Esoteric Easter. Lecture 1 of 4.
Rudolf Steiner, Dornach, Switzerland, April 19, 1924:
Easter is felt by many people to be associated on the one hand with the deepest feelings and sensibilities of the human soul, but on the other, with cosmic mysteries and enigmas as well. Our attention is drawn to this connection with world riddles by the fact that Easter is a so-called moveable feast, fixed each year by computing the position of a constellation of which we will have more to say in the following lectures. Yet if we trace the festival customs and cult rites that have become associated with the Easter Festival through the centuries — rituals having a deep meaning for a large part of humankind — we cannot fail to observe the profound significance with which humanity has endowed this Easter Festival in the course of its historical development.
Easter became an important Christian festival not coincident with the founding of Christianity, but during the first centuries; a Christian festival linked with the fundamental idea, the basic impulse, of Christianity: the impulse to be a Christian, provided by the Resurrection of Christ.
Easter is the Festival of the Resurrection; yet it points back to periods antedating Christianity, to festivals connected with the spring equinox that plays a part in determining the date of Easter, to festivals bearing on the re-awakening of Nature, on the life burgeoning from the earth. And this leads us directly to the heart of our subject.
As a Christian festival, Easter commemorates a resurrection. The corresponding pagan festival that occurred at about the same season was, in a sense, the celebration of the resurrection of Nature, of the re-awakening of what, as Nature, had been asleep throughout the winter time. But here we must emphasize the fact that with regard to its inner meaning and essence the Christian Easter in no sense corresponds to the pagan equinox festivals. On the contrary: comparing it with those of ancient pagan times, Easter, as a Christian festival, would correspond to old festivals that grew out of the Mysteries; and these were celebrated in the autumn. And the most interesting feature connected with determining the date of Easter, which is quite obviously related to certain old Mystery customs, is this: we are reminded precisely by this Easter Festival of the radical, far-reaching misapprehensions that have crept into the philosophical conceptions of the most vital problems during the course of human evolution. Nothing less occurred, in the early Christian centuries, than the confusion of the Easter festival with quite a different one, with the result that it was changed from an autumn festival to a spring festival.
This points to something of enormous importance in human evolution. Let us examine the substance of the Easter Festival — what is its essence? It is this: the central figure in Christian consciousness, Christ Jesus, experiences death, as commemorated by Good Friday. He remains in the grave for the period of three days, this representing His coalescence with earthly existence. This period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is celebrated in Christendom as a festival of mourning. Finally, Easter Sunday is the day on which the central being of Christianity arises from the grave. It is the memorial day of this event. That is the essential substance of Easter: the death, the interval in the grave, and the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Now let us turn to the corresponding old pagan festival in one of its many forms; for only by so doing can we grasp the connection between the Easter Festival and the Mysteries. Among many people of diverse localities we find ancient pagan festivals whose outer form — the nature of the rites — strongly resembles the form of what is comprised in the Christian Easter.
From among the manifold ancient festivals let us choose that of Adonis for examination. This was celebrated by certain peoples of the Near East for a long period of time during pre-Christian antiquity. An effigy constituted the center of interest. It portrayed Adonis, the spiritual representative of all that appears in the human being as vigorous youth and beauty.
Now, the ancients undoubtedly confused, in some respects, the substance of an effigy with what it represented, hence the old religions frequently bore the character of idolatry. Many took the effigy of Adonis for the actually present god of beauty, of man's youthful strength, of the germinating force becoming outwardly manifest and revealing in living splendor all the inner worth, the inner dignity, the inner grandeur of which man is or might be possessed.
To the accompaniment of songs and of rites representing the deepest human grief and sorrow, this effigy of the god was immersed in the sea, where it remained for three days. When the locality was not near the sea, a lake served the purpose; and lacking this as well, an artificial pond was dug in the vicinity of the sanctuary. During the three days of immersion a deep and serious silence enveloped the whole community that confessed this cult, that called it its own. At the end of the three days the effigy was brought out of the water, and the previous laments were changed into paeans of joy, into hymns to the resurrected god, the god come to life again.
That was an external ceremony, one that stirred the souls of a great multitude of people: through an outer act, an outer rite, it suggested what was enacted in the sanctuaries of the Mysteries in the case of every man aspiring to initiation. In these olden times every such candidate was conducted into a special chamber. The walls were black and the whole room, which contained nothing but a coffin or, at least, a coffin-like case, was dark and somber. Beside this coffin laments and songs of death were sung: the neophyte was treated as one about to die. It was made clear to him that by being laid in the coffin he was to go through what a man experiences in passing through the portal of death and in the three days following this event. The procedure was such that he became fully aware of this.
