“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?”
- Robert Browning
Deeper Secrets of Human History in the Light of the Gospel of St. Matthew. Lecture 1 of 3.
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, November 2, 1909:
Introductory lectures have already been given on the Gospels of St. John and of St. Luke. The impression they endeavored to convey can best be described by saying that, throughout, they took the view that the Being of Christ-Jesus — as far as human understanding in our present time is capable of conceiving Him — is so great, so all-embracing, so mighty, that there can be no one-sided presentation of who Christ-Jesus was and of His significance for the spirit and soul of every single human being. To attempt anything of the kind would seem presumptuous in the presence of the greatest of all world-problems. Reverence, veneration — these are the appropriate words to express the mood pervading our studies. This reverence expresses itself in the feeling that, when confronting the greatest problem of life, one should try not to place too high a value upon human powers of comprehension, nor even upon the knowledge imparted by a spiritual science able to penetrate into the very highest realms; one should not imagine that human words can ever be capable of describing more than a single aspect of this great, overwhelming problem.
All the lectures given on the Gospel of St. John during the last three years centered around the words contained in that Gospel: “I am the Light of the world. The aim of the lectures was to make this saying comprehensible, and they will have fulfilled their purpose if they bring a gradual understanding of these words, until they become one's own — or perhaps only an intuition as to their meaning as they stand in the Gospel of St. John.
When, however, you see a light shining, have you, simply by gazing at it or even by discovering something of its nature and properties, understood what it is that is shining there? Have you acquired any real knowledge of the Sun, simply through perceiving its manifested light? One must realize that it is one thing to perceive the radiance, and quite another to understand the light that is working within that radiance. Because the Being of Whom we are speaking can say of Himself: “I am the Light of the world”, it behooves us to grasp the meaning of this saying; but even then we have understood of that Being no more than the particular manifestation of His nature that is expressed in the words “I am the Light of the world.” Everything contained in the lectures on the Gospel of St. John was necessary in order to show that that Being, Who embraces in Himself all cosmic wisdom, is verily the Light of the world. But this Being Himself is infinitely greater than anything that could be conveyed in the lectures on the Gospel of St. John. If anyone were to believe that those lectures had enabled him to understand Christ-Jesus fully and completely, he would be labouring under the erroneous idea that a single manifestation which he dimly divines enables him to understand the whole radiant Being.
A different aspect was presented in the lectures on the Gospel of St. Luke. If our studies of the Gospel of St. John might be regarded as a means for helping us to understand the words “I am the Light of the world,” the lectures on the Gospel of St. Luke — provided they have been grasped with sufficient depth — may be conceived as an exegesis on the words “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” or “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Here Christ-Jesus is seen not only as the Light of the world, but as the Being Who makes the offering of supreme self-surrender; the Being Who is all-comprising without losing His own identity; Who, in that He is capable of the uttermost sacrifice, of the greatest imaginable self-surrender, is the very fount of Compassion and Love; Whose warmth streams through the life of men and of the Earth now and in all ages of time to come. In everything that these words can express, a second aspect of the Being whom we call Christ-Jesus is presented.
In these two Gospels, therefore, this Being has been depicted as the One Who in His compassion can make the supreme sacrifice, and Who shines over all human existence through the power of His light. Light and Love made manifest in the Being of Christ-Jesus — these are the aspects that have been described. And those who have grasped the full compass of our studies of the Gospels of St. John and St. Luke will be able to gather some idea of what in Christ-Jesus was “Light” and what in Him was “Love and Compassion.”
We have tried, then, to understand two attributes of Christ-Jesus in their universal significance. The meaning of what was said of Christ as the Spirit-Light of the world streaming into all things, living and weaving within them as primordial, eternal wisdom, is reflected back to us from the Gospel of St. John. There is no wisdom accessible to man that is not in some way contained in this Gospel. All the wisdom of the universe is there, for he who contemplates this eternal wisdom in Christ-Jesus sees it not only as it has worked in the remote past but as it will work in the far distant future. In contemplating this Gospel, therefore, we hover, like the eagle, in heights far above the level of human existence. In glimpsing the sublime ideas which bring the Gospel of St. John into the range of our understanding, we are carried on the wings of transcendent, transforming ideas, above all occurrences in the life of the individual human soul. These all-embracing, eternal ideas are the concern of that Divine Wisdom which flows to us as we steep ourselves in this Gospel. What streams from it seems itself to be circling, like the eagle, in heights high above every happening in the daily, hourly, and momentary destiny of men.
