The Theosophical Forum – December 1942

TRUTH AND SYMBOL IN THE CHRISTMAS STORY (1) — John Gayner Banks

What we call the Festival of Christmas or the Nativity of Jesus the Christ is not merely a date in history — actually an historical event — but it is also a Symbol of profound Reality and the focal point of a sublime truth, significant to all mankind.

A symbol has a chief meaning, and then various subsidiary meanings. For instance, the Sun is the symbol of the Logos; that is its chief or primary significance. But it is also an objective fact in the external world, capable of scientific observation and deduction by so-called Physical Science. It also stands for an incarnation of the LOGOS, or for any of the great Messengers who represent Him for the time, as an ambassador represents his King. High Initiates who are sent on special missions to incarnate among men and live with them for a time as Rulers or Teachers, would be designated by the symbol of the sun; for though it is not their symbol in an individual sense, it is theirs in virtue of their office.

The Sun is the physical shadow, or body, as it may be called, of the LOGOS; hence its yearly course in nature reflects His activity, in the partial way in which a shadow represents the activity of the object that casts it. The LOGOS, "the Son of God," descending into matter, has as shadow the annual course of the sun, and the Sun-Myth tells it. Hence, again, an incarnation of the LOGOS, or one of his high ambassadors, will also represent that activity, shadow-like, in His body as a man. Christmas, properly understood, is such a manifestation — both exoterically and esoterically. It is our privilege and duty to understand both these aspects. The Christian Sacred Writings in the New Testament give us the exoteric story and some slight indication of the esoteric meaning.

Alfred de Vigny has said that legend is frequently more true than history, because legend recounts not acts which are often incomplete and abortive, but the genius itself of great men and great nations. It is pre-eminently to the Gospel that this beautiful thought is applicable, for the Gospel is not merely the narration of what has been; it is the sublime narration of what is and what always will be. Ever will the Savior of the world be adored by kings of intelligence, represented by the Magi; ever will He multiply the eucharistic Bread to nourish and comfort our souls; ever, when we invoke him in the night and the tempest, will He come to us walking on the waters, will He stretch forth His hand and make us pass over the crests of the billows; ever will He cure our distempers and give back light to our eyes; ever will He appear to His faithful, luminous and transfigured upon Mount Tabor, interpreting the Law of Moses and moderating the zeal of Elijah. (2)

This deep insight of the meaning of Christian symbols is reflected in some of our greatest poets. Many examples may be found in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (published by the Oxford University Press, New York). Francis Thompson's "The Kingdom of God" is an exceptionally fine sample.

The broad outlines of the story of the Sun-God are very clear and agree in essential detail with the story of the coming of Jesus as a baby at the first Christmas. He is always born at the winter solstice, after the shortest day in the year, at the midnight of the 24th of December, when the constellation Virgo is rising; born as this constellation is rising, he is born always of a Virgin, and she remains a virgin after she has given birth to the Sun-Child, as the celestial Virgo remains unchanged and unsullied when the Sun comes forth from her in the heavens. Weak, feeble as an infant is he, born when the days are shortest and the nights are longest, surrounded with perils in his infancy. But He lives through all the threatening dangers, and the day lengthens towards the spring equinox, till the time comes for the crossing over, the crucifixion, the date varying with each year.

Isis of Egypt like Mary of Bethlehem was our Immaculate Lady, Star of the Sea (Stella Maris), Queen of Heaven, Mother of God. We see her in pictures standing on the crescent moon, star-crowned; she nurses her child Horus, and the cross appears on the back of the seat in which he sits on his mother's knee. The Virgo of the Zodiac is represented in ancient drawings as a woman suckling a child — a type of all future Madonnas with their Divine Babes, showing the origin of the symbol.

The relation of the winter solstice to Jesus is also significant. The birth of Mithras was celebrated in the winter solstice with great rejoicings, and Horus was also then born.

