The simple symbology and plain story fashion of the New Testament, combined with the belief by some in literalism and inerrancy, have led to a superficial approach to the universal truths concealed just below the surface. An examination of the development of resurrection and virgin birth in Christian mythology and dogma will lead us to insights into the mystic tradition hidden behind them.
Do you know why Easter falls on a different Sunday and sometimes a different month each year? A phone survey of a dozen or so churches revealed most of them had no answer, so we should not feel inadequate if we do not know. The reason has been hidden by hundreds of years of mundane approaches to Christianity. Near the beginning of The Book of Common Prayer is a section entitled "Tables for the Movable and Immovable Feasts, Together with the Days of Fasting and Abstinence, through the Whole Year." The title of the first section reads: "Rules to know when the Movable Feasts and Holy Days begin," and continues:
EASTER DAY, on which the rest depend, is always the First Sunday after the Full Moon, which happens upon or next after the Twenty-first Day of March [the vernal Equinox]; and if the Full Moon happen upon a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday after.
But NOTE, That the Full Moon, for the purposes of these Rules and Tables, is the Fourteenth Day of a Lunar Month, reckoned according to an ancient Ecclesiastical computation, and not the real or Astronomical Full Moon. — The Book of Common Prayer, p. 1
And here is the beginning of a fascinating story.
For its first three centuries Christianity was expressed in a variety of ways with differing doctrines on the most fundamental issues. There never was an original monolithic Christianity. A major crisis for the early Christians arose in 196 over when to celebrate Easter. In a letter to eminent bishops, Pope Victor recommended that synods be called in various provinces to celebrate the feast of Easter on the day chosen by the Church of the West. The Eastern Church had a different date. The order was not observed by all and openly rebuked by some, and Victor threatened excommunication. The controversy had been going on before that time, and would continue for centuries. Other important differences were officially aired at the first of three synods held at Antioch from 264 to 269 (A History of the Church Councils from the Original Documents in three volumes, by Right Rev. Charles Joseph; Hefele, D.D., Edinburgh, 1894). These synods were part of an effort which would last over a hundred years to establish an organized religion, with a theology, dogmas, festivals, and canon — the New Testament would not be officially recognized until 405 (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, Oxford University Press, 1993.).
At Antioch Bishop Paul of Samosata raised the most significant issue by denying the divinity of Christ. It is startling to us today, but for three centuries of early Christianity no one really knew who Jesus was, when and where he was born, or when and where he died. The Bishop of Samosata was standing on firm ground when making his declaration and by further stating that Jesus was called "Son of God" merely on account of his holiness and good deeds. The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (1:3-4) that Jesus "was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead."
There were various similar arguments. A great number of early Christians quite reasonably believed that Jesus and God were not one and the same, though they believed Jesus to be a great spiritual teacher. This line of thought has continued right up to our present day and is based upon profound theological and philosophical argument. So, how did the weaker philosophical point of view, Jesus being one and the same as God, become the dogma of Christianity?
By the fourth century Christians had been fighting and arguing everywhere over fundamentals of their faith. It became so bitter that the Pagans used it against them publicly. Religion was always a part of Greek and Roman politics at that time, and though Christianity was not one of the dominant religions, Constantine, nonetheless, wanted to stop the arguing and bitterness going on in both the West and Asia Minor which he was trying to unite into a new Roman Empire. The teaching that Jesus was made god-like but not begotten as God then centered around a man named Arius, who lived in the East, the center of what was being called Arianism.
Following an exchange of condemnations (323-324) between the Arians and various gatherings of clergy in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, the Roman emperor Constantine I, anxious for unity and peace, sent emissaries to mediate the conflict. This effort failed, and he summoned the first ecumenical (general church) Council of Nicaea ... in May 325, to settle what he termed "a fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences." — Encyclopedia Britannica, 1:518, fifteenth edition.
This is significant for a number of reasons. First, Constantine was neither a full member of the Church nor an official, yet he called the first Church Council of Nicaea and the bishops obeyed. (This is the generally accepted view. In A History of the Church Councils (1:9) the Rt. Rev. C. J. Hefele states that no written evidence from Nicaea has come down to us verifying any consultation with the Pope; however, "the sixth Oecumenical Synod in 680 expressly asserted that the Synod of Nicaea was summoned by the Emperor and Pope Sylvester"). Secondly, he clearly had no grasp of the importance of the issue, and this left him vulnerable to manipulation. When Arius declared that Jesus was not begotten as a divinity but rather was born as man and made a divinity, seventeen Bishops backed him at Nicaea; however the majority did not agree. He was ordered exiled by Constantine, his books and the writings of his followers burned; and, in a telling move, Constantine ordered that the term Arian not be used but the ideas should be called Porphyrian. This reference, whether intended to be degrading or not, linked Arius's ideas to Alexandria and Neoplatonism, and linked the actions taken by Constantine and the growing Church to attacks upon the wisdom-tradition.
