that is expressed in the picture of darkness. The lighting up of consciousness in the human soul is expressed, of course, in the picture of the sun victory.
For those who had a living feeling for the connection of man with the universe, the sun victory signified the moment in which they received what was of the greatest importance for their earth existence. It was this great moment that was commemorated in the festival celebrating this event at the winter solstice.
In all earlier times, man's course through his earth development was seen to resemble increasingly the regular rhythmical course of nature. When we look up from the soul of man to the course of the sun in the universe and all that is related to it, we experience the great rhythm and harmony existing there as contrasted with the chaos and disharmony of our own natures. How rhythmical is the path of the sun; how regular is the return of the phenomena of nature in the course of the year and day!
I have frequently mentioned the rhythmical nature of the development of the lower beings. Just imagine the sun leaving its orbit for a fraction of a second and the unbelievable, indescribable disorder that would result. Our universe is only made possible through the great, tremendous harmony of the sun's orbit. With this harmony are connected the rhythmical life processes of all the beings dependent upon the sun. Picture to yourself how the sun calls forth the beings of nature in spring. It is not possible to think the violet might bloom at a different time from the one we are accustomed to. Imagine seeds to be broadcast or harvests to be gathered at times different from the usual ones. Right up to animal life we see how everything is dependent upon the rhythmical course of the sun. Even in man everything is rhythmical, regular and harmonious insofar as it is not subject to human passions, instincts and the human intellect.
Observe the pulse or the processes of digestion and admire the great rhythm and infinite wisdom of nature flowing through them. Then compare them with the irregularity and chaos holding sway in human passions, instincts, desires and particularly in the human intellect. Visualize the regularity of the pulse and breath and contrast it with the irregularity of thinking, feeling and willing. They are will-o'-the-wisps in comparison. Imagine the wisdom with which the life forces are organized, or how the rhythmic system must struggle against rhythmless chaos. Just think how much human passion and the desire for enjoyment trespass against the rhythms of the body! I have often mentioned how marvelous it is for the person who, through an anatomical study of the heart, learns to know the beautiful construction of this organ. Such a person must then come to realize how miraculous it is that the heart still continues its harmoniously rhythmical pulsation in spite of the abuse that can be heaped upon it through the use of tea and coffee. But, like our ancestors, who were filled with admiration for nature with its soul, the sun, in rhythmical orbit, we, too, can acquire feelings for all of nature, permeated as it is by rhythm and wisdom.
In looking up to the sun, the sages and their followers said, “You are the image of what the soul born in me will become.” The divine world order revealed itself in its great glory to these wise men. This is also expressed in the Christian view when it says there shall be glory in divine heights. “Glory” means “revelation.” “Today God reveals Himself in the Heavens.” This is what “Glory to God in the Highest” means. It is the expression of the glory permeating the world. This world harmony was presented as the great ideal for those who, in earlier times, were to be leaders of mankind. In all times and wherever a consciousness of these things was alive, it was the Sun Hero who was spoken of.
There were seven degrees of initiation in the ancient Mystery Temples. I shall cite them for you with their Persian names. In the first degree, man went beyond everyday feeling and attained to a higher soul experience and cognition of the spirit. Such a man was designated a “Raven.” The Ravens were those who communicated to the initiates in the temples what happened in the outside world. This was the case in the medieval saga of the Emperor Barbarossa who, surrounded by the earth's treasures of wisdom, awaits inside the earth the great moment when mankind is to be rejuvenated by a newly deepened Christianity. Here also the Ravens are the messengers. Even the Old Testament speaks of the Ravens of Elijah.
Those initiated into the second degree were called the “Occult Ones,” those of the third, the “Warriors,” and those of the fourth, the “Lions.” The initiates of the fifth degree were called by the name of their people — Persian or Indian, for example — because only these initiates were true representatives of their peoples. The initiate of the sixth degree was called a “Sun Hero,” that of the seventh, bore the name “Father.”
Why was the initiate of the sixth degree called a Sun Hero? Such a one, who had climbed the ladder of spiritual knowledge to that stage, had so far developed his inner life that the pattern of its course followed the divine rhythm of the universe. His feeling and thinking no longer contained anything chaotic, unrhythmical or disharmonious, and his inner soul harmony was in accord with the external harmony of the sun. This level of development was demanded of the initiates of the sixth degree, and as a result, they were looked up to as holy men, as examples and ideals. Just as it would be a great disaster for the universe if the sun were to leave its path for only a quarter of a minute, similarly, it would have been just as great a disaster if it had been possible for a Sun Hero to stray only for a moment from his path of high morality, soul rhythm and spirit harmony. He who had found as sure a path in his spirit as the sun outside in the universe, was called a Sun Hero, and they were to be found among all peoples.
