The Festivals and Their Meaning I:
II. Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival
17 December 1906, Berlin
THE Festival of Christmas which we shall soon be celebrating acquires new life when a deeper, more spiritual conception of the world is brought to bear upon it. In a spiritual sense the Christmas Festival is a Festival of the Sun, and as such we shall think of it to-day. To begin with, let us listen to the beautiful apostrophe to the sun which Goethe puts into the mouth of Faust: —
Life's pulses newly-quickened now awaken,
Softly to greet the ethereal twilight leaping;
Thou Earth through this night too hast stood unshaken,
And at my feet fresh breathest from thy sleeping.
Thou girdest me about with gladness, priming
My soul to stern resolve and strenuous keeping,
Onward to strive, to highest life still climbing. —
Unfolded lies the world in twilight-shimmer;
With thousand throated song the woods are chiming;
The dales, where through the mist-wreaths wind, lie dimmer,
Yet heavenly radiance plumbs the deeps unnumbered,
And bough and twig, new-quickened, bud and glimmer
Forth from the fragrant depths where sunk they slumbered,
Whilst hue on hue against the gloom still heightens,
Where bloom and blade with quivering pearls are cumbered.
A very Paradise about me lightens!
Look up! — The giant peaks that rise supernal
Herald the solemn hour; for them first brightens
The early radiance of the light eternal,
Upon us valley-dwellers later showered.
Now are the green-sunk, Alpine meadows vernal
With radiance new and new distinctness dowered,
And stepwise downward hath the splendour thriven.
He sallies forth, and I mine overpowered
And aching eyes to turn away am driven.
Thus when a yearning hope, from fear and wonder
Up to the highest wish in trust hath striven,
The portals of fulfilment yawn asunder.
Then bursts from yonder depths whose days ne'er dwindle
Excess of flame — we stand as smit with thunder.
The torch of life it was we sought to kindle,
A sea of fire-and what a fire! — hath penned us.
Is't Love? Is't Hate? that yonder glowing spindle
In bliss and bale alternating tremendous
About us twines, till we the dazed beholders
To veil our gaze in Earth's fresh mantle wend us.
Nay then, the sun shall bide behind my shoulders!
The cataract, that through the gorge doth thunder,
I'll watch with growing rapture, 'mid the boulders
From plunge to plunge down-rolling, rent asunder
In thousand thousand streams, aloft that shower
Foam upon hissing foam, the depths from under.
Yet blossoms from this storm a radiant flower;
The painted rainbow bends its changeful being,
Now lost in air, now limned with clearest power,
Shedding this fragrant coolness round us fleeing.
Its rays an image of man's efforts render;
Think, and more clearly wilt thou grasp it, seeing
Life in the many-hued, reflected splendour.
(Translation by Latham)
Goethe lets these words be spoken by Faust, the representative of humanity, as he gazes at the radiant morning sun. But the Festival of which we are now to speak has to do with a Sun belonging to a far deeper realm of being than the sun which rises anew every morning. And it is this deeper Sun that will be the guiding moth in our thoughts to-day.
And now we will listen to words in which the deepest import of the Christmas Mystery is mirrored. In all ages these words resounded in the ears of those who were pupils of the Mysteries — before they were allowed to participate in the Mysteries themselves: —
Die Sonne schaue
Um mitternächtige Stunde.
Mit Steinen baue
Im lebenlose Grunde.
So finde im Niedergang
Und in des Todes Nacht
Der Schöpfung neuen Anfang,
Des Morgens junge Macht.
Die Höhen lass offenbaren
Der Götter ewiges Wort,
Die Tiefen sollen bewahren
Den friedensvollen Hort.
Im Dunkel lebend
Erschaffe eine Sonne.
Im Stoffe webend
Behold the Sun
At tire midnight hour;
Build with stones in the lifeless ground,
Thus in decay and in the night of Death
Find the Creation's new beginning,
Young morning's strength;
Glory in the heights the eternal Word of Gods;
Shelter in the depths the Powers of Peace.
In darkness dwelling, create a Sun.
In matter weaving, know the joy of Spirit!
