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Ascension and Pentecost
May 9 & 19, 2024

With the blossoming of spring, we celebrate Ascension Day and Pentecost. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on the 40th day of Easter.1The risen Christ appeared to many people for 40 days after the resurrection and prior to His ascension. See Acts 1:3 This Holy Day commemorates the ascension of the Christ as witnessed by His Disciples.

Pentecost, also known as Whitsunday or Whitsun (“White Sunday”), has its roots in the Greek word pentecoste which means "50th day." It is celebrated on the seventh Sunday (50 days) after Easter, ten days after the Ascension. Pentecost commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples.

On May 7, 1923 in a lecture entitled The Mystery of Pentecost and the Ascension, Rudolf Steiner discussed these two pivotal events in a pictoral way.

First, Steiner recalls the familiar picture of the Ascension and points to the apparent contradiction of His rising in the clouds yet anchoring man to the earth by joining earth’s own etheric realm.

This picture is usually accepted so that the Christ is seen traveling heavenwards, having forsaken the earth, and the Disciples are left, as it were, to themselves; earthly humanity for whom the Christ passed through the Mystery of Golgotha is therefore left to itself after His journey heavenwards. It might easily be thought that in a certain sense this contradicts the reality of the Mystery of Golgotha. We know indeed that through this Mystery the Christ decided actually to unite His Being with the being of the earth, and from that point of time onwards to remain in permanent connection with earthly evolution.

Second, Steiner has us visualize a traditional Pentecost picture and the illumination of the Disciples.

[W]hen the Disciples were gathered together, fiery tongues came down upon the head of each of them so that they felt moved, as the popular expression has it, to speak in different tongues. What this really means, however, is that from now on it was possible for each human heart — whatever the faith to which it might have previously adhered—to realise the Mystery of Golgotha.

With these images in mind, he proceeds to provide context for the two events. At a high level, one can view them as going hand-in-hand to enable the raising of the lower aspects of the human being to the higher spiritual realms.

  • The Ascension, on the one hand, represents the Disciples’ realization that the Christ rescued the human physical body from destruction. They saw how the Christ descended to earth and continued to reside in earth’s etheric realm thereby preventing man’s etheric body from separating from the physical to rise up to the Sun and heavens to meet Christ there.
  • Pentecost, on the other hand, represents the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples. Such personal receipt of the Holy Spirit through our free will is a necessary requirement for the evolution of each individual’s soul and spirit, a requirement for the ultimate fulfillment of human destiny.

Humanity was at risk of being unable to incarnate.

Since the middle of the Atlantean epoch, the earth and humanity have been in a process of declining evolution.

When the age drew near in which the Mystery of Golgotha took place, the evolution of the human physical body had reached such a state of decline that the men incorporated at that time or who were about to be incorporated shortly afterward, and until about the fourth century, were confronted with the danger of having the earth become barren and empty and of finding it impossible in the future to descend from spiritual worlds or to form bodies for themselves out of physical earthly substances. This danger existed, and men would have actually been obliged to fail in their earthly destiny.

The co-operation of Lucifer and Ahriman had brought things to such a pass at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha that man would have died out on the earth, but by what was accomplished through this great Mystery he was saved from the forces of destruction. The invigorating forces of which the physical body had need were imparted to it once more, so that man was enabled to continue his further evolution on earth, to come down from the realms of the soul and spirit and again enter into and dwell in physical bodies. This was the result, the entirely real result, of the Mystery of Golgotha.

In the vision of the Ascension, the Disciples witnessed the Christ saving the human physical and etheric bodies from destruction.

The Disciples in their advanced clairvoyant state saw the danger of man’s etheric body striving upward toward the heavens. They saw in the Ascension the Christ joining the earth's etheric realm and now holding men firmly to the earth.

[T]he sun was the dwelling place of the Christ up to the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. The ether body of man in that it strives towards the sun strives therefore towards the Christ. Now, call up before you the picture of the Ascension: Before the eyes of the Disciples the Christ rises heavenwards. This means that before the eyes of the Disciples' souls was conjured forth the vision of how the etheric nature of mankind in its upward striving unites itself with the power, with the Impulse of Christ. Therefore, the Disciples saw how at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha man was faced with the danger of seeing his ether body attracted cloud-wards — towards the sun, but also how the Christ held that which then strove heavenwards, together. This picture has to be understood aright. It is really a warning. The Christ was already united with the earth, but He belongs to those forces in man which actually strive towards the sun, which desire for ever to leave the earth. It is the Christ Who holds men firmly to the earth.

The Christ introduced a cosmic event into earth evolution for the sake of humanity.