Our scientists know little about these things. To be sure, they see that sun myths are crystallized around the lives of all the great founders of religions. But they do not know that in the initiation ceremonies the leaders were raised to Sun Heroes, and it is not at all remarkable when materialistic research rediscovers these customs of the ancients. Sun myths connected with Buddha and even with Christ have been searched out and found. Here you have the reason why they could be found in these myths. They had been put into them in the first place because they represented a direct imprint of the sun rhythm and were the great examples that should be followed.
The soul of such a Sun Hero who had attained this inner harmony was no longer considered to be a single individual human soul, but one that had brought to birth in itself the universal soul streaming through the whole cosmos. This universal soul was called “Chrestos” in ancient Greece, and the sublime sages of the Orient knew it by the name, “Buddhi.” When one has ceased to feel himself to be only the bearer of his individual soul and comes to experience the universe within himself, then he has created an image in himself of what as Sun Soul was united with the human body at that time. Then he has achieved something of tremendous significance for the evolution of mankind.
When we consider such a human being with his soul ennobled in this way, we can visualize the future of the human race and the whole relationship of this future to the idea, the percept of humanity in general. Today, disputing and quarrelling, people decide things by majority vote. As long as such majority resolutions are deemed to be the ideal, one has not yet grasped real truth. Where does real truth live in us? Truth lives in us when we endeavor to think logically. It would be nonsense to decide by majority vote that two times two equals four, or that three times four equals twelve. Once man has recognized what is true, millions of others may dissent but he will remain certain within himself.
In scientific thinking we have advanced as far as the use of logic, that is, thinking untouched by passions, drives and instincts. Wherever these come into play, they bring about chaos and cause men to quarrel and fight in wild confusion. When, however, in the future, these passions, drives and instincts will have been purified and become what is called Buddhi or Chrestos, when they will have reached the level of development at which logical, passionless thinking stands today, then the ideal of mankind, which radiates from the wisdom of ancient religions, from Christianity, and from the anthroposophical science of the spirit, will have been reached. When our feelings will have become so purified that they sound harmoniously together with what others feel, when for our feelings and sensations the same stage will have been achieved on earth as that of our intellects, when Buddhi and the Chrestos will have been incorporated into the human race, then the ideal of the ancient teachers of wisdom, of Christianity and of anthroposophy will have been fulfilled. Then it will not be necessary to determine by vote what is good, noble and right any more than one needs to decide by vote what is logically correct or logically false. Everyone can place this ideal before his soul and in so doing he raises the ideal of the Sun Hero, of all initiates of the sixth degree.
This was felt by the German mystics of the Middle Ages when they spoke the important word for “becoming Godlike,” “becoming one with the Divine” (Vergottung). What does this word signify? It means that those beings, whom we consider today to be the spirits of the universe, also passed through the stage of chaos upon which mankind stands today. The leading spirits of the universe have struggled up to the divine stage where their living utterances resound harmoniously through the All. What appears to us in the harmonious annual orbit of the sun, in the growth of plants, the life of animals was, in past ages, chaotic and a struggle had to be made to arrive at its present sublime harmony. Man stands today at a stage of development at which these spirits once stood. But he will develop out of chaos into a future harmony patterned after the present sun and the presiding universal harmony.
To allow these ideas to sink into our souls, not as theory or doctrine but as living sensation, yields the anthroposophical Christmas mood. Let us feel vividly that the glory and the revelation of divine harmony appears in the heights of heaven. Let us realize that the revelation of this harmony will resound from our own souls in the future. Then we will feel the peace of those who are of good will that will come about in mankind through this harmony. When from this great perspective we look into the divine world order, into the revelation and its glory in heavenly heights, when we look out upon the future of mankind, we may have now, today, a presentiment of the harmony that will reign in human beings on earth in the future. The more we let the harmony in the outer world sink into us, the more will there be peace and unity on earth.
If, during the time of Christmas, we feel and experience the orbit of the sun in nature in the right way, the great ideal of peace will be presented to our souls as a feeling of nature of the highest order. If we feel during these days the victory of the sunlight over darkness, we will gain from it the great confidence that unites our own developing souls with this cosmic harmony, and it will not flow in vain into our beings. Then something will flow and live in us that will be harmonious, and the seed of peace upon earth will sink into our souls. Those men are of good will who feel this peace, a peace that will prevail when the higher stage of harmony, which today has been attained only by the intellect, is reached by the feelings and heart. Strife and disharmony will have been replaced by the all-pervading love of which Goethe speaks in the Hymn to Nature I have quoted, when he says that a few draughts from the chalice of love are compensation for a life of trouble.
