I have clear memories of Christmas pageants at our church. There is the star, a baby is born to a virgin in a manger, then wrapped in swaddling clothes; there are shepherds, and kings come with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It's a wonderful story, but only two of the Gospels tell it -- and they don't tell the same story because certain events they relate could not have happened simultaneously in the way they are written. What we have in church pageants, and built into our memory, is a combination of these two Gospels. If we are not dealing with literal history, we may ask ourselves what it is that we really celebrate at Christmas?
Interestingly, understanding the Christmas story more fully involves cosmic clocks because the celebration is deeply connected with the winter solstice. We find evidence of cosmic time-keeping all over the world. The British Isles alone contain over 900 rock formations which serve as cosmic clocks. Well known is Stonehenge, which scientists date at about 5,000 years old. It is a large calendar marking off precisely an ancient summer solstice. Late in 1997 archeologists in Somerset discovered England's largest and most complex prehistoric temple to date, twice the size of Stonehenge and perhaps several hundred years older. In Ireland is one of Europe's finest "passage-tombs" at Newgrange. Construction is thought to have begun as early as 3100 BC. Above the entrance passage is a roof-box that aligns with the rising sun at the winter solstice. For about 20 minutes on this day, the sun's rays touch the ground at the center of the tomb -- a cruciform chamber inside the mound measuring 21.5 by 17 feet. Examples worldwide of pyramids, temples, medicine wheels, rock formations, and other structures serving as cosmic clocks could be multiplied indefinitely.
Why were ancient peoples so interested in charting and recording planetary and stellar movements, the solstices, and the equinoxes, and why do we so often find slits of light which hit a particular point at the winter or summer solstice? The four points of the year marked by the solstices and equinoxes are also called the sacred seasons. Around the globe there have been, and will continue to be, schools of the Mysteries where people learn about the workings of the universe, their own connection with it, and the natural order of compassion, harmony, and balance. These Mysteries can be divided into seven phases. The first three had to do with study, discipline, and living what had been understood through study. It might take many lifetimes to complete these first three stages. After this training, those who had learned a great deal about the laws of nature, and had put this knowledge into practice, undergo a transition in their lives. At the winter solstice they experience consciously the process of death and understand that it simply means life of a larger kind. Leaving their bodies behind as if dead, their consciousness goes through the processes of death, passing through the inner circulations of the earth and of some of the planets, and up to the very portal of the sun before returning. If successfully accomplished, this event produces a teacher who has experienced the consciousness behind the laws he earlier came to understand and tried to live by.
A second event, in a higher phase of the Mysteries, also occurs at the winter solstice. It happens very rarely, perhaps not more than once every 2,000 or more years. When the Moon is new, and the Earth, Moon, Venus, Mercury, and Sun are aligned on the winter solstice, an individual can go through a much more exalted experience. He or she runs through a great circuit of terrestrial and cosmic energies, entering the consciousness of the sun itself and returning through the circulations of the cosmos. The entire experience takes fourteen days and, if successful, the candidate arises as a Buddha or a Christ.
Thinking over this series of events allows us to understand more of the story told at Christmas. Individuals who complete these initiations are called "twice-born" and "virgin born" because through this experience the god within has been awakened and they are literally born again of their own spirit. Looking at the gifts the wise men brought the infant Jesus, we see that gold is a symbol for the incorrupt- ible, golden, pure sun, the divine consciousness. And frankincense and myrrh? They were used for embalming the dead. Even swaddling clothes relate to the theme of death: the baby is wrapped in one strip of cloth just as mummies are. Isn't it interesting that anyone would give a newborn baby objects related to its death? However, initiation is a death, the death of the limited self. These gifts are appropriate to the Mystery symbology because the Christ is being born from the death of the aspirant's everyday consciousness.
Each of us feels the pull of the winter solstice. Sometimes we call it the stress of the season, but perhaps we are also sensitive to the great cosmic forces involved. At this season each of us undergoes a new beginning, a new initiation, as the god within stirs, however slightly. And without a sense of these wonderful initiation Mysteries being portrayed in our Christmas story, it can become a distant event -- which it is not. It is right here with us, and we will experience it every year as the cosmic clock returns to the winter solstice, when even the worst trials and tribulations have within them the seeds of light and triumph.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1999/January 2000; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press)