Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Whitsun: A symbol of the immortality of the ego, and of the need to overcome materialism
An excerpt from a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner June 6, 1916:
To turn our minds to thoughts connected with the Whitsun festival seems to me less appropriate during these grave days than would have been the case in earlier years. For mankind is passing through fateful ordeals and at such times it is not really fitting to call up feelings of inner warmth and exhilaration. If our feelings are right and true we can never for a single moment forget the suffering that is now so universal, and in a certain sense it is actually selfish to wish to forget it in order to give ourselves up to thoughts that warm and uplift the soul. It will therefore be more fitting today to speak of certain matters bearing on the needs of the age, for our recent studies have shown very clearly that many of the reasons for the sufferings of the present time lie in the prevailing attitude to the spiritual, and that it is vitally urgent to work for the development of the human soul in order that mankind may go forward to better days. Nevertheless I want at least to start with thoughts which will bring home to us the meaning of a festival such as Whitsun.
There are three festivals of main importance in the course of the year: Christmas, Easter, Whitsun. Everyone who has not become indifferent, as is the case with the majority of our contemporaries, to the significance of such festivals in the evolution of the world and of humanity will at once perceive the contrasts between these three festivals, for the difference in the kind of experiences associated with each is expressed in their outer symbolism. Christmas is a festival connected above all with the joys of childhood, a festival in which a part is usually, if not always, played by the Christmas Tree brought into the house from snow-clad nature outside. Our thought also turns to the Christmas Plays so often performed among us and which for centuries have brought uplift to the simplest human hearts at this season by reminding them of the great and unique event in Earth evolution when Jesus of Nazareth, or, to be quite exact, Jesus who came from Nazareth, was born in Bethlehem. The festival of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is a festival connected with a world of feeling engendered by the Gospel of St. Luke, by those parts of the Gospel which make the most general appeal to simple hearts and are the easiest to understand. It is therefore a festival of universal humanity, intelligible, to a certain extent at least, even to the child, and to persons who have preserved a childlike quality of heart and mind. Yet it brings to such childlike hearts something great and mighty which then becomes part of their consciousness.
The Easter festival, although it is celebrated during the season when nature is waking to life, leads our minds to the portal of death. By contrast with the tenderness and universal appeal of the Christmas festival, the festival of Easter contains something infinitely sublime. If human souls are able to celebrate the Easter festival truly, they cannot fail to be aware of its transcendent majesty. It brings the sublime conception of the Divine Being who descended into a human body and passed through death. The whole riddle of death and the preservation in death itself of the eternal life of the soul — this is the great vista presented by the Easter festival.
These times of festival can be experienced in their depths only when we recall many things made real to us by Spiritual Science. Think only of how closely connected with all the festivals celebrated in the world in commemoration of the births of saviors are the thoughts arising from the Christmas festival. We are reminded, for example, of the Mithras festival celebrating the birth of Mithras in a cave. All these things are evidence of an intimate connection with nature. That Christmas is a festival linked with nature is symbolized in the Christmas Tree, and the birth, too, leads our minds to the workings and powers of nature. But because the birth of which Spiritual Science has so many things to say is that of Jesus of Nazareth, it is a birth fraught with infinite significance. And remembering that the Spirit of the Earth wakens in winter, is most active during the season when outer nature appears to lie sleeping in a mantle of ice and snow, we can feel that the Christmas festival leads us into elemental nature herself, and that the lighting of the Christmas candles is a symbol of how the Spirit is awakening in the wintry darkness of nature.
If we would relate the Christmas festival to the life and being of man, we can do so by remembering that man is also connected with nature when he has separated from her spiritually, as he does in sleep, when in his ego and astral body he has gone into the spiritual world. His etheric body remains bound, supersensibly, to the physical body, and represents the part of man's being which belongs to elemental nature, to that elemental nature which wakens to life within the Earth when the Earth is shrouded in the ice of winter. It is far more than an analogy, indeed it is a profound truth, to say that in addition to everything else the Christmas festival is a token that man has in his being an etheric, elemental principle, an etheric body through which he is linked with elemental nature.