In all religions this Christmas festival has been a festival of confidence, trust and hope because they have felt that during these days the light must be victorious. This seed, placed in the earth, will sprout forth and prosper in the light of the newly arising year. A seed of a plant, when buried in the earth, will burgeon forth into the light of the sun. In the same way, divine truth, the divine and truthful soul, is sunk in the depth of the life of passions and instincts. There, in darkness, the divine Sun Soul will ripen. A seed in the earth sprouts as a result of the victory of light over darkness, and likewise, through the continuous victory of light over the darkness of the soul, the soul will become filled with light. In darkness there can only be strife; in light, only peace. Through true comprehension, world harmony, world peace will prevail. This is the deep and true word also of Christianity during these Christmas days: Glory, revelation of the divine powers in the heights of heaven, and peace to men who are of good will!
Out of this great cosmic feeling, the Christian Church resolved in the fourth century to establish the festival of the birth of the World Savior at the same time of year that all great religions had celebrated the victory of light over darkness. Before the fourth century, the time of the Christian festival, the festival of the birth of Christ, varied. It was not until the fourth century that it was resolved that the Savior of the Christians be born on the day on which the victory of light over darkness had always been celebrated.
Today we cannot deal with the wisdom of the teaching of Christianity itself. This will be the subject of a lecture next year. But one thing shall and must be said today. Nothing could have happened with more justification than the establishment of the birthday of Christ at that time of year. For that Divine Individuality, the Christ, is the guarantor for the Christian that his divine soul will be victorious over all that is darkness. Thus, Christianity is in harmony with all great world religions, and when the Christmas bells ring, we can remind ourselves that this festival was celebrated during these days throughout the world in the past. It was celebrated wherever on earth there was comprehension of the true progress of the human soul, wherever a knowledge prevailed of the significance of spirit and spiritual life, wherever self-knowledge was practiced.
We have not spoken of an abstract feeling for nature today. We have, rather, spoken of a feeling for nature in all its living spirituality. When we have connected our considerations with the Goethean words, “Nature! We are encompassed and enfolded! ...” we may be clear about the fact that we do not interpret nature in the materialistic sense. We see in it the external expression and physiognomy of the divine cosmic spirit. Just as the body is born out of the corporeal, the soul and spirit out of the divine soul and divine spirit, and just as the body united itself with merely material forces, so the soul unites itself with the spirit.
The great festivals stand as symbols leading us to use our feeling and thinking in order to bring about an experience of the union with the universe, not in an indefinite way but in a most decided fashion. If this is felt again, the festivals become something different from what they are today. They will become implanted in soul and heart in a living way, and they will become what they are intended to be for us, that is, focal points in the year that join us to the spirit of the universe. If, as the year proceeds, we have fulfilled our duties and tasks for everyday life, we can look to these focal points to what unites us with the eternal. Although we have had a hard struggle in the course of the year, during these festival days the feeling arises in us that beyond all struggle and chaos, peace and harmony exist. Therefore, these festivals are celebrations of the great ideals. The Christmas festival is the festival of the greatest ideal of humanity, and humanity must make it its own if it wishes to reach its destination. The Christmas festival, rightly understood, is the festival of the birth of mankind's highest feelings and will impulses.
The anthroposophical science of the spirit intends to contribute to this understanding. We do not wish to send a dogma a mere doctrine or philosophy into the world, but life itself. It is our ideal to have all that we say and teach, all that is contained in our writings and science, pass over into life itself. This will happen if men practice spiritual science in everyday relationships, if from the pulpits spiritual-scientific life resounds in the words that are spoken to the listeners, without special emphasis being put on the term, spiritual science. If in all courts of justice the deeds are judged with spiritual-scientific sensitivity, if the medical doctor feels and heals with spiritual-scientific insight, if in the schools the teachers develop spiritual science concerning the growing child, if on all the streets spiritual-scientific thoughts, feelings and actions prevail to the point of making spiritual-scientific teaching superfluous, then our ideal will have been achieved. Then the science of the spirit will have become an everyday affair. Moreover, spiritual science will then also be alive in the focal points of the great festivals throughout the year, and man will join his everyday life to the spirit through anthroposophical thinking, feeling and willing. Then the eternal, imperishable Spirit Sun will shine into his soul at the great festivals of the year, reminding him that in him there lives truth, a higher self, a divine, sun-like, light-filled Being. This Being will ever and again be victorious over all darkness and chaos, and will achieve soul peace and balance in the face of all disharmony, struggle and war in the world.