Winter Festival: A Mystery Thinly Veiled

© – 2002 by Steven McFadden

Festivals are not merely the commemoration of historical events or personalities. They are in and of themselves, each year, spiritual events carrying a significance that grows and deepens with the developing phases of human evolution.”

— Rudolf Steiner

rising-sun-background-nasaFor most of us, for much of the world, the heart of Winter Festival lies obscured behind the veil of outer celebration. Yet the veil is translucent. Through it, with a willful gaze, we may behold the mystery of the low-hanging Sun as it seems to stop, heralding the onset of the north wind and the clear, hard bite of winter. Through the veil we also may sense something else just beyond our grasp – something vast, poignant, resonant.

Annually at this festival point in December the celestial rhythm of Earth and Sun come momentarily to pause – a cyclical stillness that moves us inescapably into the deep, the dark, the other. At this Winter point, consciously or unconsciously, we set an inner pattern to guide what we will weave in the outer world through another solar cycle. We dream the dreams that will flower in another season. How much more powerful if we know we are dreaming? How much more beguiling if we know nature is inviting us to peer through the veils?

— If we do not wakefully intend,
we are subconsciously compelled —

Many thousands of people have awakened to the realization that spiritual forces are part of our daily lives. Would not enormous benefit arise if this perception were widely gained, not through acceptance of dogma, but rather through direct, authentic experience and perception?

Although little appreciated for this attribute, festivals are an effective way for us to connect with basic spiritual realities, and to be reminded of our highest aspirations. Festivals stand as potent opportunities for human beings to make gestures and enact deeds — alone, with our families, and with our community — and thereby uplift and sustain the larger culture while the earth cycles round the Sun. This is because, rightly timed, festivals occur at the ‘points between.’

Festivals and the Earth

reedsLike reeds in a basket, human life is interwoven with the life of the earth. All our food, water, clothing, and shelter come from her body, and arise with her natural rhythms. Our skin and bones are likewise formed of her stuff. Our moods, thoughts, and capacities are not wholly independent of this relationship.

As earth has a rhythm, so do all the creations which inhabit her. Those rhythms are related. To lose or forget this relationship — as many people have in their modern lives and diets — is to invite discord into the individual life, and eventually into community life as well.

A rhythm is a cyclic process that, by definition, is connected not to a theoretical or artificial division, but to something real: the waxing and waning moon, the earth’s revolution around the sun, our in-breath and out-breath, and even our digestion — which begins with the rhythm of chewing and progresses through peristalsis.

Human response to the basic rhythms of the planet is plain enough. We have definite, measurable reactions to fundamental cycles such as day and night, and the seasons. These responses are well charted by medical technicians, yet at the same time there are subtle inner rhythms in both planet and person, rhythms that mirror the level of either harmony or discord in a life.

The basic pattern of a rhythm is simple enough: activity-rest/activity-rest/activity-rest. Yet there are distinctions, variations, accents, and permutations. These are punctuated by celebration at various festival times: the planting festival, the harvest festival, the thanksgiving festival, and so forth — all natural to the life of a healthy community.

When we fall out of harmony with nature’s rhythms, there is a conflict, or arrhythmia, that eventually manifests itself in our lives in a perceptible way as a physical malady or a psychological disturbance.

As individuals and as a culture, we need strength, inspiration, and reaffirmation of the deep truths so we can begin to live their goodness out in our daily lives and so help to restore balance to the planet. There’s not much doubt of that.

When entered into consciously and respectfully, festival can be one of our most powerful tools for bringing our lives into harmony with a larger natural rhythm. I see The Winter Festival as a key to this understanding, for even though the mystery is said to be at its deepest in this time, the veils are exceedingly thin.

A Basic Planetary Rhythm

While one may appreciate intellectually the lofty-sounding concepts of rhythm, or unity, the raw power inherent in them is unavailable until it is acknowledged, called, experienced, and then consciously expressed.

For this reason, for thousands of years, people have come together during the festival times to invoke spiritual energies, and then to express them in dance, song, feast, laughter, theater, and ritual.

Four great festivals mark the turning points in our planetary breathing rhythm: two solstices, two equinoxes. At these turning points, we have opportunities to pause, moving our attention from matters of survival or amusement, to the very forces which bind us with the Earth and with eternity — forces which can remind us that we are not solitary creatures living isolated lives, but rather threads in a phenomenal tapestry of life that includes everything from the sand to the stars. Through the theories of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Uncertainty, and Superstrings, modern scientists have begun to glimpse this spiritual fact.

cosmicnebOne illuminating expression of the yearly cycle and its festivals is presented by Evelyn Francis Derry in her book, The Christian Year, which offers a series of eloquent word pictures. Through autumn and into winter, she suggests, the earth inhales, drawing life forces deep within her blue-green body. The planet’s surface becomes bare and still at this time, but below she is most active. In a sense, the earth is thinking deeply the thoughts which are being sent down to her as light from the planets, stars, and swirling comets that mark the limitless expanses of the sky.

