Since midsummer the sun has risen a little later each morning. The days have gradually become shorter and the nights longer until the year's cycle finally rounded to its close at the time of the winter solstice. Then came a pause of five days, after which the sun again began to rise a little earlier each day as the new year commenced. Thus does the year in its rhythmic inbreathing and outbreathing follow the pattern of cosmic cycles in which universes come and go.
It has been quite the fashion to dismiss a large part of mythology as mere "sun myth"; the learned authorities not realizing that the yearly course of the sun through the seasons and the signs of the zodiac was dramatized by the ancients in myth and mystery play because in it they saw the pattern of all cycles: of the year, of the month, of the day, of human life, and of greater spiritual cycles un-guessed by the multitude.
The year is a minor manvantara within the cycle of a larger manvantara, and it in a still larger — on and on until the whole universe is encompassed within a period of alternate waking and sleeping too vast for the mind to grasp. In each period there is a childhood, maturity, old age and death followed after a period of rest by a rebirth into a new period of activity.
Nature is thus a living demonstration of those inner laws governing all life which it is the purpose of Theosophy to promulgate. That which takes trillions of years in a distant star or solar system may pass in an infinitesimal flash of time within an atom. The passage of a great manvantara is repeated in essentials in the cycle of every day and of every year. The difference is largely one of degree, and seen as different because we are seldom aware of cyclic changes in the inner spiritual planes.
We may sometimes wish we could witness the celebrated Mystery Dramas of ancient Greece, when quite unheeded the real Mystery Drama is played about us every day of our lives, and it is only because we are so blinded by material interests that we do not see or understand.
Christmas and New Year's falling as they do, near the winter solstice, celebrate the period when the spirit draws near to the heart of Nature and revivifies it; and Nature begins to stir in her sleep and re-awaken for a new "manvantara" of twelve months. Great initiations take place at this season and it is around the initiatory cycle that the Christmas story is written, for it is at the time of the Winter Solstice that all the saviors of the world are said to be born.
Every birth and even every cycle has something in it analogous to the creation of the world. In each case there is the manifest emerging from the unmanifest through a laya center which is often symbolized as a door or gate. In each case there is the descent through the stages of the three logoi from the spiritual to the physical. Karmic seeds sown in the previous cycle descend, come to fruition and color the opening period of activity.
The name January, the first month of the year, is derived from Janus, the two-faced god of the Romans — commonly said to face two ways: backwards toward the old year and forwards toward the new, thus forming a fitting symbol of the first month of the year.
There is a profound significance attached to the myth of Janus, for as Ovid explains in Fasti, (I, 73-289) Janus was known to the ancient Greeks as Chaos, who was older than any of the gods and existed before the formation of the earth, or the differentiation of its elements: he represents the highly spiritual state in which worlds or universes exist between embodiments; and by analogy, since all cycles reflect the same cosmic pattern, the symbol applies equally well to every coming into life.
Ovid has Janus say:
"The ancients called me Chaos, for a being from of old am I; observe the long, long ages, of which my song shall tell. Yon lucid air and the three other bodies, fire, water, earth, were huddled all in one. When once, through the discord of its elements, the mass parted, dissolved, and went in diverse ways to seek new homes, flame sought the height, air filled the nearer space, while earth and sea sank in the middle deep. "Twas then that I, till that time a mere mass, a shapeless lump, assumed the face and members of a god." (Fasti I, 163-114, Sir J. G. Frazer's translation).
Janus with his keys is represented as guarding the thresholds of the gods, and of all beginnings and endings. Ovid makes Janus continue:
"Whate'er you see anywhere — sky, sea, clouds, earth — all things are closed and opened by my hands. The guardianship of this vast universe is in my hands alone, and none but me may rule the wheeling pole." (Fasti, I, 117-120)
"I sit at heaven's gate with the gentle Hours; my office regulates the goings and comings of Jupiter himself." (Fasti, I, 125-127) Here Janus speaks as the voice of cycles as a "law of nature," to which the whole universe is obedient.
There is a great truth hidden in the ancient legend of Janus, for it contains laws and principles of being which enter into the very fiber and structure of the universe. The deepest mysteries lie concealed within the system of the calendar, even though at times the calendar may be out of gear with nature, for it holds the key to many of the problems of life.
The symbolic glyph of two-faced Janus seated in the entrance to a temple is in its purity one of the great symbols of the ancient wisdom. There is something about it of the archaic past which rises above the mass of mythological fancy obscuring so much of the religious thought of Greece and Rome.
Where else may traces of this legend be found, one may ask?
In Central America, the first day-sign of the Maya calendar, Imix the earth dragon, sometimes illustrated with a head at each end represents the spiritual beginning of the earth. Among the Aztecs the corresponding sign, Cipactli, is similarly represented with two heads, one at each end. Both signs belong to the beginnings of earth embodiment and analogically to the beginning of any natural cycle.
Sir James Frazer cites the double-headed idol of the Bush negroes, facing inward and outward, which they regularly set up as a guardian at the entrance to their villages. Above it two uprights and a crossbar form a rude gate. A more primitive form is found in the "spirit sticks" of the desert Indians of Southern California who formerly placed a forked stick upright in the entrance to the cave wherein they had cached pottery or utensils. The fork with its two prongs was supposed in some way to protect against theft and to warn the owner of any attempt to intrude. So it is that sublime ideas, when their significance is lost, descend to the level of superstition and magic.
There are many correspondences between the beginning of a new year, and the beginning of a new life. As the higher self of man approaches rebirth, it sees for a moment a vision of its past existence, and is shown what the coming life offers, what lessons are to be learned, what wrongs to be righted. The higher self sees and makes its choice. Then again at the moment of death, there comes a review of the life just finished: wherein success has come, wherein failure — and then comes peace and rest.
This moment of vision inward and outward, accompanying the entrance and exit to life, was believed by the ancients to be in some degree true of all cycles of activity both large and small. If one prepares for the moment of sleep by quiet meditation and aspiration reviewing the events of the day and resolving to do better on the morrow, he will awaken in the morning with aspiration and peace in his mind and will find the whole day illumined with an inner light.
Resolutions made at the beginning of the new cycle of a new year likewise have the forces of nature with them, and noble efforts made at that time are more likely to succeed.