Rudolf Steiner, Basel, Switzerland, December 26, 1921:
The Festival of the Holy Night has for centuries been a great festival of remembrance in the whole of Christendom. And when we think of it as such we must be mindful of all that has been associated with this festival in the feelings and hearts of men. It must be remembered that the festival of the 25th of December did not become an institution in Christianity until the fourth century A.D. It was in the fourth century, for the first time actually in the year 354, in Rome, that the Festival of the Birth of Jesus was placed as it were before the Christian world as a great and memorable contribution to the times. It was out of the very deepest instincts of Christian evolution that such a contribution to the times was made in the fourth century of our era.
The peoples from the North were swarming down towards the South of Europe. Many pagan customs were still widespread in the southern regions of Europe, in Roman districts and in Greece; pagan customs were also rife in North Africa, in Asia Minor — in short, wherever Christian thought and Christian feeling were gradually beginning to spread. But by its very nature Christianity was not intended to be a sectarian teaching, destined for this or that circle of human beings. However many factors, both internal and external, have mitigated against its original purpose, Christianity was, as a matter of course, intended to nourish the souls and hearts of all men upon the earth.
In the religious consciousness of antiquity, Divine Powers were associated with the stars, and the mightiest Power of all with the sun. This consciousness was still alive in the pagan peoples both of the North and South of Europe, and within this pagan mind there lived the thought that the time when the earth has her darkest days, at the winter solstice, is also the time when the victorious power of the sun, working in all earthly fertility, begins again to unfold.
The feeling that at this season the earth is resting in her own being, shut off from the Divine Powers of the cosmos and living in loneliness within the universe, was superseded at the time of the winter solstice by the feeling of hope that once again the rays of light and love from the realm of the sun come to awaken the earth to fruitfulness. And a realisation of the nature of man's own soul-being was intimately associated with this other feeling.
In the life of the ancient pagan religions, man felt himself inwardly part of the earth, a limb or member of the earth. It was as though the very life of the earth were continued into his own body. And so in the days of summer when the earth receives the strongest forces of warmth and light from the heavenly sphere of the sun, man felt that his own being too was given over to that world whence the radiant, warmth-giving rays of the sun shine down upon the earth. During the time of midsummer he felt as if his whole being were given up to the wide cosmic spaces. At the time of the winter solstice man felt himself in intimate connection with the earth and with all the forces preserved in the earth from the warmth and radiance of the summer. Together with the earth he felt himself living in loneliness within the cosmos. And the return of the forces of the Divine-Spiritual cosmos to the earth at this time of the winter solstice was a deep and real experience in him.
And so into the thought of the Christmas Festival man laid all that his life of feeling, his life of soul and spirit brought home to him so intimately in connection with the universality of the cosmic Powers. This intimate experience at the festival of the winter solstice was closely connected with the Christian impulse and it was therefore quite natural that those who came into contact with Christianity should share in its most precious experience, namely, an experience connected with this festival of the winter solstice.
In line with the change that had taken place between the age described in the Old Testament and the age described in the New Testament, the most cherished experience of Christianity lay in the remembrance of the birth of Jesus. The peoples of the Old Testament expressed the great mystery of human life and death by saying: When the soul passes through the gate of death it enters upon the path which will unite it again with the Fathers. And what does this imply? It implies that in those times there was a longing to return to the Fathers, and this indeed was a cherished and intimate experience — an experience bound up with the conceptions expressed in the Old Testament.
In the course of the first four centuries of Christendom this longing for communion with the Fathers was replaced by something else. The souls of men were directed towards the birth of the Being Who is the centre around which Christendom coheres. The feeling that lived in the peoples of the Old Testament changed into a feeling connected with the events at Nazareth or Bethlehem, with the birth of the child Jesus.
