A Search for The Real Meaning of Christmas
By Harry Young
Talk given at Glasgow Friends Meeting House, Saturday 7th December 1996.
What are our modern ideas about Christmas? What are the most prominent features of a modern Christmas? From what I see one of the most prominent aspects of Christmas nowadays is that of the giving and receiving of gifts, although what started out as a symbolic gesture has got out of hand. But as there is the material side to Christmas it also has its spiritual side. The real meaning and message of Christmas is a spiritual one. The outer forms we see every year like gift giving and peace and goodwill are material reflections of the spiritual reality of what happened and still happens at this time of year.
Although many other cultures have a festival around this time of year which are very similar to our Christmas festival, in this country and society we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We do this mainly by remembering what is called the Nativity story – the word nativity meaning the circumstances surrounding birth. It’s the tale of a carpenter, Joseph, whose wife, Mary, becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The two have a son, whom they name Jesus. Jesus’ place of birth is a manger and present at the birth, apart from Joseph, are Three Shepherds. Also around this time, being guided by a Star, Three Wise Men or Three Magi become present, and each give a gift to the newborn child. It is apparent that this is no ordinary or simple story. These symbols and motifs are shared by many cultural spiritual traditions worldwide. Our Christmas is based on the Biblical Nativity but there are some very curious aspects to the Biblical narrative. Firstly, there are four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – but the scenes of the Nativity are only found in two of them – Matthew and Luke, although Christ’s birth, in occult form, as through the Logos or the Word of God, is found in John 1:1-5. Why then, if we are to believe the modern dogma that these are accurate accounts or summaries of specific and important events made by individuals, and they may well be, are important details left out by two of the authors? Secondly, in Matthew and Luke the stories are quite different; characters and events are left out. For example in Matthew and not in Luke: the Magi and their gifts, the Star over Bethlehem – in Luke and not in Matt: Shepherds not Magi, the appearance of an “army of angels” (to the Shepherds). Also in Matthew the angel which appeared to Joseph in a dream said the child is to be called both Emmanuel (“God is with us”) and Jesus (“Saviour”). And thirdly, in places there is little or no flowing narrative and the story jumps about and as a result is very incohesive. From this jumble has been constructed a story, now Christian dogma, of the birth and life of a man named Jesus which may be light years away from actual events. However, in light of textual evidence it seems that the Nativity story is essentially built from a variety of images and symbols with an underlying message and purpose. The symbols of the Star of Bethlehem, the manger, the Three Magi, the shepherds, the virgin birth, etc are arranged into a storyform, but the outward storyform alone doesn’t give much reasonable explanation as to why we should celebrate Christmas. It’s only when we take all the sources and compare them and do a bit of research into where this celebration and story came from do we get a real flavour of its sacredness and its original message.
Lying as a foundation to our modern Christmas festival there is a vast amount of symbolism, festivals and observances which come from pre-Christian, Pagan times, and includes the Druids, the Celts, the Greek and Middle-Eastern Mystery-Schools, and religions from the East which involved merry making, feasting and drinking, candle lighting, exchanging gifts, messages of the virgin birth of a Saviour who advocates peace and goodwill to all men, and also some of the other Christmas images that I mentioned earlier. The cultures that held these beliefs and festivals more than 2000 years ago were on the whole individual, had separate identities and didn’t really borrow traditions from each other the way our civilisation does today. In spite of this their religious themes and symbols were the same. But when the Roman Empire spread through Europe and into the Mediterranean area they began to incorporate Roman tradition into native tradition and this eventually distorted and/or destroyed local, regional, and national celebrations. Since then, throughout history and up to the present day, the old common threads of messages which lay underneath the public festivities have lived on, and they’ve lived on because they pertain to eternal facts of nature, and the truth about man’s essential divinity which is at the centre of the entire Christmas story.