Many to whom the Christmas Tree with its candles is a familiar sight to-day, believe that it is a very ancient institution — but this is not the case. The Christmas Tree is a very recent European custom, dating no further back than about a hundred years or so. Although, however, the Christmas Tree is a recent custom, the Christmas Festival is very ancient. It was celebrated in the earliest Mysteries of all religions, not as a festival of the outer sun but as one which awakens in men an inkling of the very wellsprings of existence. It was celebrated every year by the highest Initiates in the Mysteries, at the time of the year when the sun sends least power to the earth, bestows least warmth. But it was also celebrated by those who might not yet participate in the whole festival, who might witness only the outer, pictorial expression of the highest Mysteries. This imagery has been preserved through the ages, varying in form according to the several creeds.
The Christmas Festival is the Festival of the Holy Night, celebrated in the Mysteries by those who were ready for the awakening of the higher Self within them, or, as we should say in our time, those who have brought the Christ to birth within them.
Only those who have no inkling of the fact that as well as the chemical and physical forces, spiritual forces are also at work and that the workings of both kinds of forces take effect at definite times and seasons in cosmic life, can imagine that the moment of the awakening of the higher Self in man is of no importance. In the Greater Mysteries man beheld the forces working through all existence; he saw the world around him filled with spirit, with spiritual Beings; he beheld the world of spirit around him, radiant with light and colour. There can be no more sublime experience than this and in due time it will come to everyone. Although for some it may be only after many incarnations, nevertheless the moment will come for all men when Christ will be resurrected within them and new vision, new hearing will awaken. In preparation for the awakening, the pupils in the Mysteries were first taught of the cosmic significance of this awakening and only then was the sacred Act itself performed. It took place at the time when darkness on the earth is greatest, when the external sun gives out least light and warmth — at Christmas time — because those who are cognisant of the spiritual facts know that at this time of the year, forces that are favourable for such an awakening stream through cosmic space. During his preparation the pupil was told that one who would be a true knower must have knowledge not only of what has been happening on the earth for thousands and thousands of years but must also be able to survey the whole course of the evolution of humanity, realising that the great festivals have their own, essential place within that evolution and must be dedicated to contemplation of the eternal truths. The pupil's gaze was directed to the time when our earth was not as it is now, when there was no sun, no moon out yonder in the heavens, but both were still united with the earth, when earth, sun and moon formed one body. Even then man was already in existence, but he had no body; he was still a spiritual being. No sunlight fell from outside upon these spiritual beings, for the sunlight was within the earth itself. This was not the sunlight that shines from outside upon objects and beings to-day, but it was inner sunlight that glowed within all beings of the earth. Then came the time when the sun separated from the earth, when its light shone down upon the earth from the universe outside. The sun had withdrawn from the earth and inner darkness came upon man. This was the beginning of his evolution towards that future when the inner light will again be radiant within him. Man must learn to know the things of the earth with his outer senses; he evolves to the stage where the higher Man, Spirit-Man, again glows and shines within him. From light, through darkness, to light — such is the path of the evolution of mankind.
The pupils of the Mysteries were prepared by these constantly inculcated teachings. Then they were led to the actual awakening. This was the moment when, as chosen ones, they experienced the spiritual Light within them; their eyes of spirit were opened. This sacred moment came when the outer light was weakest, when the outer sun was shining with least strength. On that day the pupils were called together and the inner Light revealed itself to them. To those who were not yet ready to participate in this sacred enactment, it was presented as a picture which made them realise: For you too the great moment will come; to-day you see a picture only; later on, what you now see as a picture will be an actual experience. Thus it was in the lesser Mysteries. Pictures were presented of what the candidate for initiation was subsequently to experience as reality. To-day we shall hear of the enactments in the lesser Mysteries. Everywhere it was the same: in the Egyptian Mysteries, in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in the Mysteries of Asia Minor, of Babylon and Chaldea, as well as in the Mithras-cult and in the Indian Mysteries of Brahman. Everywhere the same experiences were undergone by the pupils of these Mysteries at the midnight hour of the Holy Night.