And so, when it established the Christmas Festival in the fourth century, Christianity brought its contribution towards the union of men all over the earth. A cherished and intimate experience was bound up with the Christmas Festival. And if we think of the way in which this Christmas Festival was celebrated through the centuries, we find evidence everywhere that at the time of the approach of Christmas, the souls of men within Christianity were filled with loving devotion for the Jesus Child. And this loving devotion is the revelation of something of outstanding significance through the centuries which followed.
We must really have an inner understanding of what it signified when the Christmas Festival was instituted on the 25th of December, that is to say, more or less at the time of the winter solstice. For actually as late as the year A.D. 353, in Rome itself, this festival was not celebrated on the 25th of December, neither was it a commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The festival was celebrated on the 6th of January as a commemoration of the Baptism in the Jordan. It was a festival of remembrance associated with the Christ Being. And this festival of remembrance included the thought that through the Baptism in Jordan, the Christ, Who was a Being belonging to a world beyond the earth, had come down from the heavens and united himself with human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
It was the celebration of a birth that was not an ordinary birth. The festival was a celebration of the descent of the Christ Being, whereby new and quickening forces poured into earthly existence. The day was dedicated to the revelation of the Christ, to remembrance of the Mystery that a heavenly force had united with the earth, and that through this intervention of the heavens the evolution of humanity had received a new impulse. This Mystery of the descent of a heavenly Being into earthly existence was still understood in the age of the Event of Golgotha itself, and for some time afterwards. For at that time fragments were still present of an ancient wisdom that had been capable of understanding a truth only to be known in super-sensible experience. The old instinctive knowledge, the ancient wisdom which was poured into human beings born on earth as a gift of the Gods — this wisdom was gradually lost. It faded away little by little as the centuries went by. But at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, enough wisdom was still left to give man some insight into the mighty Event that had come to pass.
And so in the early centuries of Christendom the Mystery of Golgotha was understood by the light of wisdom. But by the time of the fourth century after Christ, this wisdom had almost completely disappeared. Men's minds were occupied with what was being brought to them on all sides by the pagan peoples, and understanding of the deep mystery connected with the union of the Christ with the man Jesus was no longer possible. The possibility of understanding the real nature of the Mystery of Golgotha was lost to the human soul. And so it remained, on through the subsequent centuries. The ancient wisdom was lost to humanity — and necessarily so, because out of this wisdom man could never have attained his freedom, his condition of self-dependence. It was necessary for man to enter for a while into the darkness in order, out of this darkness, to develop, in freedom, the primal forces of his being. But a true Christian instinct substituted another quality in place of the wisdom which the world of Christendom had brought to the Mystery of Golgotha — a wisdom which illumined the discussions that were held on the nature of this Mystery. Something else was substituted for the quality of wisdom.
Modern Christianity has very little knowledge or understanding of the profundity of the discussions that were carried on among the wise Church Fathers in the first centuries of Christendom as to the manner in which the two natures — the Divine and the Human — had been united in the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. In the early Christian centuries this was a Mystery which addressed itself to a living wisdom — a wisdom which then faded away into empty abstraction. Very little has remained in Western Christianity of the holy zeal with which men tried to understand how the Divine and the Human had been united in the Mystery of Golgotha.
But the Christian impulse is mighty and powerful. And it was the power of love which came to replace the wisdom with which the Mystery of Golgotha was greeted at the time when its radiance shone over the earth. In marvellous abundance, love has been poured out through the centuries from the minds and hearts of men to the Jesus Child in the manger. And it is really wonderful to find how strongly this power of love is reflected in the Christmas Plays which have come down to us from earlier centuries of Christendom. If we let these things work upon us, we shall realise how deeply the Christmas Festival is a festival of remembrance. We shall realise too that, just as the peoples of the Old Testament strove in wisdom to be gathered to the Fathers, so the peoples of the New Testament have striven in devotion and love to gather together at Christmas around the sinless Child in the manger.