When the earth exhales in spring, life returns to the surface. The vitality expands in summer and the planet’s surface covers itself with visible proof of life: leaves, blossoms, buzzing insects, and rising passions. In a sense, earth puts forth what she has thought in the winter in the form of summer’s growing and flowering things. As the cycle of the year continues around its spiral wheel toward autumn, the earth begins again to inhale, to draw the life forces back in.

In the same way, we human beings withdraw into the bodily house in wintertime, concentrating our forces inwardly so that the sense of self is strengthened, and the forces of will are consolidated. Then as the sun’s light and warmth increase, human life begins to expand “from the self-centeredness of winter to the world-centeredness of spring and summer, reaching upward and outward with the scent and color of the flowers and plants.” As the Earth breaths, Derry suggests, so do all the creations which inhabit her, including human beings.

Festival of Identity

Festivals move our awareness into the upwelling streams of the life current because we are acting out and thus experiencing our dreams, our visions, and our aspirations, writes David Spangler in his book Festivals in the New Age. He observes that festivals are exercises in creative imagination. They give human beings the opportunity to assume roles which represent their true and essential cosmic nature.

Spangler warns that without this kind of rhythmic celebration men and women forget their dreams and visions. They lose touch with the festival within, and become spectators rather than fully alive people who are consciously connected with the power, wisdom and joy that reside within.

By taking the opportunity of festival we can explore through actions and images what it would be like to fully live the highest possible vision of our own lives. That is why, in our own times, it seems no longer sufficient for us to simply walk unthinkingly through the ancient rituals and modern commercial banalities that constitute our holidays — they cannot possibly fulfill the purpose of festival for us. We know it, though we suffer our desperation in silence.

Rudolf Stiener, a spiritual scientist who lived at the turn of the 20th century, offered provocative insights in The Festivals and Their Meaning. He indicates that festivals are in and of themselves, each year, spiritual events that grow and deepen with the developing phases of human evolution.

As I read him, Steiner is calling our attention to the idea that there is a particular quality to each season — a subtle shade of feeling for the Earth and for humanity that has never been before and will never come again in quite the same way. This is what leads up to a given festival, and gives birth to the quality of the soul mood that infuses, for example, Winter Solstice and Christmas.

What precedes the Winter Festival, and so builds much of the character we can experience during it, is the season of Advent — four weeks of preparation, four weeks of looking forward and waiting. Advent is a time for quiet contemplation, for what is to come is a revelation of what Christians advocate is the greatest mystery available to aspiring humanity.

bluesunAt the time of the Winter Festival we are naturally drawn to contemplate the course of the Sun — it hangs so ominously low in the sky we cannot help but notice it. As the Sun conquers the cyclical darkness, which has been deepening from the moment of Summer Solstice until Winter Solstice, there is a sacred pause in the collective breath of Earth and humanity — a moment when we can recognize that we, too, may ultimately triumph over the darkness in our lives.

One great symbol of this ultimate triumph has come to be the birth of the man named Emmanuel, or Jesus, who became the Christ. Evelyn Francis Derry describes the significance of this event in her book: “When Christ appeared on Earth the whole nature of human spiritual life was changed. Previously men and women had found the Divine Presence outside themselves — shining down from the heavens and reflected back to them from nature. The birth of Christ signaled that henceforth people were to turn inward for the Divine Presence, to listen to the still small voice speak from within.”

As the good books relate, Jesus was not born the Christ. He attained Christhood when the Universal Spirit, the Christos, descended into his being while John baptized him with water in the River Jordan. By accepting Universal Spirit as a personal truth in that moment, Jesus brought forth an identity which bridged the gap from humanity to heaven — the Christ Spirit.

Christ later proclaimed ‘You are the Light of the world…what I can do, you can do; in fact you can do even greater things.’ For centuries men and women have tended to bypass that part of his message, and instead to place his individual personality upon a pedestal. Now, I feel, is a time in history when we are being asked not only to listen to that overlooked part of the message, but also to respond — not with supernatural miracles, but with recognition of and respect for the living spark of Divinity in all things, including ourselves.

Jesus was a human being and he lived his life to demonstrate human capabilities. His directions were explicit: The kingdom is within. Look there and you will find it. Seek that kingdom out above all things and when you find it all things will be added.

Thus what we can celebrate at the Winter Festival is not so much the birth of one man, as Western culture now emphasizes, but rather the potential that his birth symbolizes: the potential for each human being to fully recognize the Light within, the Universal Spirit, the Christos. This is the Christmas Mystery, a mystery veiled only by our own unwillingness to believe in ourselves. We lack the faith, it seems, to recognize and experience that we are, each of us, capable of being that good, that beautiful, that holy.