Early on the previous evening the pupils gathered together. In quiet contemplation they were to be made aware of the meaning and import of this momentous happening. Silently and in darkness they sat together. When the midnight hour drew near they had been for long hours in the darkened chamber, steeped in the contemplation of eternal truths. Then, towards midnight, mysterious tones, now louder, now gentler, resounded through the space around them. Hearing these tones, the pupils knew: This is the Music of the Spheres. Then a faint light began to glimmer from an illumined disc. Those who gazed at it knew that this disc represented the earth. The illumined disc became darker and darker — until finally it was quite black. At the same time the surrounding space grew brighter. Again the pupils knew: the black disc represents the earth; the sun, which otherwise radiates light to the earth, is hidden; the earth can see the sun no longer. Then, ring upon ring, rainbow colours appeared around the earth-disc and those who saw it knew: This is the radiant Iris. At midnight, in the place of the black earth-disc, a violet-reddish orb gradually became visible, on which a word was inscribed, varying according to the peoples whose members were permitted to experience this Mystery. With us, the word would be Christos. Those who gazed at it knew: It is the sun which appears at the midnight hour, when the world around lies at rest in deep darkness. The pupils were now told that they had experienced what was known in the Mysteries as "seeing the sun at midnight."
He who is truly initiated experiences the sun at midnight, for in him the material is obliterated: the sun of the Spirit alone lives within him, dispelling with its light the darkness of matter. The most holy of all moments in the evolution of man is that in which he experiences the truth that he lives in eternal light, freed from the darkness. In the Mysteries, this moment was represented pictorially, year by year, at the midnight hour of the Holy Night. The picture imaged forth the truth that as well as the physical sun there is a Spiritual Sun which, like the physical sun, must be born out of the darkness. In order that the pupils might realise this even more intensely, after they had experienced the rising of the spiritual Sun, of the Christos, they were taken into a cave in which there seemed to be nothing but stone, nothing but dead, lifeless matter. But springing out of the stones they saw ears of corn as tokens of life, indicating symbolically that out of apparent death, life arises, that life is born from the dead stone. Then it was said to them: Just as from this day onwards the power of the sun awakens anew after it seemed to have died, so does new life forever spring from the dying.
The same truth is indicated in the Gospel of St. John in the words: "He must increase, but I must decrease!" John, the herald of the coming Christ, of the spiritual Light, he whose festival day in the course of the year falls at midsummer — this John must ‘decrease’ and in this decreasing there grows the power of the coming spiritual Light, increasing in strength in the measure in which John ‘decreases.’ Thus is the new life, prepared in the seed-grain which must wither and decay in order that the new plant may come into being. The pupils of the Mysteries were to realise that within death, life is resting, that out of the decaying and the dying the new flowers and fruits of spring arise in splendour, that the earth teems with the powers of birth. They were to learn that at this point of time something is happening in the innermost being of the earth: the overcoming of death by life, by the life that is present in death. This was portrayed to them in the picture of the Light gradually conquering the darkness; this is what they experienced as they saw the Light beginning to shine in the darkness. In the rocky cave they beheld the Light that rays forth in strength and glory from what is seemingly dead. Thus were the pupils led on to believe in the power of life, in what may be called man's highest Ideal. Thus did they learn to look upwards to this supreme Ideal of humanity, to the time when the earth shall have completed its evolution, when the Light will shine forth in all mankind. The physical earth itself will then fall into dust, but the spiritual essence will remain with all human beings who have been made inwardly radiant by the spiritual Light. And the earth and humanity will then waken into a higher existence, into a new phase of existence.
When Christianity came into being it bore this Ideal within it. Man felt that the Christos would arise in him as the representative of the spiritual re-birth, as the great Ideal of all humanity and moreover that the birth takes place in the Holy Night, at the time when the darkness is greatest, as a sign and token that out of the darkness of matter a higher Man can be born in the human soul.