Let us now descend from these heights, and contemplate individual human life from hour to hour, from day to day, from year to year, from century to century, from millennium to millennium, observing especially the forces expressed in what we call human love. We can perceive love surging and weaving in the living hearts and souls of men through the ages. On the one side we see how this love gives rise to deeds of supreme heroism in the life of mankind, how the greatest sacrifices spring from love for some being or cause; but we also see that, although supreme accomplishments are born of this love in human hearts, it is at the same time like a two-edged sword. For example, a mother loves her child inwardly, deeply; the child commits some misdeed, but so intense is the mother's love that she cannot bring herself to punish. A second misdeed occurs, and again the depth of the mother's love keeps her from punishing the child ... and so it goes on. The child grows up, becomes a lifelong good-for-nothing, a disturber of the peace. In speaking of matters as grave as this it is not good to take contemporary examples, so I will speak of something that happened a long time ago. In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a mother who loved her child with the very deepest intensity. Let it be emphasized that love in itself cannot be too highly valued, for whatever the circumstances, love remains one of the very highest human attributes. — But so great was the mother's love that she could not bring herself to punish the child for having committed a petty theft in the home. A second theft was again left unpunished, and finally the child became a notorious poisoner. Such was the outcome of the lack of wisdom in the mother's love. If love is pervaded by wisdom, it is capable of deeds of untold greatness. The significance of the Love that streamed into the world from Golgotha lies precisely in the fact that it was united, in a single Being, with the Light of the world, with true Wisdom. It is therefore when we contemplate these two qualities as manifested in Christ-Jesus that we realize that Love is the crowning glory of the world, but also that Love and Wisdom belong in the deepest sense together.
What have we actually understood from our studies of the Gospels of St. John and St. Luke? We have understood nothing beyond those attributes of Christ-Jesus which we may call the universal Light of Wisdom and the universal Warmth of Love, both of which flowed in Him as in no other Being, and which can never be wholly within the reach of our human comprehension. Whereas in connection with the Gospel of St. John we may speak of great, transcendental ideas sweeping like eagles in heights far above the heads of men, in the Gospel of St. Luke we find that which speaks at every moment to each individual human heart. The significance of St. Luke's Gospel is that it fills us with a warmth that is the outward expression of love, with understanding for the love that is ready to make the supreme sacrifice, which has no other desire than to surrender its very self.
A pictorial presentation of the mood and feeling arising from a right approach to the Gospel of St. Luke is to be found in portrayals of the Mithras bull being driven to the sacrifice, bearing on its back the figure of a man. Seen from below it is an earthly happening; but above the moving figures cosmic events hover. The man thrusts his knife into the body of the sacrificial bull, whose life-blood is offered up in order that man may conquer what has to be overcome. Contemplation of the sacrificial animal carrying the man, for whose sake it must be sacrificed in order that, as man, he may be able to advance along his path of life, provides the right basis of feeling for study of the Gospel of St. Luke. Those who know what the sacrificial bull, as the expression of inwardly deepened love, has betokened for men through all the ages, understand something of the qualities of love described in the Gospel of St. Luke. This Gospel, then, depicts a second attribute of Christ-Jesus.
But does knowledge of two attributes or qualities of a being justify the claim to have understood the whole nature of that being? It has been necessary to speak of these two attributes because in Christ-Jesus the greatest of all riddles stands before us. But no one should maintain that study of two such attributes yields anything like a true or complete picture of the nature of this being. In describing these two attributes of Christ-Jesus, nothing that can bring even a glimmering understanding of their infinite significance has been left unsaid. But our reverence and awe for this being is too great ever to allow us to imagine that thereby we have already grasped His other attributes.