On the third day there appeared, at a certain point visible for him who lay in the coffin, a branch, denoting sprouting life. In place of the laments, hymns of rejoicing were sung. The initiate arose from his grave with transformed consciousness. A new language had been imparted to him, a new script: the language and script of the spirits. Now he might see, and he was able to see the world from the viewpoint of the spirit.
Comparing this initiation that took place in the sanctuaries of the Mysteries with the rites performed publicly, we see that while the substance of the rites was symbolical, its whole form nevertheless resembled the procedure followed in the Mysteries. And in due time the cult — we may take that of Adonis as typical — was explained to those who had participated. It was celebrated in the autumn, and those who took part were instructed approximately as follows:
Behold, it is autumn. The Earth sheds its glory of flowers and leaves. All things wither. In place of the greening, burgeoning life that in springtime began to cover the Earth, snow will envelop it, or drought will bring desolation. But while everything around you dies, you shall experience that which in man partly resembles the dying in Nature. Man, too, dies: he has his autumn. When he reaches the end of his life it is fitting that the souls of his dear ones be filled with deep sorrow. But it is not enough that you should meet death only when it comes to you: its whole import must be grasped in its profound significance, and you must be able to recall it to your memory again and again. Therefore you are shown every year the death of that divine being who stands for beauty and youth and the grandeur of man: you are shown this divine being going the way of all Nature. But when Nature becomes barren and passes into death, that is the time you must remember something else. You must remember that man passes through the portal of death; that in this Earth existence he has known only what is transitory, like all that passes in the autumn, but that now he is drawn away from the Earth and finds his way into the vast cosmic ether. During three days he sees himself expand till his being contains the whole world. And then, while here the eye of the body is directed to the image of death, to the ephemeral, to what dies, yonder in the spirit there awakens after three days the immortal human soul. It arises in order to be born for the spiritland three days after death.
An intense inner transformation was brought about in the body of the candidate in the recesses of the Mysteries; and the profound impression, the terrific shock inflicted on the human life by this old method of initiation awakened inner soul forces, gave rise to vision. [We shall see presently why in our time initiation cannot be accomplished by this method, but must proceed quite differently.] That impression, that shock, brought the initiate to understand that henceforth he lived not merely in the sense world but in the spiritual world as well.
Other information imparted to the neophytes of the old Mysteries may be summed up thus: the Mystery ritual is an image of events in the spiritual world; what occurs in the cosmos is a likeness of what takes place in the Mysteries. No doubt was left in the mind of anyone admitted to the Mysteries that the procedure followed in these and enacted in man constituted images of what he experiences in forms of existence other than the Earth in the astral-spiritual cosmos.
Those who, owing to insufficient inner maturity, could not be deemed ready to have the spiritual world opened up to them directly were taught the corresponding truths in the cult; that is, in a semblance of the Mystery proceedings.
Thus the purpose of the Mystery festival corresponding to Easter — the one we have illustrated by the Adonis Festival — was as follows: during the autumnal withering and desolation in Nature, the drastic autumnal representation of the transience of earthly things — autumn's picture of dying and death — the certainty was to be conveyed to the neophyte — or at least the idea — that death, which envelops all Nature in the fall, overtakes man as well; and it comes even to the representative of beauty, youth, and the glory of the human soul, to the god Adonis. He also dies. He dissolves in the earthly counterpart of the cosmic ether, that is, in water. But just as he arises out of the water, as he can be lifted out of it, so the soul of man is brought back, after about three days, from the world-waters — that is, from the cosmic ether — after having passed through the portal of death here on Earth.
The mystery of death itself, that is what the autumn festivals were intended to present in these old Mysteries; and it was to be made readily intelligible by having the ritual coincide, on the one hand and in its first half, with dying, with the death of Nature; and on the other, with the opposite of this: with what represented the essence of man's being. It was intended that the initiate should contemplate the dying of Nature in order to become aware of how he, too, apparently dies, but how his inner being rises again, to take part in the spiritual world. To reveal the truth concerning death, that was the purpose of this old pagan festival deriving from the Mysteries.