David Spangler tells a wonderful story to illustrate this point. “One of the most popular books ever written, one of the world’s best sellers, was a novel called “In His Steps” in which a group of individuals decided to live their lives as if they were the Christ.

They asked themselves before every action not ‘What Would Jesus do?,’ but rather: ‘What would I do if I were the Christ?’ This transformed their lives and society.

“The Festival of Identity, the Festival of Christmas, ideally should give to each person the chance to experience the drama of the Christ identity.” Spangler writes, “…to live the story, to objectify the vision so that the power of the Christ becomes real and meaningful in his life and he sees it as part of himself and not simply as an aspect of an historical story.”

But we are timid about pretending to such greatness. On the most apparent level it seems so preposterously beyond reach; yet on another level we may recognize that if we do not reach for the heights we will remain stuck in the depths.

Advent to Epiphany

Even though we are well advised to borrow from the wisdom and traditions that have been handed down to us, I believe we are called upon to create meaningful rituals for the changing times in which we live, and for the future. For rituals to be effective, we must infuse them with our own individuality and dreams. In this way we can empower ourselves and our culture; we will be enabled to see our lives in relation to the high spiritual concepts symbolized by the great turning points in the collective cycle of breath.

In a time when some aspects of religion seem intent on limiting the range of human spiritual expression, when dogma spawns rigid ideologues and both domestic and international terrorism, the world desperately needs men and women courageous enough to face spiritual realities on their own terms. Such men and women will dream the great dreams of peace within, and of peace on earth. Then they will reach for the loving power of their full identity. When they have accepted and experienced this universal spirit, they will be empowered to project their identity into the world in a way which will help to create balance and harmony among the community of life that is the earth.

This revolutionary process of identification need not happen within the brief span of one day, Christmas Day, for each year we have the four weeks of Advent to prepare, and the Winter Festival itself actually lasts for 12 days and 13 nights.

Evelyn Francis Derry points out that during these days and nights the outer world is marked with a quiet which is unlike the quiet at any other time of the year — not the quiet of anticipation, but the stillness that occurs only when something wonderful is happening, something that must not be disturbed. That is the time for us to open ourselves to the mystery of the Winter Festival. Through song, dance, laughter, right action, feasting, prayer, meditation and ritual, we are inviting this great mystery to play itself out in our lives.

Sparked by the Winter Solstice on December 21, the Winter Festival begins on the night of Christmas Eve and continues until Epiphany on January 6th when we celebrate two major events. We mark the Baptism of the 30-year old Jesus by John the Baptist — the moment when the Christ Spirit is said to have first entered fully into the being of a human, the time when the infant who was born with the returning light has matured to fulfill his destiny. He becomes identified with the living spirit.

January 6th is also the date when we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings who study the stars, the Magi, at the stable where the infant Emmanuel lay in swaddling clothes. The three earthly kings, Caspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar come bearing gifts of myrrh, gold and frankincense to symbolize all that humanity had attained through evolution until the time of this sacred birth.

Adoration of the Magi by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

Adoration of the Magi by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

Although they have already been seeking for a long time, it takes the Magi that much longer, twelve days, to find the manger and come to a full realization of what has happened. Likewise, each year we may need 12 days for our understanding, our insight, our epiphany. If we invite epiphany, though, it is sure to come to us, in whatever way and at whatever level we are ready to realize it. But then to fully incorporate the power and insight of the Christmas Mystery we may need even more time. That is why, rightly understood, the Epiphany Season which begins on January 6th spans the next four weeks of the calendar year. The depths of winter thus become an opportunity for assimilation that balances the four weeks of Advent, our time of preparation.

Through the twelve holy nights from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, the night sky reveals itself with sparkling clarity. Yet darkness dominates. We are called upon not to shrink from the darkness and silence, but to embrace them — to step out at night under the starry firmament and behold its majesty in awed silence. In this way we receive fully the blessings of the light sent down.

Farmers may walk their fields on these nights, imagining the crops that will grow in the season ahead; writers, painters and musicians may hear the muses sing more engagingly; every person has the opportunity to capture the living vision anew – to gaze outward at the stars, and to be filled with their burgeoning light.

The Winter Festival is a mystery renewed every year, a spiritual event happening again and again. Those who are awake in this season, those who pause in their breath along with the Earth Mother and recognize the rebirth of spirit in all creation, find something magical growing within — they find something truly worth singing and dancing about. Insight is stronger. The path of life has opened more clearly. They are fortified and uplifted for the coming cycle of the year, fully capable of radiating that which has been born in them: a mystery no longer veiled, a light shining in the world.

– End