His birth is one of the greatest mysteries of the Egyptian religion. Pictures representing it appeared on the walls of the temples. He was the child of Deity. At Christmas time, or that answering to our festival, his image was brought out of the sanctuary with peculiar ceremonies, as the image of the infant Bambino is still brought out and exhibited at Rome. (3)

On the fixing of the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus, Williamson gives us the following data: All Christians know that the 25th of December is now the recognised festival of the Birth of Jesus, but few are aware that this has not always been so. There have been, it is said, 136 different dates fixed on by different sects. Lightfoot gives it as 15th September, others as in February or August. Epiphanius mentioned two sects, one celebrating it in June, the other in July. The matter was finally settled by Pope Julius I, in 337 a. d., and St. Chrysostom, writing in 390 says: "On this day (i. e. 25th Dec.) also the birth of Christ was lately fixed at Rome, in order that while the heathen were busy with their ceremonies the Christians might perform their rites undisturbed." Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire writes: "The (Christian) Romans, as ignorant as their brethren of the real date of Christ's birth, fixed the solemn festival to the 25th December, the Brumalia or winter solstice, when the Pagans annually celebrated the birth of the Sun." King, in his work, Gnostics and their Remains, also says: "The ancient festival held on the 25th of December in honor of the birthday of the Invincible One (Natalis Solis Invicti — the birthday of the Invincible Sun), and celebrated by the great games at Circus, was afterwards transferred to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, the precise date of which many of the Fathers confess was then unknown." Even Dean Farrar (author of the celebrated Life of Christ) writes that "all attempts to discover the month and day of the nativity are useless. No data whatever exist to enable us to determine them with even approximate accuracy." From the foregoing it is apparent that the great festival of the winter solstice has been celebrated during past ages, and in widely separated lands, in honor of the birth of a God, who is almost invariably alluded to as a "Savior," and whose mother is referred to as a pure virgin. To quote Annie Besant in Esoteric Christianity:

Rightly considered, the Christmas festival should take on new elements of rejoicing and of sacredness, when the lovers of Christ see in it the repetition of an ancient solemnity, see it stretching all the world over, and far, far back into dim antiquity; so that the Christmas bells are ringing throughout human history, and musically out of the far-off night of time.

Christ came then to His own flesh and blood because the world of men drew Him and the love of the Father impelled Him. He came to give to life a purpose and fulfilment, and to indicate to us The Way: He came to give to us an example, so that we could be galvanized by the hope that "maketh not ashamed" (Romans, v, 5), to press toward the mark for "the prize of our high calling." (Phil, iii, 14). The words of Phillips Brooks, express this idea most clearly. Let me quote from his book The Light of the World:

Christ when he comes, finds the soul of the world really existent, really having within itself its holiest capabilities, really moving, though dimly and darkly, in spite of all its hindrances, in its true direction. And what he does for it is to quicken it through and through; to sound the bugle of its true life in its ears; to make it feel the nobleness of movements which have seemed to it ignoble, the hopefulness of impulses which have seemed hopeless, to bid it be itself. . . The worthless becomes full of worth, the insignificant becomes full of meaning. . . They faintly catch the feeble reflection of His life Who is the true Light of the World, the real illumination and inspiration of humanity. . . The truth is that every higher life to which man comes, and especially the highest life in Christ, is in the true line of man's humanity. There is the quickening and fulfilling of what man, by the very essence of his nature, is. The more man becomes irradiated with Divinity the more, not the less, truly he is man.

We are told in the Gospel story that the Virgin Mary, with her husband Joseph and bearing within herself the Christ Child, went up from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Sometimes, through a study of the significance of the names in the Bible and in tradition, we can throw much light on the episode itself and unveil some of its hidden meaning. Thus we find that Nazareth means "that which is consecrated" or set apart. "Galilee" means "the turning of the wheel," the wheel of life and death which turns continuously, carrying us with it and keeping us upon the "wheel of existence" as the Buddhists call it, until we have learned life's lessons.

The long journey of existence lies behind the Christ, and He with his Mother, journeys the last part of the way. Consecrated from past aeons to this very work of world salvation, He has first of all to submit Himself to the ordinary processes of birth and childhood. Christ came forth from Nazareth, the place of consecration, and went up to Bethlehem, the House of Bread, where in a peculiar way He Himself was to become "The Bread of Life" to a hungry world. He was set apart, or set Himself apart (as do all awakened sons of God) for the work of redemption. He came to feed the hungry, and in this connexion two verses in the Bible convey light upon His task in its preparation. Isaiah tells us that "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (John, xii, 24). This was the destiny awaiting Him when He came to the Birth in Bethlehem. Then he entered upon the career which eventually "bruised" Him and led Him to His death.

