Christmas is here again, and there is good reason for joy because the sun, now far away in the south, begins to travel north at the winter solstice, bringing the wintry earth a new promise of light and warmth.
On the night of December 21/22, the sun reaches its southernmost point. Were it to remain in the south, it would mean death for living beings in the northern hemisphere. Thus we greet the returning sun as a "savior." On the night when it begins its northward journey, the constellation Virgo, the celestial virgin, appears on the eastern horizon at midnight and is therefore, astrologically, the ascendant. This coordinates with the myth of the various saviors of humanity, immaculately conceived and born from a virgin. Later, the sun symbolically sacrifices its life on the cross when it passes over the equinoctial point at the spring equinox, an apparent descent as seen from the southern hemisphere and an ascent in the northern sky. The focal points of the year — the four sacred seasons of the solstices and equinoxes — affect the consciousness of all humanity; and no matter on which day the festivals fall, they can provide gateways for the properly attuned heart and mind, allowing us to enter the forecourt of the temple of learning and life.
The word "solstice" means "the standing still of the sun." From December 22-24 the sun seems, astronomically, to stand still. As a result of the inclination of the earth's axis, the sun reaches at a certain time of the year its southernmost point, when it rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. The poles of the earth and sun then lie in the same vertical plane, as they do at the summer solstice in June, when the sun reaches its northernmost point, and rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. At the two solstices the sun appears to stand still for a day before beginning its return journey in the opposite direction.
At the winter solstice the universal currents of life help human consciousness to enter divine spheres. At the same time spiritual energy can descend from higher worlds into the human arena: the gods "descend into hell" to garner experience in their underworld — our own world — thereby bringing inspiration and enlightenment to humanity. At this time each of us also may undergo a new birth. Nature has opened the door, and it is up to us to recognize this and take a step further.
At this solstice two different initiations can take place, depending on the time and individuals in question. (For a fuller exposition, see The Four Sacred Seasons by G. de Purucker, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1979.) The lesser initiation allows the initiant to travel to the portals of the sun and, if successful, to catch a glimpse of the essence of the solar divinity before returning after three days. By analogy, there must surely be initiations of less intensity extending down to ourselves. These lesser initiations, nevertheless very influential, are part of nature and of ourselves. In our everyday life we are preparing ourselves for initiation and so participate to some extent in the experience of those who have been chosen for greater tests at one of the sacred seasons. The more we understand the wonderful opportunity of these grand initiations, the more we shall recognize — in the thoughts flowing through our consciousness that our higher self or divinity within is preparing us to take that step one day.
The higher initiation, which occurs once in a Messianic cycle of 2,160 years, is one of the sublimest experiences imaginable. In the lesser initiations the initiant frees himself from his psychophysical principles so that his spiritual-human principles can advance to the portals of the sun and then return. In the higher initiation the initiant has gained the ability to consciously free his divine self so that it can follow the spiritual-magnetic pathways through the planetary spheres. After fourteen days the initiant returns as a bodhisattva, savior, or christ.
On January 5/6, about two weeks after the winter solstice, Christians celebrate Twelfth Night or Epiphany, in which the "wise men" bring their gifts to the newborn initiate, the christ child, born from the awakened human soul. Each of the three wise men gives his own particular quality to the soul experiencing the mystic birth of the higher self at the darkest hour of the year. They are a veiled reference to a planetary alignment connected with the "virgin birth" of a savior or avatara. It is an alignment of Mercury and Venus with the sun, moon, and earth — a recurring event which marks a critical point in human evolution. Interestingly, when Venus and Mercury lie between the earth and sun, the side of the earth facing them is also facing the sun. It is therefore daylight and the planets cannot be seen. The new moon is also invisible, unless it causes an eclipse of the sun. The Biblical wise men are said to correspond to the moon, Venus, and Mercury, which at rare intervals lie in a straight line with, and provide a pathway to, the sun. The liberated soul is then able to pass through these planets and, if successful, to enter the heart of the spiritual sun — the culmination of the initiation experience.
It is also said that if a new moon occurs at the solstice — i.e., if the moon is between earth and sun, and a full moon therefore occurs at Epiphany — another door is opened which makes the time of this initiation even more effective, especially if a solar eclipse occurs at Christmas and a lunar eclipse follows Twelfth Night. Such an event is extremely rare because the moon's orbit is inclined to the earth's orbit (the plane of the ecliptic) at an angle of 5°, so that the new moon is usually above or below the sun. If an eclipse occurs at the solstice, a higher initiation can take place which provides the opportunity for a breakthrough in the thought-life of the human race.
If an avataric influence manifests through a human being whose purity and strength has brought him to the point of enlightenment, there is a transfer of divine power from the spiritual intelligences imbodied in the celestial universe. The initiant who has passed through the crystalline spheres of life surrounding the divine center of our solar system and discarded at each planet the qualities belonging there, has now become pure consciousness and enters the sacred realms of the sun. On his return journey, he receives a gift from each planet: the gold of immortality, born from the soul's ordeal by fire; fragrant incense, released by the trial by fire; and myrrh, the willingness to return to the world of suffering. The "new born" reenters the earth-sphere radiant with solar splendor — the cycle is ended, the vessel broken, the light unlimited.
The Smaragdine Tablet, reputedly found in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, is a slab of emerald inscribed with thirteen precepts (in Phoenician characters), centering around the theme "What is below is like that which is above." In 1650 the learned divine, Dr. John Everard, published an English version from the Arabic, whose eighth precept reads:
Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the earth to heaven, and then again descend to the earth, and unite together the powers of things superior and things inferior. Thus, you will obtain the glory of the whole world and obscurity will fly away from you — (quoted by Hargrave Jennings in his Introduction to The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus in XVII Books, p. ix.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1993/January 1994; © copyright Theosophical University Press)