The Mystery-Schools of Greece and the Middle-East existed as a means of teaching some of the facts of nature. These Mystery-Schools were supervised by the State in some instances and as a result so were their public festivals. During these festivals some of nature’s secrets were portrayed in dramatic and ceremonial form, these “secrets” going by the name of the Lesser Mysteries, what we could call today the arts and sciences, although without as much of today’s materialistic bent. They gave ordinary people the chance to explore Nature through these mediums. The Greater Mysteries of Nature were never spoken of openly and were discussed only by those who were worthy.
Christianity was an offshoot of the Mystery-School tradition and is really a synthesis of many religions and philosophies. Its core became more developed by borrowing teachings from religions like Mithraism of the Persians, who were sun worshippers, the Egyptian religion, also a solar and stellar religion, and Neo-Platonism, and as a result, through time, the original inner meanings of its symbolism began to get lost. This led to doctrinal confusion. The early Church leaders had differences of opinion over what the real truth of the teachings actually was which led to distortions of the philosophy that was to be taught. So if we could uncover even some of the truth of some of the teachings before they became distorted it would help to give us a background to understanding the key message of Christmas, the true spirit of Christmas if you like.
Among the teachings of the Mysteries is the idea that everything in nature is bound together in a universal harmony. The stars, planets and moons all act in synchrony with each other and work within cosmic laws and cycles set by divine beings which are themselves the very laws of nature, just as our human cycles, our habits, automatically create laws for the many lives that live within our bodies. The forces which flow through the universe and its celestial bodies are the same forces which flow through us. The laws and cycles of our solar system create patterns of energy which occur and recur, rise and peak at regular intervals, and since we are an integral part of this system these times of solar and planetary activity affect us as individuals, sometimes in visible ways and sometimes in invisible ways. Such times of activity, among others, we see as the four points of the sun in our year; the two Equinoxes – Spring and Autumn, and the two Solstices – Summer and Winter. Each one has a different quality and lends itself to bringing about certain changes which may occur within us. The Winter Solstice in particular lends itself to man feeling more at one with his spiritual nature. The effect is heightened under certain astronomical conditions. The ancients knew this and for this reason a festival has always been celebrated around this time – for example, the Druids used to light symbolic fires on hilltops, the Romans called the birth of the sun back into the northern hemisphere the return of Sol Invictus – the Unconquered Sun, and of course the early Christians used to celebrate the return of Jesus Christ who was referred to as the Christ Sun, and continued their celebration through the fourteen days following the Winter Solstice.
So the Winter Solstice, which falls on December 21, has always been seen as a time of birth; the annual rebirth of the sun into the northern hemisphere bringing with it nourishment for plants and crops, and also the birth of the divine in man. The sun is an ancient symbol of divinity, because it itself is a divine being, the source for all life in its system. The Ancient Wisdom tells us it’s at the Winter Solstice, a time when conditions naturally allow, that Nature offers us a chance to experience the effect that our own spiritual nature can have on us, and to share in part the wonderful experiences felt by those who are at this time being spiritually reborn but fully conscious of it. It’s said that the Winter Solstice is the time when great souls become Buddhas. And so the Winter Solstice festival was not only concerned with the rebirth of the physical sun but also the rebirth of the spiritual sun which in turn helps to awaken the spiritual part of man. Just as our physical bodies are made from the same materials that make up the sun, so we have within us the same solar, spiritual nature as the sun. In acknowledgement of this many Christian hymns are dedicated to the sun, or Father Sun as it was called, but not the physical sun that we see as a fireball in the sky but the spiritual intelligence behind and within it.