Before men spoke of the Christos, they spoke in the ancient Mysteries of a ‘Sun Hero’ who embodied the same Ideal which, in Christianity, was embodied in the Christos. Just as the sun completes its orbit in the course of the year, as its warmth seems to withdraw from the earth and then again streams forth, as in its seeming death it holds life and pours it forth anew, so it was with the Sun Hero, who through the power of his spiritual life had gained the victory over death, night and darkness. In the Mysteries there were seven degrees of Initiation. First, the degree of the Ravens who might approach only as far as the portal of the temple of Initiation. They were the channels between the outer world of material life and the inner world of the spiritual life; they did not belong entirely to the material world but neither, as yet, to the spiritual world. We find these ‘Ravens’ again and again; everywhere they are the messengers who pass hither and thither between the two worlds, bringing tidings. We find them too, in our German sagas and myths: the Ravens of Wotan, the Ravens who fly around the Kyffhäuser. At the second degree the disciple was led from the portal into the interior of the temple. There he was made ready for the third degree, the degree of the Warrior who went out to make known before the world the occult truths imparted to him in the temple. The fourth degree, that of the Lion, was reached by one whose consciousness was no longer confined within the bounds of individuality, but extended over a whole tribal stock. For this reason Christ was called "the Lion of the stem of David." To the fifth degree belonged a man whose still wider consciousness embraced a whole people. He was an Initiate of the fifth degree. He no longer bore a name of his own but was called by the name of his people. Thus men spoke of the ‘Persian,’ of the ‘Israelite.’ We understand now why Nathaniel was called a ‘true Israelite’; it was because he had reached the fifth degree of Initiation. The sixth degree was that of the Sun Hero. We must understand the meaning of this appellation. Then we shall realise what awe and reverence surged through the soul of a pupil of the Mysteries who knew of the existence of a Sun Hero. He was able in the Holy Night to participate in the festival of the birth of a Sun Hero.
Everything in the cosmos takes its rhythmic course: the stars, as well as the sun, follow a regular rhythm. Were the sun to abandon this rhythm even for a moment, an upheaval of untold magnitude would take place in the universe. Rhythm holds sway in the whole of nature, up to the level of man. Then, and only then is there a change. The rhythm which through the course of the year holds sway in the forces of growth, of propagation and so forth, ceases when we come to man. For man is to have his roots in freedom; and the more highly civilised he is, the more does this rhythm decline. As the light disappears at Christmas-time, so has rhythm apparently departed from the life of man: chaos prevails. But man must give birth again to rhythm out of his innermost being, his own initiative. By the exercise of his own will he must so order his life that it flows in rhythm, immutable and sure; his life must take its course with the regularity of the sun. Just as a change of the sun's orbit is inconceivable, it is equally inconceivable that the rhythm of such a life can be broken. The Sun Hero was regarded as the embodiment of this inalterable rhythm; through the power of the higher Man within him, he was able to direct the rhythm of the course of his own life. And this Sun Hero, this higher Man, was born in the Holy Night. In this sense, Christ Jesus is a Sun Hero and was conceived as such in the first centuries of Christendom. Hence the festival of His birth was instituted at the time of the year when, since ancient days, the festival of the birth of the Sun Hero had been celebrated. Hence, too, all that was associated with the history of the life of Christ Jesus; the Mass at midnight celebrated by the early Christians in the depths of caves was in remembrance of the festival of the sun. In this Mass an ocean of light streamed forth at midnight out of the darkness as a remembrance of the rising of the spiritual Sun in the Mysteries. Hence the birth of Christ in the cave — again a remembrance of the cave of rock out of which life was born — life symbolised by the ears of corn. As earthly life was born out of the dead stone, so out of the depths was born the Highest — Christ Jesus. Associated with the festival of His nativity was the legend of the three Priest-Sages, the Three Kings. They bring to the Child: gold, the symbol of the outer, wisdom-filled man; myrrh, the symbol of the victory of life over death; and frankincense the symbol of the cosmic ether in which the Spirit lives.
And so in the whole content of the Christmas Festival we feel something echoing from primeval ages. It has come over to us in the imagery belonging to Christianity. The symbols of Christianity are reflections of the most ancient symbols used by man. The lighted Christmas Tree is one of them. For us it is a symbol of the Tree of Paradise, representing all-embracing material nature. Spiritual Nature is represented by the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.
There is a legend which gives expression to the true meaning of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. Seth stands before the Gate of Paradise, craving entry. The Cherubim guarding the entrance with a fiery sword, allow him to pass. This is a sign of Initiation. In Paradise, Seth finds the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge firmly intertwined. The Archangel Michael who stands in the presence of God, allows him to take three grains of seed from this intertwined Tree. The Tree stands there as a prophetic indication of the future of mankind. When the whole of mankind has attained Initiation and found knowledge, then only the Tree of Life will remain, there will be no more death. But in the meantime only he who is an Initiate may take from this Tree the three grains of seed -the three seeds which symbolise the three higher members of man's being. When Adam died, Seth placed these three grains of seed in his mouth and out of them grew a flaming bush. From the wood cut from this bush, new sprouts, new leaves burst ever and again. But within the flaming ring around the bush there was written: "I am He who was, who is, who is to be" — in other words, that which passes through all incarnations, the power of ever-evolving man who descends out of the light into the darkness and out of the darkness ascends into the light.
