I have experienced magical Christmases. As a child I listened entranced to the stories about baby Jesus, of angels bringing the good news to awestruck shepherds, and the magi, the wise men following the star to Bethlehem. I remember watching the sky on Christmas Eve hoping to catch a glimpse of that wondrous star. I was convinced it would re-appear. It never did, although for me all stars whispered angel words.
Vincent Van Gogh understood the wonder of starlight and depicted it
in his famous Starry Night
Christmas meant singing well-loved carols and, finally, the arrival of longed-for presents. Although the day was often breathlessly hot we ate traditional Christmas roasts with all the relatives and afterwards the cousins raced off to play in the local creek while the adults probably took a quick doze.
I remember my first Christmas in London, newly arrived with husband Peter, knowing no-one else. With two-month old baby Dominique rugged up in the pram I walked the chilled streets – dark at 4.30 in the afternoon – past windows with curtains opened wide onto Christmas trees lit up and warming the heart of a stranger. And on Christmas morning opening my window to falling snow – my first ever snowfall. Suddenly Christmas dropped into its rightful northerly place.
We don’t know when Jesus was born. But the celebration of his birth slotted in nicely alongside the old festivals of the sun in the northern hemisphere – held in the depth of winter around the solstice and the darkest point of the year, after which the light would begin to return. In agricultural societies anticipating and welcoming this return was vital for life. Prayers, offerings, feasting, dancing and storytelling were all part of the celebration. The Roman version marked the birth of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. The church in Rome cleverly chose this date for the birth of the holy infant.
Like many adults, I stopped subscribing to the simplified stories of my childhood. Then years later back in Australia at The Centre, the Church of the Mystic Christ, the midnight masses awakened something long-simmering in my soul. Glorious music filled the chapel alive with candlelight. And the teaching about the deeper meaning of Christmas made sense to me and rang true, at last. The birth of the holy child anticipated the coming of the spiritual light of the Christ into the earth realm.
More privately now I mark the Christmas mystery. There is still the feasting with extended family and a guest or two. And I continue to enjoy the present-giving and the happy faces of my grandchildren, as I did with my own children. But I also deal with a feeling close to despair at today’s crass commercialism, the mutilated carols clanging out from shopping centres, the unlovely snowflake glitz. Yet here this is no midwinter festival. And sometimes there seems to be outright enmity towards any hint of the ‘holy child born this day’. Change the words of the carols, some opinionated pundits demand. Mammon rules what was once Christ Mass, so should we not rename it the Summer Festival of Shopping and forget all about tradition? Then I recall a statement by the philosopher and seer Rudolf Steiner.
We must find a new way to the Christmas mystery. We must become as reverent with regard to external nature as the shepherds were in their hearts. In inward vision, we must become as wise as were the Magi in their observation of planets and stars in space. We must develop inwardly what the Magi developed outwardly. In our relationship with the external world we must develop what the simple shepherds of the field developed in their souls. Then we shall find the way, the right way, to a deepened experience of Christ, to a loving comprehension of Christ; and then we shall find our way to the Christmas mystery.
From a lecture given in Dornach, December 23, 1920
So how do we rise above our fears to reverently embrace the whole world beyond ourselves? And how do we become inwardly knowing and wise enough to achieve this? What are we to develop in our souls?
The answer is love. Apart from any other meaning (and there are many layers), the ancient story of the infant Jesus speaks of love – the holy child of love is honoured by wise men with precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and revered by shepherds who would give their lives to protect their lambs from wild beasts. As with mother Mary towards little baby Jesus, and mothers everywhere, love must be revered, nurtured and protected. Then it will grow strong and powerful.
Mother love: La Madone de Lorette by Raphael – one of his many Madonna and Child artworks
I’m in the mood for quoting. So here are words from a Christmas address by Colin Read, the co-founder of The Centre, and a dear friend:
In the first Letter of John (4:11) we read: ‘If we love one another God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.’ But what is perfected love? It is total, unconditional and uncompromised. It is conditional on one simple thing – itself. Love is the be all and end all of everything. It is like a light. It burns brightly and it shines from our own being.
‘God’ is not a god beyond us somewhere but a power within, and you can substitute
‘divine spark’ or ‘higher self’ or ‘inner divine light’ to get at the meaning. And if this
divine light of love is born in us, within our hearts, it forever renews itself through our deeds.
This year Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights begins on the evening of December 24. Perhaps the conjunction means there’s an opportunity for holy light to shine brighter than usual and radiate more powerfully into the future. Imagine a world where all actions stem from love’s pure light. How then could anyone foster resentment and hate, or make war, destroying countless lives with hideous weaponry for no other reason than to assert power? How then could anyone exploit others or despoil nature to acquire riches, or turn away when confronted by suffering? Love, you see, is an open, all-encompassing embrace.
An old song says, ‘Love came down at Christmas’. It still resonates behind the grabbing hands of materialism, and we can thank the best in us for this. Through love we are expressing the divine in us. We give because we can love. And love is the outcome of that giving. If you think about it, this is to take a step into the profound mystery of Christmas.
I wish you a happy and loving Christmas.