Now central to the Christmas story is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ. When I read of the Nativity in the Gospels of the New Testament intuition tells me that there are too many symbols and allegories for this story to be concerned with just a physical event. Today however, Christmas is seen as a celebration of the physical birth of Jesus. But taken symbolically it can be seen as the birth of the spiritual part of man within the human part of us. Our spiritual part is our eternal Individuality, called Christos in Greek, meaning “one who has been anointed”. This is an example of the confusion over points of religious doctrine in the early days of the Christian Church, and in the end the two points – the physical birth and the later spiritual rebirth or mystical second birth were eventually rolled into the one teaching. If we are to believe that such a man as Jesus did exist then he was undoubtedly an Initiate of the Mysteries and as such he is said to have referred to as man’s only salvation the need to be “born again”. The need for each of us to allow our own Christos to be born into us, slowly at first, and to influence our lives in a more spiritual way. In the Book of John (1:12-13) it says in essence that all those who initiate in themselves a more spiritual way of life will have a life-changing experience. They will be reborn; “not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan, but from the will of God”. It goes on to say that “Christ took our human nature and lived here on earth”(1:14). The inference here is as Jesus said; that the kingdom of heaven or spirit is within man – a part of him, not outside of him in the form of a personal God, and that he must, whilst still being in material form, bring his spiritual nature to birth within himself, by himself. The Winter Solstice therefore reminds man that his salvation from suffering can only be done by him having a recognition and union with his inner divinity. So what is this process? How can this happen?
The four Gospels, when taken symbolically and in conjunction with what we’ve learned about the connections between the Winter Solstice, the Sun, and man’s spiritual nature are actually dramatized accounts of actual events which took, and may still take place during initiation into some of the aforementioned Mysteries. Remembering the Nativity story, it’s said that at the time of the Winter Solstice the initiant entered the temple – sometimes referred to as a crypt, cave, or a manger – and became entranced, and while it was watched over by others he left his body and as a spirit-soul travelled to the heart of the sun where the two would become as one. The journey to the sun was via the 3 Magi (the three planets between the Earth and the Sun – the Moon, Venus and Mercury) – Balthazar, “Ba’al” or “Bel” (the Moon), Melchior the “King of Light”, the Roman translation of which is “Lucifer” (Venus), and Kaspar, loosely translated as “Scribe” or “Recorder” (Mercury). After fourteen days the now radiant spirit-soul would then return back to the body. It would appear then as if the body were resurrected. The person was now glowing with spiritual energy, and as such it was said that the person was “clothed with the sun”. He was now a Christ, a Buddha or Bodhisattva, who had returned, being “twice born” (physically and also spiritually) to spread his spirituality amongst men. This returning event was known as the Epiphany, which means “to shine”, still a date in the Christian calendar which refers to Jesus’ baptism, and when his inner divinity, the Christos, manifested for all to see. This second or spiritual birth is what is meant by the Immaculate Conception or Virgin Birth. “Immaculate Conception” because the origin of this second spiritual birth takes place in the pure, unspoilt, or virgin part of man – his spirit – which is in turn a ray from the sun. The teaching of a virgin birth is not unique to Christianity, for example Krishna was born of a virgin as was Horus born of Virgin-Mother Isis, to name but two. Also, Cosmically speaking according to H. P. Blavatsky, it is the Cosmic Virgin-Mother of Space who gives birth to her many children who are all lifeforms (everything) in all their variations.
What all this tells us is that to become a Christ the man must be reborn from within himself. It is an unfolding or evolution from his pure divine centre, and this starts from what seems very plain and humble origins. It comes about by aspiring and striving to be more spiritual whenever we can, not just at Christmas time, and to follow the path of compassion, trying to sense the sacredness of every moment and allow its selflessness to influence our every thought. But at Christmas time, with the annual retelling of the Nativity with the symbols of the newborn King, the Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, the Shepherds, the Three Magi, and all the rest of it, something is created in the air – a sense of peace and goodwill – which emphasises the importance of what we should be striving towards and reminds us of what we really are – spiritual beings – and what we can achieve if we work at awakening the spiritual part of us – the Christ element within us. How to do this is the message given by Christ which is forgiveness, compassion and love and that hope can never be destroyed. It’s the essence of this teaching which is at the heart of the Christmas spirit.