But who will deny that the love poured out to the wellspring of Christendom by so many hearts has little by little become more or less a habit? Who will deny that in our age the Christmas Festival has lost the living power it once possessed? The men of the Old Testament longed to return to their origin, to be gathered to their Fathers, to return to their ancestors. The Christian turns his mind and heart to human nature in its primal purity when he celebrates the Festival of the birth of Jesus. And it was out of this same Christian instinct — an instinct which caused man to associate the Christmas Festival with his earthly origin — that the day before Christmas, the 24th of December, was dedicated to Adam and Eve. The day of Adam and Eve preceded the day of the birth of Jesus. And so it was out of a deep instinct that the Tree of Paradise came to be associated as a symbol with the Christmas Festival.
We turn our eyes first to the manger in Bethelehem, to the Child lying there among the animals who stand round the blessed Mother. It is a heavenly symbol of the primal origin of humanity. Our feelings and minds are carried back to the earthly origin of the human being, to the Tree of Paradise, and with this Tree of Paradise there is associated the crib, just as in the Holy Legend the origin of man on earth is associated with the Mystery of Golgotha. The Holy Legend tells that the wood of the Tree of Paradise was handed down in a miraculous way from generation to generation until the age of the Mystery of Golgotha, and that the Cross erected on Golgotha, the place of the skull — the Cross on which Christ Jesus hung — was made of the very wood of the Tree of Paradise. In other words, the heavenly origin of man is associated with his earthly origin.
In another sense too, the fundamental conception of Christendom tended to obliterate understanding of these things. Nobody in our days can fail to realise that men have very little insight into the truth that the Godhead may be venerated as the Father Principle but that the Godhead can also be conceived as the Son. Humanity in general, as well as our so-called enlightened theology, has more or less lost sight of the difference in nature between the Father God and the Son God. And because this insight had been lost, we find the most modern school of orthodox theology proclaiming the view that in reality the Gospels treat of God the Father, not of God the Son, that Jesus of Nazareth is simply to be regarded as a great Teacher, the messenger of the Father God.
When people of to-day speak of Christ, they still associate with His flame certain memories of the Holy Story, but they have no clearly defined feeling of the difference in the nature of the Son God on the one hand and of the Father God on the other. But at the time when the Mystery of Golgotha was fulfilled in the realm of earthly existence, this feeling was still quite living. Over in Asia, in a place of no great importance to Rome at the time, the Christ had appeared in Jesus of Nazareth. According to the early Christians, Christ was that Divine Nature Who had ensouled a human being in a way that had never before occurred on the earth, nor would occur thereafter. And so this one Event of Golgotha, this one ensouling of a human being by a Divine Nature, by the Christ, imparts meaning and purpose to the whole of earthly evolution. All previous evolution is to be thought of as preparatory to this Event of Golgotha, and all subsequent evolution as the fulfilment, the consequence of the Mystery of Golgotha.
The scene of this Event lay over yonder in Asia, and on the throne of Rome sat Augustus Caesar. People of to-day no longer realise that Caesar Augustus on the throne of Rome was regarded as a Divine Incarnation. The Roman Caesars were actually regarded as Gods in human form.
And so we have two different conceptions of a God. The one God upon the throne of Rome and the other on Golgotha — the place of a skull. There could be no greater contrast!
Think of the figure of Caesar Augustus, who, according to his subjects and according to Roman decree, was a God incarnate in a man. He was thought to be a Divine Being who had descended to the earth; the Divine forces had united with the birth-forces, with the blood; the Divine power, having come down into earthly existence, was pulsing in and through the blood. Such was the universal conception, although it took different forms, of the dwelling of the Godhead on earth. The people thought of the Godhead as bound up with the forces of the blood. They said: Ex Deo nascimur. — Out of God we are born. And even on lower levels of existence they felt themselves related to what lived, as the crown of humanity, in a personality like Caesar Augustus.