If you think, now, of all that has been said in the course of many years about the gradual darkening and decline of man's forces, you will realize how closely all the forces in the human astral body are connected with the death-bringing processes. The fact that we have to develop the astral body during our life, and that in the astral body we have to receive the spiritual, means that, in doing so, we bring the seeds of death into our being. It is quite incorrect to believe that death is connected with life in an external sense only, for the connection is most inward and fundamental. Our life is as it is only because we are able to die in the way we do. But this is bound up with the whole development of man's astral body. Again it is more than an analogy when we say: The Easter festival is a symbol for everything that has to do with the astral nature of man, with that principle of his being which, whenever he sleeps, leaves the physical body together with him and enters the spiritual world whence descended that Divine-Spiritual Being Who in Jesus of Nazareth actually passed through death. If one were speaking in an age more alive to the spiritual than is our own, what I have just said would be recognized as reality, whereas in our days it is taken merely as symbolism. It would then be realized that the purpose of instituting the Christmas and Easter festivals was to provide man with tokens of remembrance that he is connected with spiritual nature, with that nature that brings death to the physical, and to provide him with tokens reminding him that in his etheric body and astral body he is himself a bearer of the spiritual. In our days these things have been forgotten. They will come to light again when humanity has the will to acquire understanding of spiritual truths such as these.
But now, besides the etheric body and the astral body, we bear within us as that which is supremely spiritual, our Ego. We know something of the complex nature of the Ego. We know especially that it is the Ego which passes from incarnation to incarnation, that the inner forces of the Ego build themselves up and shape themselves to that form which we carry forward into our being in each new incarnation. In the Ego we rise again from death to prepare for a new incarnation. It is by virtue of the Ego that we are individuals. If we can say that the etheric body represents in a certain sense that which is akin to birth and is connected with the elemental forces of nature, that the astral body symbolizes the death-bringing principle that is connected with the higher spirituality, so we can say that the Ego represents our continual rising again in the spirit, our resurrection into the spiritual realm which is neither nature nor the world of stars, but pervades them all. And just as the Christmas festival can be connected with the etheric body and the Easter festival with the astral body, so the Whitsun festival can be connected with the Ego. This is the festival which, representing the immortality of the Ego, is a token of the fact that we, as men, do not share only in the universal life of nature, do not merely undergo death, but that we are individual immortal beings, rising ever and again from death.
And how beautifully this comes to expression when the Christmas thought, the Easter thought, and the Whitsun thought are carried further! The Christmas festival is directly connected with earthly happenings, with the winter solstice, the time when the Earth is shrouded in deepest darkness. In celebrating the Christmas festival we follow as it were the law by which Earth existence itself is governed; when the nights are longest and the days shortest, when the Earth is frost-bound, we withdraw into ourselves and seek for the spiritual that is now alive within the Earth. The Christmas festival is linked with the Spirit of the Earth; it reminds us ever and again that we belong to the Earth, that the Spirit had perforce to come down from cosmic heights and take earthly form in order to be a child of Earth among the children of Earth.
The Easter festival has a different setting. You know well that Easter is determined by the relation of the Sun to the Moon on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, the first full moon after March. The Easter festival, therefore, is fixed according to the relative position of the Sun to the Moon. In a wonderful way, then, the Christmas festival is linked with the Earth, and the Easter festival with the cosmos. At Christmas we are reminded of what is most holy in the Earth, at Easter of what is most holy in the heavens. But the thought underlying the Christian festival of Whitsun is associated in a most beautiful way with what is even above the stars — the universal, spiritual, cosmic fire which individualizes and in the fiery tongues descends upon the Apostles. It is the fire that is neither heavenly alone nor earthly alone; it is the all-pervading fire which individualizes and passes into each single human being. In very truth the Whitsun festival is linked with the whole universe. Just as the Christmas festival is connected with the Earth and the Easter festival with the stars, so is the Whitsun festival directly connected with man, with individual man, inasmuch as he receives the spark of spiritual life out of the whole universe. What is bestowed upon mankind in general through the descent to the Earth of the Being who was both God and Man is made ready for every individual human being in the fiery tongues of Pentecost. These fiery tongues represent what lives alike in man, in the stars, and in the world.
And so for those who are seeking for the spiritual, this festival of Whitsun has a meaning and content of special profundity, calling ever and again for perpetual renewal of the spiritual quest.
In our days it is necessary that these thoughts of the festival should be taken in a deeper sense than at other times. For how we shall emerge from the grievous events of this age will depend very largely upon how deeply men are able to experience these thoughts. That souls will themselves have to work their way out of the present catastrophic conditions is already beginning to be realized here and there. And those who have come to Spiritual Science should feel with even greater intensity the need of the age for new strength to be infused into the spiritual life, the need to surmount materialism. This victory over materialism will only be possible if men have the will to kindle the spiritual world into living activity within them, to celebrate the Whitsun festival inwardly and with true earnestness.