The first Council of Nicaea was significant. It was a major step in a continuing attempt to establish a formal religion. More importantly, since Constantine was trying to rebuild the Roman Empire, it may be assumed that his need to end the increasing religious dissension centered in the East must have had some impact upon Church doctrine. Finally, we can infer the need of the growing Church for political power as it obeyed the commands of a non-official to settle critical issues and hoped to use the imperial authority to enforce them. Constantine declared Jesus and God to be one.
As expressly stated, these issues could be modified or changed by other councils. The arguments surrounding Jesus did not end at Nicaea but persisted for over a hundred years. Some councils reversed the Nicaean verdict. Consistent through the reversals and several transformations of thought were the underlying political pressure and sometimes brutal threats of various Emperors to force the Church to that ruler's particular point of view. It was not until 449 at the Council of Ephesus, a singularly violent gathering, that binding support of the Nicene Creed was achieved. Today, millions of Christians recite the Nicene Creed affirming that Jesus was "begotten and not made," perhaps never asking themselves about the history behind it or what it means. It is important to note that throughout history sincere people have struggled against great odds on their inner pilgrimage to understand the nature of the sacred. We need to recognize now more than ever that spirituality is ultimately an inner concern irresolvable by debate, religious organizations, or governments.
The other great struggle at Nicaea was to decide upon the continuing argument as to when to celebrate Easter. The decision was made to link the event with the equinox, in part for popular reasons, i.e., to gain more adherents. The Jewish holy days were not only based upon a lunar calendar, but also associated with the equinoxes and the solstices, as were all significant Pagan events. To avoid confusing Easter with the Passover celebration the present system was instituted. This remains the rule in The Book of Common Prayer.
Why were astronomical events, virgin divine births, and resurrection so important? Was there something more behind these issues than politics? Did a few of the early Church Fathers know something more?
Virgin births and resurrections, rather than being the exclusive property of any one religion, are found universally, and powerfully suggest a message of deep significance and common truth abiding in the religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions of mankind. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces comments that virgin births are most common:
Any leaf accidentally swallowed, any nut, or even the breath of a breeze may be enough to fertilize the ready womb. The procreating power is everywhere. And according to the whim or destiny of the hour, either a hero-savior or a world-annihilating demon may be conceived one can never know . — pp. 311-12
The stories of virgin birth are familiar and seem to occur everywhere "under a variety of guises." Once an individual has
brought mankind to the nadir of spiritual abasement, the occult forces of the cycle begin of themselves to move. In an inconspicuous village the maid is born who will maintain herself undefiled of the fashionable errors of her generation: a miniature in the midst of men of the cosmic woman who was the bride of the wind. Her womb, remaining fallow as the primordial abyss, summons to itself by its very readiness the original power that fertilized the void . — Ibid., p. 308
The story is recounted everywhere; and with such striking uniformity of the main contours, that the early Christian missionaries were forced to think that the devil himself must be throwing up mockeries of their teaching wherever they set their hand. — p. 309
From Greece comes the virgin birth of Adonis, who was resurrected after being killed by a wild boar. Adonis was revered by the Phoenicians as a dying-and-rising god, and Athenians held Adonia, a yearly festival representing his death and resurrection, in midsummer.
From the Americas comes a remarkable story of the god-man Quetzalcoatl told by the Aztecs and Mayans. Not only did he have a virgin birth, but he was associated with the planet Venus, the morning star, as was Jesus. In addition, the religion built around him used the cross as a symbolic representation. Like the myths around Jesus, Quetzalcoatl said he would return to claim his earthly kingdom.
From the East we hear of the Buddha coming into the world by virgin birth, a descent from heaven to Maya's womb in the guise of a milk-white elephant.
What of the stories of resurrection? These too are common. The Canaanites had their Baal — sacred teacher, Lord of the Universe — who was killed by monsters and resurrected to eternal life. In Egypt Osiris was born of the gods by virgin birth, and taught Egyptians their arts and skills. He was murdered by his brother, and rose from the dead with the help of Isis, his wife. A day was set aside to celebrate Osiris and the idea of resurrection and eternal life. The Scandinavian story of Odin has striking similarities to the Christian story. Odin recalls for the reader his own crucifixion from which he rose from the dead: "I know that I hung in the wind-torn tree nine whole nights, spear-pierced. Consecrated to Odin, myself to my Self above me in the tree, whose root no one knows whence it sprang" (The Masks of Odin: Wisdom of the Ancient Norse, Elsa-Brita Titchenell, p. 126). The cross is often referred to as the tree of life.