All that was thus honoured and revered was a Divine Father Principle. For it was a Principle living in the blood that is part of a human being when he is born into the world. But in the Mystery of Golgotha the Divine Christ Being had united Himself with the man Jesus of Nazareth — united Himself not, in this case, with the blood, but with the highest forces of the human soul. A God had here united with a human being, in such a way that mankind was saved from falling victim to the earthly forces of matter. The Father God lives in the blood. The Son lives in the soul and spirit of man. The Father God leads man into material life: Ex Deo nascimur. — Out of God we are born. But God the Son leads man again out of material existence. The Father God leads man out of the super-sensible into the material. God the Son leads man out of the material into the super-sensible. In Christo morimur. — In Christ we die.
Two distinctly different feelings were there. The feeling and perception of God the Son was added to the feeling associated with God the Father. Certain impulses underlying the process of evolution caused the loss of the faculty to differentiate between the Father God and God the Son. And to this day these impulses have remained in mankind in general and in Christianity too. Men who were possessed of the ancient, primordial wisdom knew from their own inner experiences that they had come down from Divine-Spiritual worlds into physical and material life. Pre-existence was a certain and universally accepted fact. Men looked back through birth and through conception, up into the Divine-Spiritual worlds, whence the soul descends at birth into physical existence.
In our language we have only the word ‘Immortality.’ We have no expression for the other side of Eternity, because our language does not include the word ‘Unborn-ness.’ But if the conception of Eternity is to be complete, the word ‘Unborn-ness’ must be there as well as the word ‘Immortality.’ Indeed all that the word ‘Unborn-ness’ can mean to us is of greater significance than what is implied by the word ‘Immortality.’
It is true that the human being passes through the gate of death into a life in the spiritual world, but it is no less true that an exceedingly egotistical conception of this life in the · spiritual world is presented to man to-day. Human beings live here on the earth. They long for Immortality, for they do not want to sink into nothingness at death. And so, in speaking of Immortality, all that is necessary is to appeal to the instincts of egotism.
If you listen carefully to sermons you will realise how many of them count upon the egotistical impulses in human beings when they want to convey an idea of Immortality to the soul. But when it comes to the conception of Unborn-ness it is not possible to rely upon such impulses. Human beings are not so egotistical in their desire for existence in the spiritual world before birth and conception as they are in their desire for a life after death in the spiritual-world. If a life hereafter is assured them, then they are satisfied. Why, they say, should we trouble about whence we have come? Out of their egotism men want to know about a Hereafter. But when once again they unfold a wisdom untinged with egotism, Unborn-ness will be as important to them as Immortality is important to-day.
In olden times men knew that they had lived in Divine-Spiritual worlds, had descended through birth into material existence. They felt that the forces around them in a purely spiritual environment were united with the blood, were living on in the blood. And from this insight there arose the conception: Out of God we are born. The God Who lives in the blood, the God whom the man of flesh represents here on earth — he is the Father God.
The other pole of life — namely, death — demands a different impulse of the life of soul. There must be something in the human being that is not exhausted with death. The conception corresponding to this is of that God Who leads over the earthly and physical to the super-sensible and superphysical. It is the God connected with the Mystery of Golgotha. The Divine Father Principle has always been associated, and rightly so, with the transition from the super-sensible to the material, and through the Divine Son the transition is brought about from the sensible and material to the super-sensible. And that is why the Resurrection thought is essentially bound up with the Mystery of Golgotha. The words of St. Paul that Christ is what He is for humanity because He is the Risen One — these words are an integral part of Christianity.