The name Mary (according to Cruden's Concordance) means "the exalted of the Lord" (See her Magnificat — especially Luke, i, 52). Joseph's name means "he who shall add"; he was a builder, a carpenter, a worker in the building trade, one who adds stone to stone, or beam to beam. He is the symbol of the building-creative aspect of God the Father. In these three people, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and Mary, we have the divine Triplicity symbolized and represented — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, or matter informed by Deity, and therefore typified for us in the Virgin Mary.

Today the masses are on a journey. Today the teaching of the Path and of the Way to God is engrossing the attention of the aspirants in the world. We are on the Path of return to the individual and to the racial Bethlehem. We are now on the point of entering the Cave wherein the new birth can take place, and therefore one stage of life's long journey is nearly completed. This symbolism is truer perhaps, than we care to think it is. The world problem today is bread, and our anxieties, our bewilderments, our wars and our struggles are based upon the economic problems of how to feed the peoples. Because most of us here in these United States are reasonably well fed, we hardly realize how urgent and pathetic is the need for bread (for food) in the greater part of the world outside of this continent. Today the whole world is occupied with the Bethlehem idea, with bread. In this subtle implication there surely comes to us a guarantee that as He came before to the House of Bread so will He again fulfill His word and fulfill Himself and return. The cave, a place of darkness and of discomfort, was for Mary the place of pain and weariness. This cave or stable story of the New Testament is perhaps as full of symbolism as any to be found in the Bible. The long and trying journey ended in the dark cave. The long and weary journey of humanity has brought us today to just such a hard and uninviting place. The life of the individual disciple, prior to taking initiation and passing through the experience of the New Birth, is ever one of the utmost difficulty and hardness. But in the dark, and through difficulty, Christ is to be found, the Christ life can flower forth and we can stand face to face before Him as the Initiator.

The Scottish poet, George Macdonald, sensed this when he wrote the beautiful words which have brought comfort to so many:

Challenge the darkness, whatsoe'er it be,
Sorrow's thick darkness, or strange mystery
Of prayer or providence Persist intent,
And thou shalt find love's veiled sacrament.
Some secret revelation, sweetness, light,
Waits to waylay the wrestler in the night.
In the thick darkness, at its very heart,
Christ meets, transfigured, souls He calls apart.

In this cave of initiation, all the four kingdoms of nature can be seen unmistakably symbolized for us. In the rocky structure of the cave the mineral kingdom appears. The fodder and the hay, naturally there, symbolize the vegetable kingdom. The ox and the ass represent the animal nature, but they represent also far more than that. The ox stood for that form of worship which should have been passing off the earth at the time Christ came. There were still many to be found who worshipped the bull, which was the worship prevalent in the age when our Sun was passing through the sign of Taurus, the Bull, and which was preserved at that time in the mysteries of Mithras and Egypt. The sign immediately preceding the Christian era was that of Aries, the Ram or Lamb, and this is symbolized for us in the sheepfolds which surrounded Bethlehem — also in the prophecy that the Messiah was to be "The Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world."

We find the human kingdom represented in Mary and Joseph, with the human unity plus the duality which are so essential to existence itself. In the newborn Babe divinity expresses itself. St. Luke describes the Babe (in its divine aspect) as through the words of an Angel:

The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (Luke, i, 35)

Thus in that little cave the whole cosmos is represented.

Regenerated men and women claim to share this Divine Sonship with Jesus the Christ. The expression of our divinity will bring to an end the hatred rampant on earth and break down all the separating walls which divide man from man, group from group, nation from nation, religion from religion. Where there is good will there must be peace; there must be organized activity and a recognition of the Divine Plan, for that Plan is synthesis, that Plan is fusion; that Plan is unity and at-one-ment. Thus Christ will be all in all and the Father will be glorified. The Purpose, the Plan and the Power are all there. But we must appreciate them; otherwise this Christmas will mean very little to us — as the first Christmas meant very little to the men and women of the First Century.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Condensed from the fourth of a series of lectures delivered by Dr. Banks at Theosophical University, during 1941-2, under the general title "Studies in the Life of Jesus Christ." Dr. Banks is Rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, San Diego, California, and is also an active Fellow of the Theosophical Society. (return to text)

2. See The Mysteries of Magic, by Eliphas Levi, p. 48. (return to text)

3. Bonwick, Egyptian Belief — quoted in The Great Law by Williamson, p. 26. (return to text)


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