An Introduction to Western Spiritual Traditions: Advent & Christmas
Question for centering and reflection: How important are the origins of things? Does it seem important to know the original story before accepting its importance for you?
What is idolatry? Are you idolatrous? how does our confusion between spiritual values and societal expectations clash? In what ways can they be reconciled? How does one decide how best to keep and observe the holiday season?
Ancient Origins and The The Middle Eastern Experience;
Early Judaism and The Pagan cycles of nature; The Roman festivals, and pre-Christain practices
Our world is, for the most part, aligned with linear and time-bound thinking. It seems to generally follow a historical approach where each person, each event has a birth, a maturity, and a death- all in a neat arrangement of years throughout the centuries of civilization.
However, the ancient world and the world from which we receive our religious and spiritual teachings and instruction was a far different place. There the years of one’s life were bound tightly to the seasons of the year and the seasons of one’s soul.
This was not a simple, linear or mathematical progression; instead, there was an understanding that we are all a distinct yet unified part of the Cosmos- the divinely ordered pattern and design of life, death, and rebirth.
Originally, most religious festivals, holidays, and celebrations has their origin in the cycles of the seasons, and in the rhythms that exist between heaven and earth. The Sun and the seasons, when observed, gave rise to patterning of planting and harvesting, and celebrations around significant events when the seasons changed.
These rhythms of seeding and harvesting, for example, gave us the origins for the rites of Spring, new life, hope and the the Rites of Harvest and Thanksgiving, abundant, gratitude, and preparation for the winter that lies ahead. When we extrapolate from these seasonal events, and place a spiritual and a religious meaning on to them, we find ourselves at the original meanings of the holidays people in the West celebrate & observe.
Early Judaism and Pagan cycles
In the Ancient Near East, the world was populated by nomadic peoples and roving gods- it seemed as if each tribe or clan had a special deity that guided or admonished them. It was a polytheistic panoply of gods and goddesses, good and evil spirits, characters and consorts that populated the reality and the imagination of these tribal bands. from languages that differed, to the gods they worshipped, there was no unifying beliefs or themes apart from the celebration of seasonal changes. Most of the deities they would claim had direct connections to the weather patterns and the qualities and experiences a nomadic people would encounter- wind, water, sand, stars, and the moon… each being a special god or goddess that provides or punishes the people based on the outcome of natural phenomena such as having enough water to grow a successful crop so no one would starve.
At or around the year 2000 B.C., much of this religious and natural landscape changed. There was a dramatic shift in religious life and in the consciousness of the people who would become known as the Hebrews. They began a shifted in their religious beliefs , moving from a wide assortment of gods and goddesses that was still popular in great civilizations as Egypt, China, and Greece, to becoming more exclusively centered on one supreme God and forsaking or at least demoting all the others.
This parallels the loss of the matriarchy in primitive religions and the fall of the goddesses as being an equal to the god, and it also is CO-evolutionary to the origins and the dominance of the bicameral mind that now so dominates all of Western thought. From a left brain, male oriented world view, we come to the religious shift toward a supreme male god among the Hebrews called Yahweh.
Originally a storm or thunder and lightening God, Yahweh achieved supreme status over the others as the God who could be the most influential and the most powerful one among the many that were worshipped in the areas of Palestine and the Ancient Near East. In the world and beliefs of the Hebrew nations, their Yahweh replaced all the Assyrian gods and goddesses, all the Caananite festivals of seeding and harvesting, and all the Babylonian legends, myths and observances… not that they did not borrow from those traditions in their teaching stories, ethics, wisdom, or prayers … but they did manage to create the Western world’s first distinctively monotheistic religion, which by its very nature and teachings, can into conflict with the beliefs of the larger pagan world and all the festivals they observed.
What the ancient Hebrews and later, the early Christians chose to do was to try to eliminate any festivals and celebrations that they found too offensive, or whose practices were too sensual, explicit, or that might undermine the ethical standards they were trying hard to uphold or impose. If that strategy did not work, and the people and their ‘folk soul” required certain holidays, then these Western religious leaders hit upon a brilliant and prudent strategy- accommodation and alteration- give the people their festivals, but change their symbols slightly and change the meaning of the day to accommodate the belief system that they were trying to teach.
From this strategy, we, the children of this Western heritage, have received our many holidays and observances- each with a different meaning that their original observance and beliefs: from Halloween, to the Christmas tree, from Candlemas to the Easter egg- each was an accommodation to a Pagan ritual that was reinterpreted to fit the Western Judeo- Christian calendar. ( more on all of these days later…)
A simple example; Setting the day for Christmas as December 25th… During Roman times, there were seasonal festivals linked with the Greco- Roman mythology and with the ancient Etruscans who first occupied much of Italy and the Adriatic world. There was also a wholesale adoption of the Mithras cult from Persia who was their god of the Sun. After the Fall of the year, these early tribal indigenous peoples would mark the “dying” of the year or the time when darkness arrived early with the withdrawal of the Sun from their fields and from their lives, and the progress of the darkness into the cold, harsh, often bleak winter. ( of course, the farther North you go, the more significant this cycle is- among the Celts, Teutons, and the Norse peoples, this is a highly dramatic, even life threatening event… by the way, they are the ones who gave us the Christmas tree, mistletoe, the red Santa, reindeer, snow men, and other fanciful delights…)
The Roman festival held during the winter solstice- the time when the days astronomically are the shortest and the night the longest, was known as Saturnalia. Saturn was the great taskmaster and disciplinarian of the Gods; where ever humanity needed a correction, a karmic lesson, or some discipline, Saturn was usually there.