The staff with which Moses performed his miracles is cut from the wood of the bush; the door of Solomon's Temple is made of it; the wood is carried to the waters of the pool of Bethesda and from it the pool receives the healing properties of which we are told. And from this same wood the Cross of Christ Jesus is made, the wood of the Cross which is a symbol of life that passes into death and yet has within it the power to bring forth new life. The great symbol of worlds stands before us here: Life the conqueror of Death. The wood of this Cross has grown out of the three grains of seed of the Tree of Paradise.
The Rose Cross is also a symbol of the death of the lower nature and the resurrection of the higher. Goethe expressed the same thought in the words:
"As long as thou best it not,
This Dying and Becoming,
Thou'rt but a dreary guest
Upon the dark earth."
The Tree of Paradise and the wood of the Cross are connected in a most wonderful way. Even though the Cross is always an Easter symbol, it deepens our conception of the Christmas Mystery too. We feel how in this night of Christ's Nativity, new, upwelling life streams towards us, This thought is indicated in the fresh roses adorning this Tree; they say to us: the Tree of the Holy Night has not yet become the wood of the Cross but the power to become that wood is beginning to arise in it. The Roses, growing out of the green, are a symbol of the Eternal which springs from the Temporal.
The square is the symbol of the fourfold nature of man; physical body, ether-body, astral body and ego.
The triangle is the symbol for Spirit-Self, Life-Spirit, Spirit-Man.
Above the triangle is the symbol for Tarok. Those who were initiated into the Egyptian Mysteries knew how to interpret this sign. They knew too, how to read the Book of Thoth, consisting of 78 leaves on which were inscribed all happenings in the world from the beginning to the end, from Alpha to Omega and which could be read if the signs were rightly put together. These pictures gave expression to the life that dies and then springs again to new life. Whoever could combine the right numbers with the right pictures, were able to read the Book. This wisdom of numbers and of pictures had been taught from time immemorial. In the Middle Ages it was still in the fore ground although little of it survives to-day.
Above this symbol is the Tao — the sign that is a reminder of the conception of the Divine held by our early forefathers; it comes from the word: TAO. Before Europe, Asia and Africa were scenes of human civilisation, these early forefathers of ours lived on the continent of Atlantis which was finally submerged by mighty floods. In the Germanic sagas of Nifelheim or Nebelheim, the memory of Atlantis still lives. For Atlantis was not surrounded by pure air. Vast cloud-masses moved over the land, like those to be seen to-day clustering around the peaks of high mountains. The sun and moon did not shine clearly in the heavens — they were surrounded by rainbows — by the sacred Iris. At that time man understood the language of nature. To-day he no longer understands what speaks to him in the rippling of waves, in the noise of winds, in the rustling of leaves, in the rolling of thunder — but in old Atlantis he understood it. He felt it all as a reality. And within these voices of clouds and waters and leaves and winds a sound rang forth: TAO — That am I. The man of Atlantis heard and understood it, feeling that Tao pervaded the whole universe.
Finally, the cosmic symbol of Man is the pentagram, hanging at the top of the tree. Of the deepest meaning of the pentagram we may not now speak. But it is the star of humanity, of evolving humanity; it is the star that all wise men follow, as did the Priest-Sages of old. It symbolises the very essence and meaning of earth-existence. It comes to birth in the Holy Night because the greatest Light shines forth from the deepest Darkness. Man is living on towards a state where the Light is to be born in him, where words full of significance will be replaced by others equally significant, where it will no longer be said: ‘The Darkness comprehendeth not the Light,’ but when the truth will ring out from cosmic space: The Darkness gives way before the Light that shines in the Star of Humanity — and now the Darkness comprehendeth the Light!
This should resound and the spiritual Light ray forth from the Christmas Festival. We will celebrate this Christmas Festival as the Festival of the supreme Ideal of mankind, for then it will bring to birth in our souls the joyful confidence: I too shall experience the birth of the higher Man within me! In me too the birth of the Saviour, the birth of the Christos will take place!
Positions of the symbols on the Christmas Tree