With so many stories of virgin birth and resurrection, surely we cannot fail to see that, regardless of the forms they take or the peoples involved, these stories describe a universal process. But what is the process? For what reason does it exist? What we are missing is an understanding that we may gain from the words of the Christian Easter mythos. In Matthew (27:45-7) the Easter story is told in part:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Some of them that stood there, when they heard that said, This man calleth for Elias.
Mark (15:33-5) tells a similar story and every Easter in every Christian church these passages are read. Christians will be surprised to learn that the Hebrew words conflict with their biblical translation. In his book The Source of Measures, J. Ralston Skinner, a Mason and scholar of the Old and New Testaments, gives a lengthy analysis. When the Hebrew Eli, Eli lama sabachtbani? is translated it means: "My God, my God, how thou dost glorify me!" He explains:
But even more, for while lama is why, or how, as a verbal it connects the idea of to dazzle, or adverbially, it could run "how dazzlingly," and so on.
The passage was meant to be a reference to the first verse of the twenty-second Psalm which reads:
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The Hebrew of this verse for these words . . . is correct, and the interpretation sound and good, but with an utterly different word. The words are —
Eli, Eli, lamah azahvtba-ni?
No wit of man, however scholarly, can save this passage from falseness of rendering on its face; and as so, it becomes a most terrible blow upon the proper first-face sacredness of the recital. There is but one, and there is one escape, and that is by having resort to the mystical intent. — p. 301
H. P. Blavatsky, G. de Purucker, and others have commented further on this complex theme of contrasting thoughts: glorification versus being forsaken. H. P. Blavatsky remarks:
For ten years or more, sat the revisers (?) of the Bible, a most imposing and solemn array of the learned of the land, the greatest Hebrew and Greek scholars of England, purporting to correct the mistakes and blunders, the sins of omission and of commission of their less learned predecessors, the translators of the Bible. Are we going to be told that none of them saw the glaring difference between the Hebrew words azabvtba-ni, in Psalms, xxii, and sabachtbani in Matthew; that they were not aware of the deliberate falsification?
For "falsification" it was. And if we are asked the reason why the early Church Fathers resorted to it, the answer is plain: Because the Sacramental words belonged in their true rendering to Pagan temple rites. They were pronounced after the terrible trials of Initiation, and were still fresh in the memory of some of the "Fathers" when the Gospel of Matthew was edited into the Greek language. Because, finally, many of the Hierophants of the Mysteries, and many more of the Initiates were still living in those days, and the sentence rendered in its true words would class Jesus directly with the simple Initiates. The words "My God, my Sun, thou hast poured thy radiance upon me!" were the final words that concluded the thanksgiving prayer of the Initiate, "the Son and the glorified Elect of the Sun." — H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, 14:147-8
Now we have come to the crux of the issue. Hidden in the stories of virgin birth, death, and resurrection are suggestions of the actual events of initiation. As the events are directly related to the solstices and the equinoxes, we can bring reason to the relationship of Easter to the equinox. In these events all life — terrestrial and cosmic — is linked together. If the candidate is successful, the God is resurrected from the outer and dead personal self. This is what is meant by being born again — truly a virgin birth.
At the propitious time of a new moon, a candidate is laid upon a cruciform couch, the body entranced in a state as though dead. The consciousness of the candidate departs the physical body and undergoes two major events. The first is the confrontation, not only of his own lower nature, but the depths of the lower nature of all mankind. He must do this separated from his own higher self, in which case the words — "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" or "My inner god, my inner god, why hast thou departed?" — are most appropriate. If the trials are endured successfully, and if in the process the candidate sheds some light on the beings of the underworld, he emerges when the moon is full to unite with his or her higher nature and experience the glories of cosmic life. After this union and the realization of cosmic awareness, the words "My God, my God, how thou dost glorify me" are appropriate. The contradiction of Hebrew and Greek terms in the biblical account hint at grander vistas. Hidden in this document are suggestions of the equinoctial initiations.
Today Christianity is undergoing a renewed and serious examination of its very roots. If successful, this will take us far beyond the literal interpretation of an "inerrant" Bible to a recondite universalism consistent with infinite divinity. When a religion begins, its earliest followers are those who have been moved by its original inspiration. While the essence of that inspiration is best left undescribed, they feel the need to preserve it and pass it along to others. In the process less inspired individuals may become dominant and, rather than encouraging an inspiration of each person's own, a prescribed method is instituted and mandatory rules and beliefs — dogmas — are established.
The root of Easter is not the story of one individual caught up in civil and religious disorder who suffered capital punishment and later rose from the dead. It is the story of a universal event that, after lifetimes of training, results in a series of profound awakenings to a sense of cosmos in daily life. Rather than a one-time event, initiation continues to this day when nature and mankind provide the right conditions.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)