This dying of the year, with all its anxiety and foreboding had one redeeming factor associated with it. Since the ancient people had no complete or scientific understanding of the axial tilt and annual rotation of the Earth around the Sun, they attributed the reasons for the seasons as the grace and the blessings of the supernatural or of the Gods whims and favors towards humankind.
When the saw the days beginning to lengthen again, they interpreted it as the strength and the power of the Sun to over come Saturn, and the light, hope, warmth and joy would return to the Earth and to her people. They called this first day of lengthening Calends and it marked the festival also known as Sol Invictus- the Invincible Sun.
Later, when the Christians of the fourth century (336 ACE to be exact when they held the 1st midnight Mass) wanted to replace this holiday with one of their own, they neatly substituted the Sun for the SON- and chose the darkest time of the year for when the light of the world, Christ Jesus, would be born to all humanity… brilliant move?!! What happened at Saturnalia? On or approximately December 17th and lasting for a week or so, the celebration of the Sun’s return was marked by acts of charity and kindness- debts and grudges were forgiven, wars interrupted or postponed, courts and businesses were closed; Slaves were given equality; and other benevolence… that is, until people caught on and confused this suspension of norms for a license to misbehave- soon, like the Mardi Gras, this festival once rooted in compassion, became a time of unbridled mischief and vice.
What does survive from those times was the custom of giving gifts to friends and family: especially dolls, waxed fruit, and candles. At any rate, it was one change that has gone unchallenged by all except the scholars for the last 16 centuries. There was a calendar mistake that made it the 25th; it was to be the 21st on the shortest day; others, more mystical state that the sun stays or does not grow in light until the 25th… its a toss-up…( The Early Church- the church of the first three hundred years before the Councils and creeds and the cultural dominance of Christianity as the official state religion, did not celebrate Christmas in December- they chose Epiphany, January 6th as his “birth” day- most likely it was in either late February or early March- Astrological chart of Jesus of Nazareth presentation)
Actually, there is a good reason for all the confusion… the primary focus for the early Christians was on the life of Jesus, not his birth or even his death. Those events took on a greater meaning while contrary to what the early believers expected, he did not come back during their lifetimes or even during the next few generations! therefore, some new emphasis for faith had to be developed- one that rivaled the great myths of the Mediterranean where there was a special, even superhuman. Extraordinary birth and death accounts were created in order to instill faith and to encourage belief in the doctrines and decisions of the church and its influence and power in one’s life. That is one to main reasons there is so little accuracy in the story… and the fact, rightly so, that malicious rulers like Herod and Nero or Caligula would have certainly killed anyone who was born special or who could have been perceived to be a threat to their power and throne.
The main objections to pagan worship were these two, one of which is truly serious, and the other relative to culture and to the rules that religions try to establish over their members. The first or more objective and understandable reason, it was idolatrous- it placed other concerns, other gods, other allegiances and loyalties before the one supreme God of Israel, Yahweh. That was blasphemous! Yahweh was a jealous and exclusive God- he can have no rivals in one’s heart or in one’s life! ( The 1st Commandment)
The second reason was the objection to the behaviors associated with revels and partying that were far from the sober and serene approaches of the spiritual life. One cannot promote a religion that is taken seriously if there is too much fun, joy or rabble rousing associated with it!
There is also another corollary or a third reason. It was the teaching that God and humanity were somehow above, removed, or aloof from Nature- that our human task was to conquer or subdue the natural world- to tame it- but not to honor its rhythms & reasons – the essence of the Pagan lifestyle.
Remember, this detached, linear, rational religious world view was instituted and reinforced within the general patriarchal society and throughout the development of Western thought for the last 2000 years! Only in recent memory have these attitudes been challenged and found to be Unbiblical! Only with the rise of scholarship and a greater understanding of our dependence on Nature and the grace of life itself have we begun to reap praise western teachings on the environment and on our place within the Cosmos of God’s creation. It is these insights and new understanding of spirit, society and self that I wish to outline for you tonight. ( definitions of Keep; Observe; Believe in their original meanings… What is the difference between a holiday and a holy day? Sabbath time; reflection, etc.) Questions????
Advent- Via Positiva- waiting; affirmation and gratitude from November through to Epiphany; The Archangel Gabriel- White w/ green and/or blue; way of the heart Symbols of light; Overcoming the darkness in oneself and in one’s world through the promise of the Chistchild being born in and among us all.