Now, during the course of human evolution a most significant event took place: in the case of Christ Jesus, the transformation experienced at a certain level by the candidate for initiation in the Mysteries — the death and resurrection of the soul — embraced the physical body as well. In what light does one familiar with the Mysteries see the Mystery of Golgotha? He envisions the ancient Mysteries; he observes how the soul of the candidate was guided through death to resurrection, meaning the awakening of a higher form of consciousness in the soul. The soul died in order to awake on a higher plane of consciousness. What must here be kept in mind is that the body did not die, and that the soul died in order to be reawakened to an enlightened consciousness.
What every aspirant for initiation experienced in his soul only, Christ Jesus passed through in His bodily principle; in other words, on a different level. Because Christ was not an Earth-man but a Sun-being in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, it was possible for all the human principles of this Being to undergo on Golgotha what the former initiate experienced only in his soul.
Those with intimate knowledge of the old Mystery initiation, whether living at that time or in our own day, have best understood what took place on Golgotha; for what they have known is that for thousands of years the secrets of the spiritual world have been revealed to men through the death and resurrection of their soul. During the process of initiation, body and soul had been kept apart, and the soul was led through death to eternal life. What was experienced in this manner by a number of the elect penetrated even into the physical body of a Being Who descended from the Sun at the time of the Baptism in the Jordan, and took possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Initiation, enacted through many centuries, had become a historical fact.
The important part of that knowledge was this: because it was a Sun-being that took possession of the body of Jesus of Nazareth, that which in the old neophyte had to do only with the soul and its experiences could now penetrate to the bodily life. In spite of the death of the body, in spite of the dissolution of His body in the mortal Earth, the resurrection of the Christ could be brought about because this Christ ascends higher than was possible for the soul of a neophyte. The neophyte could not sink the body into such profoundly sub-sensible regions as did Christ Jesus. For this reason the former could not rise to such heights in his resurrection as could Christ. But up to this point of difference, which is one of cosmic magnitude, the ancient enactment of initiation appeared as a historical fact on the hallowed hill of Golgotha.
In the first centuries of Christianity very few men knew that a Sun-being, a cosmic being, had lived in Jesus of Nazareth, and that the Earth had been fructified by the actual coming of a being that previously could be seen from the Earth only in the Sun — by means of initiation methods. And for those who accepted Christianity with genuine knowledge of the old Mysteries, its very essence consisted in their conviction that Christ, to Whom they had raised themselves through initiation — the Christ Who could be reached through the old Mysteries by ascending to the Sun — that He had descended into a mortal body, the body of Jesus of Nazareth. He had come down to Earth.
At the time of the Mystery of Golgotha, a mood of rejoicing, of holy elation, filled the souls of those who understood something of it. What then was a living substance of consciousness gradually became a festival in memory of the historical event on Golgotha — through developments to be described later.
But while this memory was gradually taking shape, the awareness of the identity of Christ as a Sun-being disappeared more and more. Those familiar with the old Mysteries could not be in doubt: they knew that the genuine initiates, by being made independent of the physical body, experienced death in their soul, ascended to the Sun sphere, and there found the Christ; that from Him, the Christ in the Sun, they received the impulse for the resurrection of the soul. They knew who Christ was because they had raised themselves up to Him. From what took place on Golgotha these initiates knew that the Being who had formerly to be sought in the Sun had descended to men on Earth.
Why? Because the old process of initiation, enacted to enable the neophyte to reach Christ in the Sun, could no longer be enacted: the nature of man simply had changed in the course of time. The ancient ritual of initiation had become impossible by reason of the manner in which the human being had evolved. Christ could no longer have been found in the Sun by the old methods, so He descended in order to enact on the Earth a deed to which men could look.
What is comprised in this secret is as supremely sacred as anything that can be revealed upon Earth.
How did the matter appear to those living in the centuries immediately following the Mystery of Golgotha? A diagram would have to be drawn somewhat like this:
In the old abodes of initiation the neophyte gazed up to the Sun existence, and through initiation he became aware of Christ. To find the Christ he looked out into space. In order to show the subsequent development I must represent time — that is, the Earth proceeding in time. Spatially the Earth is, of course, always there, but we will represent the course of time in this way. The Mystery of Golgotha has taken place. Now, a man, say of the 8th Century, instead of seeking Christ in the Sun from the Mystery temple, looks upon the turning point of time at the beginning of the Christian era, looks in time toward the Mystery of Golgotha (arrow in diagram), and can find Christ in an Earth deed, in an Earth event, within the Mystery of Golgotha. What had been spatial perception was henceforth, through the Mystery of Golgotha, to be temporal perception: that was the significant feature of what had occurred.