In the course of the centuries, understanding of the Risen One, of the Conqueror of Death, has gradually been lost and modern theology concerns itself wholly with the man Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus of Nazareth, the man, cannot be placed at the same level as the Father Principle. Jesus of Nazareth might be regarded as the messenger of the Father but he could not, according to the arguments of early Christianity, be placed beside the Father God. Co-equal and co-existent are the Divine Father and the Divine Son: the Father Who brings about the transition from the super-sensible to the material — ‘Out of God we are born’ — and the Son Who brings about the transition from the material to the super-sensible — ‘In Christ we die.’ And transcending both birth and death there is a third Principle proceeding from and co-equal both with the Divine Father and the Divine Son — namely, the Spirit — the Holy Spirit. Within the being of man, therefore, we are to see the transition from the super-sensible to the material and from the material to the super-sensible. And the Principle which knows neither birth nor death is the Spirit into which and through which we are awakened: ‘Through the Holy Spirit we shall be re-awakened.’
For many centuries Christmas was a festival of remembrance. How much of the substance of this festival has been lost is proved by the fact that all that is left of the Being Christ Jesus is the man Jesus of Nazareth. But for us to-day Christmas must become a call and a summons to something new. A new reality must be born. Christianity needs an impulse of renewal, for inasmuch as Christianity no longer understands the Christ Being in Jesus of Nazareth, it has lost its meaning and purpose. The meaning and essence of Christianity must be found again. Humanity must learn again to realise that the Mystery of Golgotha can be comprehended only in the light of super-sensible knowledge.
Another factor, too, contributes to this lack of understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha. We can look with love to the Babe in the manger, but we have no wisdom-filled understanding of the union of the Christ Being with the man Jesus of Nazareth. Nor can we look up into the heavenly heights with the same intensity of feeling which was there in men who lived at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha. In those days men looked up to the starry worlds and saw in the courses and constellations of the stars something like a countenance of the Divine soul and spirit of the cosmos. And in the Christ Being they could see the spiritual Principle of the universe visibly manifested in the glories of the starry worlds. But for modern man the starry worlds and all the worlds of cosmic space have become little more than a product of calculation — a cosmic mechanism.
The world has become empty of the Gods. Out of this world which is void of the Gods, the world that is investigated to-day by astronomy and physics, the Christ Being could never have descended. In the light of the primeval wisdom possessed by humanity, this world was altogether different. It was the body of the Divine World-Soul and of the Divine World-Spirit. And out of this spiritual cosmos the Christ came down to earth and united Himself with a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. This truth is expressed in history itself in a profound way. All over the earth before the Mystery of Golgotha there were Mysteries, holy sanctuaries that were schools of learning and at the same time schools for the cultivation of the religious life. In these Mysteries, indications were given of what must come to pass in the future. It was revealed in the Mysteries that man bears within his being a power that is the conqueror of death, and this victory over death was an actual experience of the Initiates in the Mysteries. In deep and profound experience the candidate for Initiation knew with sure conviction: Thou has awakened within thyself the power that conquers death. The Initiate experienced in a picture the process that would operate fully in times still to come, in accordance with the great plan of world-history. In the Mysteries of all peoples, this sacred truth was proclaimed: Man can be victorious over death. But it was also indicated that what could be presented in the Mysteries in pictures only would one day become an actual and single event in world-history. The Mystery of Golgotha was proclaimed in advance by the Pagan Mysteries of antiquity; it was the fulfilment of what had everywhere been heralded in the sanctuaries and holy places of the Mysteries.
When the candidate had been prepared in the Mysteries, when he had performed the difficult training which brought him to the point of Initiation, when he had made his soul so free of the body that the soul could be united with and perceive the spiritual worlds, when he was convinced by his own knowledge that life is always victorious over death in human nature — then he confronted the very deepest experience that was associated with these ancient Mysteries. And this deepest experience was that the obstacle presented by the earth, the obstacle of matter, must be removed if that which is at the same time both spiritual and material, is to become visible — namely, the sun. It was to a mysterious phenomenon — although it was a phenomenon well-known to every Initiate — that the candidate was led. He beheld the sun at the midnight hour, saw the sun through the earth, at the other side of the earth.