It would be possible to speak of a third attribute, but as it involves matters which have not yet formed part of our studies, a general indication of it is all that can here be given. I may put it in this way: The Christ presented in the Gospel of St. John is, in Himself, a being of the utmost sublimity, but in His works He draws upon the powers pertaining to the realm of the wisdom-filled Cherubim. It is for this reason that, in describing the Christ of St. John's Gospel, the dominating feeling will be that evoked by the picture of the eagle-soaring Cherubim. In the Gospel of St. Luke, however, the keynote of the picture is the warmth-bringing fire of love springing from the heart of Christ. This indicates that in what Christ signified to the world in this Gospel, He worked at those sublime heights which are the realm of the Seraphim. The fiery love of the Seraphim streams through the universe, and is conveyed to our Earth through Christ-Jesus. But there is a third aspect to be considered, namely, what Christ-Jesus signified for the earthly world in that He was not alone the Light of Wisdom, not alone the Warmth of Love, not alone the channel for the Cherubim and Seraphim within Earth existence, but with His whole Power ‘was’ and ‘is’ within this Earth existence, inasmuch as He worked in the realm of the Thrones, the realm whence all Strength and Power flow into the world, to the end that Wisdom and Love may be led to fulfillment. Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones: these are the three highest spiritual hierarchies. The Seraphim with their love lead us into the depths of the human heart, the Cherubim with their wisdom upwards to the heights of the eagle. Wisdom shines down upon us from those heights, while self-surrendering love is symbolized in the sacrificial bull. But strength pulsing through the world, strength which makes all things possible of fulfillment, strength which is the creative power surging through the world — for these, in all systems of symbolism, the token is the lion. The strength infused into our Earth through Christ-Jesus, the strength which orders and directs all things and which, when it is unfolded, signifies supreme power — that is what is described in the Gospel of St. Mark as a third attribute of Christ-Jesus. In connection with the Gospel of St. John we speak of Christ as the sublime Sun-Being, as the Light of the Earth-Sun in the spiritual sense; in connection with the Gospel of St. Luke we speak of the warmth of the Love streaming from Christ; in connection with the Gospel of St. Mark we shall speak of the Power of the Earth-Sun in the spiritual sense. Study of the Gospel of St. Mark will give us a picture of the forces present in the Earth, of the working and weaving of earthly forces and powers, both hidden and manifest. [ Note 2] If by lifting ourselves to Christ in the sense of St. John's Gospel we can claim to have some faint inkling of the transcendent ideas which came to the Earth as His earthly thoughts, if we can feel the warmth of His self-giving love by letting the warmth streaming from St. Luke's Gospel pervade our own hearts — if thus in St. John's Gospel we can glimpse Christ's thinking, and in St. Luke's Gospel His feeling — then in St. Mark's Gospel we can learn of His willing: we are presented with a picture of the forces by means of which Christ brings love and wisdom to actual fulfillment.
If the Gospel of St. Mark had been studied in addition to the Gospels of St. John and St. Luke, a tentative understanding of three attributes of Christ Jesus would be within our reach. We should then have the right to say: “With all reverence we have come nearer to Thee, and we have dimly divined something of Thy Thinking, Thy Feeling, Thy Willing. These three attributes of Thy Being hover above us as supreme prototypes of earthly existence!” We begin our study of an ordinary human being in the same way when we speak of Sentient Soul, Mind-Soul, and Spiritual Soul, and study the characteristics and functions of each. Of the ‘Spiritual Soul’ of Christ we can say that we acquire an insight into the understanding of it from St. John's Gospel; the ‘Mind-Soul’ of Christ becomes comprehensible to us through St. Luke's Gospel; and the ‘Sentient Soul’ of Christ, with all its forces of will, through St. Mark's Gospel. When we come to study this last Gospel, light will be shed on the forces of Nature, both manifest and hidden, concentrated in the single individuality of Christ, and on the essential character of all the forces operating in the world. The Gospel of St. John has deepened our understanding of the Thoughts of this Being, the Gospel of St. Luke our understanding of His Feelings, and because man is not wont to penetrate so deeply into these two realms of the life of soul, studies of the Gospels of St. John and St. Luke are relatively simple in comparison with the picture presented in the Gospel of St. Mark of the system and organization of the hidden forces, both natural and spiritual, operating in the world. All this stands revealed in the Akasha Chronicle and it will be mirrored before us when we pass on to study the power-filled Gospel of St. Mark. Then we shall begin to discern all that is concentrated in the Being of Christ, and which otherwise is distributed among the whole variety of individual beings in the world. We shall then be able to understand, and perceive in a higher, clearer way, all that we have learnt to know as the fundamental elemental laws and principles behind all kinds of existence. As we grasp the meaning of the Gospel of St. Mark, which contains all the secrets of the Universal Will, then, in all reverence, we draw nearer to Christ-Jesus, the focal point of the Universe, inasmuch as more and more we apprehend His Thinking, His Feeling, and His Willing.
