Once again we find ourselves in that season of the year when nature compels our attention in the direction of good will towards others, that period when a wholesome spirit of giving finds its most natural expression. While Christmas literally denotes a celebration time for the Christian world, the real festival of a new birth carries a broader connotation, and it is this universal aspect that stimulates our reflections.
With each revolution of our globe around its solar parent, mankind has received the blessings of its warmth, its light, and with these an annual opportunity to bring more fully to birth the spiritual essence of that universal soul which is imbodied in each one of us. Could it be this impulse which year after year prompts us to open our consciousness to the needs of our fellows? Could it be that the Christos-spirit is trying to find expression in our lives, and that the Father within, referred to by the Master Jesus, is urging us to follow his lead?
Surely we may assume that millions of years before the advent of the Christs and Buddhas this inner nature was our greatest benefactor, and that the very travail of the soul of mankind through the valleys of ignorance attracted the coming to earth of these Great Ones. Did not their lives exemplify this principle of sacrifice, and their injunctions all point to the inner approach to bringing out the potential of our innate character?
On closer examination, it is not difficult to recognize that the festivals traditionally observed at this sacred season date back to pre-Christian times; for whatever the customs, most of the peoples of the world pay homage in one form or another to the dying of the old year and the triumphal birth of the new year. In most European countries, for example, the holy season activities commence about a month before Christmas on Advent, and close with Epiphany on January 6. I have had the good fortune to witness first hand the celebrations connected with the coming of Sint Nicolaas in Holland on December 5-6, and the birth of the Christ-kind on Weihnachten on December 24-25 in Germany.
In the traditional Dutch festival Sint Nicolaas is preceded by Zwarte Piet or "Black Peter" with his numerous henchmen. The Zwarte Piets are skillful pranksters, and children line the streets to follow every move and gesture as they prance through town on their black horses loaded with gifts. The children are told that if they have been good during the year, they will receive gifts; but if not, the Zwarte Piets will pinch and prod, tease and maybe whip if too much displeased. Then Sint Nicolaas comes riding majestically on his white horse; he quietly watches the antics of the youngsters, but does not participate. He is their friend, and one wave or smile from their beloved Sint and their joy is complete.
As one muses upon these observances, it becomes strongly evident that the Advent period may be a more crucial experience than even the Christmas "birth," because without a successful advent, a Christmas or sacred birth could not occur. Thus all the stories and legends that cluster around a Savior — whether he be called Jesus or Gautama, Krishna or Zoroaster — suggest a far deeper interpretation than the formal celebrations depict. We need only go to nature to confirm this. If the seed in the ground during its "advent" is overpowered by the opposition to its growing, there will be no plant to break through the earth and blossom in sunlight. If there is no advent in the experience of a soul's growth, how can there be a fuller birth?
Let us consider these thoughts in relation to the initiatory trials that were part of the sacred schools of ancient days, before they had become degenerate through ignorance and betrayal. The "advent" represented that period of initial testing when the soul of the aspirant underwent its severest trials. All the destructive forces were aligned to resist its efforts for a greater expression. The Zwarte Piets of nature, those dark agents of a higher law, teased and prodded to see that the human seed-soul did not burst forth unprepared. They personified in truth those elements that would hinder and obstruct in order that the aspirant could prove his integrity and accomplish his mission: the giving of birth to his greater self. In the background, unobserved, stood Sint Nicolaas, in essence the highest part of what is struggling for birth, but which, by the very law of compassion, cannot lift a finger to help. If the contest was won, then Sint Nicolaas rejoiced in the glory of the soul's triumph — as indeed did likewise the Zwarte Piets!
It is recorded that in the very highest schools of olden times, the success or failure of the trial could not be known until the fourteenth day after the winter solstice. If the candidate prevailed, he returned from his initiation at the time of the Epiphany — no longer a neophyte but a transfigured initiate. The Christian Church even today commemorates the transfiguration: the initiant Jesus having become the Christos was so filled with the light of his Father within that those around him "saw" the radiance of his glory. It was then, at the Epiphany or "manifestation" of this divine power, that the Three Wise Men gave their gifts — so legend has it, and that is why in many Christian countries the 6th of January is still called the day of the Three Holy Kings.
A full-blown experience such as that of the Master Jesus occurs but rarely, perhaps only once in a score of centuries. How might you and I partake of its transcendent afterglow? Each one of us has his Father within, his own spark of Divine Intelligence. Every winter solstice then, as the sun once again turns northward, we can realize a minor transfiguration. The cycles of progress flow ever onwards, bringing forth fruit from seed, gods from men. But we in our folly and egoism no longer believe we are potential gods clothed in earthly form, or that the potency of this holy season can indeed reach to us and move our lives. We have forgotten the effect of one tiny spark of light in the surrounding darkness. But as one flame can ignite another, and still another and another, so must we know that the blaze of glory that accompanies a genuine transfiguration, however humble in degree, can have enormous influence in the world. As surely as the divine light of Father Sun shines through the successful initiant and touches all within the radius of his presence, so does the light of truth and understanding in our hearts reach to our fellow men and women.
True, we may not have any formally designated days of testing and trial, labeled Advent, Christmas, or Epiphany. But as we search out those ageless principles of right thinking and apply them in our lives, we shall recognize the high opportunity that is ours to contribute something of real merit to the world, something mighty in its effects. We shall recognize this only as we rightfully fulfill the responsibilities that come before us.
In the larger cycles of time, if we but had the eyes to see, perhaps we would recognize that humanity as a whole is approaching an advent in its experience which if victorious could lead to the birth of an entirely new era of progress. We need not doubt that the masterminds of the opposition to truth are working with all the Zwarte Piets at their command to stop the birth of what is trying to break through. They are bending every effort to tempt and deceive in order to permit the seed of right principles in human hearts to become so strong inwardly that it will burst through the shell of resistance and shatter forever the carcass of an old civilization.
Without light, there can be no darkness; without truth, there could be no falsehood. The more offensive the evil and distortion, the stronger will be the effort needed to bring the truth to birth. That is the key thought behind the Advent and Christmas season. If we only talk about it and dream about it, it can die aborning. But if we try to live it, we shall become channels of enlightenment that will make of each Advent a glorious experience. Thus can we help bring about that greater birth that could make of this century a light for future millennia.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)
Let your heart go out and abide in things.
Let things return and abide in your heart. — Dogen Zenji