Instinctive feeling of the most holy and most sacred things have, after all, remained through the course of history. Many of these feelings and perceptions have weakened, but to those who are willing to look with unprejudiced eyes, the old meaning is still discernible. And so we can read some thing from the fact that at midnight leading from the 24th to the 25th of December, the midnight Mass is supposed to be said in every Christian Church. We can read something from this fact when we know that the Mass is nothing more nor less than a synthesis of the rites and rituals of the Mysteries which led to initiation, to the beholding of the sun at midnight. This institution of the midnight Mass at Christmas is an echo of the Initiation which enabled the candidate, at the midnight hour, to see the sun at the other side of the earth and therewith to behold the universe as a spiritual universe. And at the same time the Cosmic Word resounded through the cosmos — the Cosmic Word which from the courses and constellations of the stars sounded forth the mysteries of World Being.
Blood sets human beings at variance with one another. Blood fetters to the earthly and material that element in man which descends from heavenly heights. In our century, especially, men have gravely sinned against the essence of Christianity, inasmuch as they have turned again to the principle of blood. But they must find the way to the Being Who was Christ Jesus, Who does not address Himself to the blood but Who poured out his blood and gave it to the earth. Christ Jesus is the Being Who speaks to the soul and to the spirit, Who unites and does not separate — so that Peace may arise among men on earth out of their understanding of the Cosmic Word.
By a new understanding of the Christmas Festival, super-sensible knowledge can transform the material universe into spirit before the eye of the soul, transform it in such a way that the sun at midnight becomes visible and is known in its spiritual nature. Such knowledge brings understanding of the super-earthly Christ Being, the Sun Being Who was united with the man Jesus of Nazareth. It can bring understanding, too, of the unifying peace that should hover over the peoples of the earth. The Divine Beings are revealed in the heights, and through this revelation peace rings forth from the hearts of men who are of good will.
Such is the word of Christmas. Peace on earth flows into unison with the Divine Light that is streaming upon the earth. We need something more than the mere remembrance of the day of the birth of Jesus. We need to understand and realise that a new Christmas Festival must arise, that a new Festival of Birth must lead on from the present into the immediate future. A new Christ Impulse must be born and a new knowledge of the nature of Christ. We need a new understanding of the truth that the Divine-Spiritual heavens and the physical world of earth are linked to one another and that the Mystery of Golgotha is the most significant token of this union. We must understand once again why it is that at the midnight hour of Christmas a warning resounds to us, bidding us be mindful of the Divine-Spiritual origin of man and of the fact that the revelation of the heavens is inseparable from peace on earth.
The Holy Night must become a reality. It is not enough to give each other presents at Christmas in accordance with ancient custom and habit. The warm feelings which for centuries inspired Christian men at the Christmas Festival have been lost. We need a new Christmas, a new Holy Night, reminding us not only of the Birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but bringing a new birth, the birth of a new Christ Impulse. Out of full consciousness we must learn to understand that in the Mystery of Golgotha a super-sensible Power was made manifest, was revealed in the material earth. We must understand with full consciousness what resounded instinctively in the Mysteries of old. We must receive this impulse consciously. Again we must learn to understand that when the Holy Night of Christmas becomes a reality to man he can experience the wonderful midnight union between the revelation of the heavens and the peace of earth.
This is the meaning of the words which will now be given and which are dedicated to Christmas. They synthesize what I wanted to bring to your souls and hearts to-night. They try to express, out of consciousness of the anthroposophical understanding of Christ, how we can come again to the wisdom that once lived in men instinctively and remained to this extent, that at the time of the Mystery of Golgotha there were still some who knew how to celebrate the revelation of the Christ Being. We, in our day, must achieve understanding of the Christ as a Cosmic Being — a Cosmic Being Who united Himself with the earth. The time at which this understanding is accessible, to the greater part of men on earth, is the time of the cosmic Holy Night whose approach we await. If we understand these things, then we can make alive within us the feelings which I have tried to express in the following verse:
Behold the Sun
At the 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!
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