When we observe the interplay of human thinking, feeling, and willing, we have an approximate picture of the whole man. But in observing a single human being, we cannot help envisaging each of these activities separately. Yet when we bring them together again into a collective whole, our observation cannot be anything like exhaustive. We make our task easier by observing each of the three functions separately, but on the other hand, the picture will lose precision when we bring them together again as a united whole. It is for our own advantage, then, that we separate the functions, inasmuch as a collective survey of the whole is beyond our power; but the picture becomes blurred when the attributes are brought together again. — In the same way, if we have acquired from the Gospels of St. John, St. Luke, and St. Mark some conception of the Thinking, Feeling, and Willing of Christ-Jesus, we can attempt to harmonize these three attributes into a united whole. The picture will inevitably lose precision and vividness, for no human faculty is capable of unifying what it has made separate and distinct. In being itself there is unity, not separation; but for us, only at the final stage is it possible to gather the separated attributes into a unity. Although it will be less vivid, we shall at last have a presentation of what Christ-Jesus was as earthly Man.
It is in the Gospel of St. Matthew that the picture is drawn for us of Christ-Jesus as man, of His life as a man during the thirty-three years of His sojourn on Earth. The contents of St. Matthew's Gospel present us with a harmonized human portrait. In St. John's Gospel we saw a Divine and Cosmic Man, in St. Luke's Gospel a Being Who is the embodiment of self-giving Love, and in St. Mark's Gospel the cosmic Will operating in a single Individuality. In St. Matthew's Gospel we have the portrait of the Man of Palestine who during the thirty-three years of His life united in His own being everything we have gathered from our study of the other three Gospels. Yet this picture of Christ-Jesus as a human being, as an earthly man, can be understood only against the background provided by our previous studies. As we saw was the case with the individual human being, so too, in this case, the attributes presented in the other three accounts are here less vividly apparent. But a picture of the human personality of Christ-Jesus can be afforded only by study of the Gospel of St. Matthew.
The situation is quite different from that in which we approached the study of St. John's Gospel. Now that the study of two Gospels lies behind us, we can perceive how they are inwardly related to each other and that we can only obtain a complete picture of Christ-Jesus if, with a similar approach, we consider the Man Who lived upon the Earth as Christ-Jesus. From St. John's Gospel we have a picture of the Divine Man, from St. Luke's Gospel a picture of the Being Who unites in Himself all the streams which came to expression in Zoroastrianism and also in Buddhism, with its teaching of compassion and love. All this from the past came before us when we studied the Gospel of St. Luke. Study of the Gospel of St. Matthew will give us, first and foremost, an intimate and faithful picture of a being who is the offspring of His own people, the ancient Hebrew race. And we shall come to realize why the blood of this people had to be prepared in a definite way in order to provide for mankind the blood of Christ-Jesus. The study of St. Matthew's Gospel will give us a picture not only of the essential character of Hebraic antiquity, but also of the mission of this people for the whole world, of the birth of the new era, of the birth of Christianity out of the ancient Hebrew world. What Christ-Jesus was and is as Man, and the secrets of human history and human evolution — these are contained in the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Thus through the Gospel of St. John we glimpse the ideas of the Divine Sophia, through the Gospel of St. Luke the mysteries of supreme, self-giving Love, through the Gospel of St. Mark the forces and powers of the Earth and the cosmos, and through the Gospel of St. Matthew we learn to understand human life, human history, human destiny.
If out of the seven years of the existence of our movement, four years had been devoted to acquainting ourselves with the principles and guiding-lines of spiritual science, and three to deepening our understanding of them as a light that must be shed on the many diverse domains of life, we might now have passed on to the study of St. Mark's Gospel, and the whole edifice could have been crowned by the study of Christ-Jesus as presented in St. Matthew's Gospel. But as human life has its limitations and this level has not been reached — at any rate in the case of everyone in the movement — it is not possible, without evoking misconceptions, to proceed at once to the study of St. Mark's Gospel. It would denote complete misunderstanding of the Being of Christ to believe that any knowledge of His nature could be derived from St. John's Gospel or St. Luke's Gospel alone, or from a one-sided application of all that is revealed in St. Mark's Gospel. The misunderstandings would be even greater than they have been already.
In view of all this we must choose the other path and pass on, as best we may, to the study of St. Matthew's Gospel. Although this means that for the present we must forgo the profundities of St. Mark's Gospel, it will prevent any repetition of the belief that by describing a single attribute, a picture is given of the whole Being, and thereby it will be possible to avoid wrong conclusions.
We shall now turn our minds to Christ-Jesus as the offspring of the ancient Hebrew people, and to the birth of Christianity in Palestine. Our studies will be based on the Gospel of St. Matthew, and it will then be easier to proceed to what we shall have to say about the Gospel of St. Mark.
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