But if we reflect upon the Mystery ritual, remembering that it was a picture of man's death and resurrection; and if we consider in addition the form taken by the cult — the Festival of Adonis, for example — which in turn was a picture of the Mystery procedure, this threefold phenomenon appears to us raised to the ultimate degree, unified and concentrated in the historical deed on Golgotha.
What was enacted in a profoundly inner way in the sanctuary now appears openly in external history. All men now have access to what was previously available only for the initiates. There was no further need of an image immersed in the sea and symbolically resurrected. In its place was to come the thought, the memory, of what actually took place on Golgotha. The outer symbol, referring to a process experienced in space, was to be supplanted by the inner thought, unaided by any sense image — the memory, experienced only in the soul, of the historical deed on Golgotha.
Then, in the following centuries, the evolution of humanity took a peculiar turn: men are less and less able to penetrate into spirituality; the spiritual substance of the Mystery of Golgotha can gain no foothold in the souls of men; evolution tends toward the development of a materialistic mentality. Lost is the heart's understanding of facts like the following: that precisely where Nature presents herself as ephemeral, as dying desolation, there the living spirit can best be envisioned. And lost as well is the feeling for the festival as such, the feeling that autumn is the time when the resurrection of all spirit contrasts most markedly with the death of Earth Nature.
And thus autumn can no longer be the time for the festival of resurrection; no longer can it emphasize the eternal permanence of the spirit by the impermanence of Nature. Man begins to depend upon matter, upon those elements of Nature that do not die — the force of the seed that is sunk in the ground in the fall and that germinates and sprouts in the spring resurrection. A material symbol for the spiritual is adopted because men are no longer able to respond through the material to the spiritual as such. Autumn no longer has the power to reveal, through the inner force of the human soul, the permanence of the spiritual by contrasting it with the impermanence of Nature. The imagination now needs the aid of outer Nature, outer resurrection. Men want to see the plants sprouting from the ground, the Sun gaining power, light and warmth increasing. Nature's resurrection is needed to celebrate the resurrection idea.
But this exigency also means the disappearance of the direct relationship that existed with the Festival of Adonis, and that can exist with the Mystery of Golgotha. A loss of intensity is suffered by that inner experience which can appear at physical death if the human soul knows that man passes physically through the portal of death and undergoes, for three days, what indeed can evoke a somber frame of mind; but then the soul must rejoice in a festive mood, knowing that precisely out of death — after three days — the human soul arises in spiritual immortality.
The force inherent in the Festival of Adonis was lost, and the next event ordained for mankind was the resurrection of this force in greater intensity. One beheld the death of the god, of all the beauty and grandeur and vigorous youth in mankind. On the Day of Mourning this god was immersed in the sea. A somber mood prevailed, because first a feeling for the ephemeral in Nature was to be aroused.
But the intention was to transform the mood induced by the impermanence of Nature into that evoked by the supersensible resurrection of the human soul after three days. When the god — or his effigy — was raised up out of the water, the rightly instructed believer saw in this act the image of the human soul a few days after death: Behold! The spiritual experience of the deceased stands before thy soul in the image of the arisen god of beauty and youth.
Every year in the fall something that is indissolubly linked with human destiny was awakened within the spirit of men. At that time it would have been deemed impossible to connect all this in any way with outer Nature. All that could be experienced in the spirit was represented in the ritual, in symbolical enactment. But when the time was ripe for effacing the old-time image and having memory take its place — imageless, inner memory of the Mystery of Golgotha experienced in the soul — mankind at first lacked the power to achieve this, because the activity of the spirit lay deep down in the substrata of the human soul. So up to our own time there has remained the necessity for calling in the aid of outer Nature. But outer Nature provides no complete allegory of the destiny of man in death; and while the idea of death survived, the idea of resurrection has faded more and more. Even though resurrection figures as a tenet of faith, it is not a living fact for people of more recent times. But it must once more become so; and the awakening of men's feeling for the true idea of the resurrection must be brought about by anthroposophy.
If, therefore, as has been explained elsewhere, the anthroposophically imbued soul must sense the heralding thought of Michael, must intensify the idea of Christmas, so the idea of Easter must become especially festive; for to the idea of death anthroposophy must add the idea of resurrection. Anthroposophy itself must come to resemble an inner festival of the resurrection of the human soul. It must infuse into our philosophy a feeling for Easter, a frame of mind appropriate to Easter. This it can do if men will understand that the ancient Mysteries can live on in the true Easter Mystery, provided the body, the soul, and the spirit of man — and the destiny of these in the realms of body, soul, and spirit — are rightly understood.
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