The Christ came down from spiritual heights, and in the man Jesus of Nazareth united Himself with humanity; He passed through the Mystery of Golgotha, and has associated His evolution with the evolution of the earth. It was a deed which was done for the whole of humanity. Try to grasp this fact correctly: — The Mystery of Golgotha was accomplished for humanity. Clairvoyant vision must ever behold how the etheric forces of humanity that constantly seek to separate from the earth are united with the Christ; and how the Christ is able to hold them back for earthly evolution. This is of great importance to humanity.

While the Ascension was for the whole of humanity, Pentecost is for the individual.

In the Ascension, the Christ saved the physical and etheric part of man.

[T]he Disciples having become clairvoyant see the sunward tendency of the ether bodies of men. The Christ unites Himself with this tendency and restrains it. What this mighty picture represents is this — the saving of the physical and etheric part of man by the Christ. Pentecost signifies the soul lifting itself up to spiritual powers of understanding, an individual initiative.

No materialistic powers of understanding, no materialistic science can comprehend this Mystery. The soul must lift itself up to spiritual powers of understanding, to spiritual powers of vision and of feeling, before it can understand how the Christ Impulse united itself on Golgotha with the impulses of the earth. That this might come to pass, the Christ accomplished His Deed on Golgotha; and He completed it so that just ten days after the Ascension He sent to men the power whereby they were enabled to permeate their inner soul and spirit-nature, that is, their ego and astral body, with the Christ-Impulse.

The picture of Pentecost signifies this: The permeation of the soul and spirit of man with power by which he can understand the Mystery of Golgotha. The sending of the Holy Spirit.

Through the Holy Spirit and individual spiritual striving, we can evolve the astral body and ego.

While Christ died and ascended for the physical and etheric bodies of humanity in general, we each individually must receive the Holy Spirit to continue to evolve our soul and spirit.

The Christ accomplished His Deed for the whole of humanity. To individuals who are able to understand this Deed — to the individual human being, He has sent the Spirit, so that the individual soul and spirit can find access to that which was done for all humanity. By means of the Spirit man must inwardly — soulfully and spiritually — unite himself with the Mystery of Golgotha. Two pictures thus succeed each other in the story of human evolution. That of the Ascension tells us: The deed of Golgotha was consummated for the physical and etheric bodies of men generally. The individual must make it fruitful for himself by receiving into him the Holy Spirit. The Christ Impulse thus becomes individual for each one.

The whole of human evolution takes place within cycles of sleep and wakefulness.

For those souls who are properly prepared, the Christ-force works upon them during the state of sleep. Otherwise, the Christ-connection gained through the Ascension is lost.

Through [the Mystery of Golgotha] it became possible for man to receive an impulse when in the state of sleep which otherwise he could not have received. The whole of human evolution takes place within the conditions of sleeping and waking. In sleep the physical body and etheric body remain behind; from the moment of falling asleep until awaking the astral body and ego are independent of them. During this state of independence in sleep the active penetration by the Christ-force occurs in those men who, because of the soul-content they have acquired, are fittingly prepared for the state of sleep. […]

It is in the state of sleep that penetration by the Christ-force mainly occurs. The Mystery of Golgotha would have taken place for the waking condition of man even if he had not accepted the knowledge of this Mystery; but it would not have taken place for his sleeping condition. The consequence of this would have been as follows: Men would certainly have continued to incarnate on earth, but sleep would have been such that their soul and spirit nature would necessarily have lost all connection with the Christ unless they had acquired knowledge of the Mystery of Golgotha.

During the dreaminess of spring, Spirit can work in us like sunshine on flowers.

Steiner closes with a beautiful analogy of the Sun influencing spring flowers to the Ascension and Pentecost.

When the festival of Whitsuntide, which before all others is a festival of flowers, is felt aright, people go forth wherever flowers are springing, where they are opening under the influence of the sun — under the influence of the etheric-astral sun forces — and in the flower-decked earth men are aware that they have a reflection of that which they see condensed in the picture of the Ascension of Christ and in the tongues of fire that appeared above the heads of the Disciples. The opening heart of man may here be seen symbolised in the flowers which open to the sun, and that which comes down from the sun and gives to the flowers the necessary fruit-bearing power, we may see symbolised in the tongues of fire which poured forth their power on the Disciples.

An alternate translation of this lecture can be found in The Festivals and Their Meaning: Ascension and Pentecost, Lecture I. For highlights of a different lecture Steiner gave on this topic, we offer this previously published article on the Ascension and Pentecost . Additional lectures for the season can be accessed through the Festivals Topic on the sidebar of our website.

We wish you a blessed Ascension Day and Witsuntide!

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