The Hermeneutics of Christmas

The hermeneutics of ChristmasIs the story of a baby named Jesus born to a virgin named Mary on 25th December in a manger in Bethlehem literally true?

Doubtful.

But I suggest that the literality of this story should be the least of your concerns.

The two Gospels containing infancy narratives, Luke and Mathew, give inconsistent accounts of the genealogy of Jesus as well as the time and place of his birth and attendant visitors (shepherds in Luke and the Magi in Matthew). This distinction was prevalent in the art of the Middle Ages and while it may be glossed over today, academic theologians accept that where these accounts conflict, then at least one of them cannot literally be true.

Realizing that the Word of God represented more than the literal text, early and medieval Christianity developed the allegorical method of reading scripture in order to interpret the inner meaning of the literal text. By the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century , the four levels hermeneutic had become widely accepted as the means by which Scripture was to be interpreted, its method summed up in a well-known verse:

 The letter teaches you the facts

Allegory what you should believe

Morality how you should act.

And Anagoge what to hope for.

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The primary task of the four levels approach was to bring the Old and New Laws (Testaments) into unity through a double structure of prophecy.

Since the events of the Old Testament prefigure the mission of Christ, the Old Law is a prophecy of the New (allegory). The New Law in turn is a prophecy of the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth at the Second Coming (anagoge). Understanding the allegories of the Bible was also the gateway to the moral meanings of the various stories and a guide to  Christian conduct (tropological or moral image of ‘the Truth’). For ordinary priests,  who might find the four levels hermeneutic difficult, standard interpretations of Bible stories were devised to aid with the anagogics (mystery interpretations).

But does this mean that you have to accept these standard interpretations as the only ‘truth’?

For example, the facts pertaining to the life of Jesus we know them could be interpreted as a patchwork of events in the lives of those who came before him: born to a carpenter and a virgin, like Krishna: born on 25th December, like Mithras; heralded by a star in the East, like Horus;  walking on water and feeding the five thousand from a small basket, like Buddha;  performing miracles, like Pythagoras;  raising from the dead, like Elisha;  executed on a tree, like Adonis;  and ascending to Heaven like Hercules, Enoch and Elijah.

Looking at the Nativity through similarly expanded eyes, in Mary, you might sense of the presence of Isis; in Joseph, the patriarch with a crooked staff, Osiris, the luminous babe in the manger, Krishna; the ox (Taurus) and the ass (Aries), the two ages leading the new Age of Pisces, the Magi’s guiding star, the spirit of Zarathustra, and the angel announcing the birth, the spirit of the Buddha.

What if one of the Magi were Pythagoras reincarnated? What if the Magi had been initiated by the prophet Daniel? What if instead of one Jesus, there were two as depicted by the Leonardo Cartoon in the National Gallery in London and on the north portal at Chartres?

What if…well, you get the idea.

May peace be with you this holiday season and may hermeneutics take you as far as you’re willing to go.

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Boxing Day Tradition/The Spirit of Christmas

Traditionally, Boxing Day was the day when those who ‘have’ gave something to those who ‘have not’ – like coins dropped in the special alms box at church or presents given to the servants. May sound condescending to modern minds, but perhaps the gesture was better received than we imagine.

At any rate, these days Boxing Day means nothing more than beginning of the famous after Christmas sales.  In other words, not only do those who ‘have not’ continue on their sad trajectory, but those who already ‘have’ acquire even more.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love a sale as much as the next guy.  But I can’t help thinking that somehow, as a society, we’ve lost the bigger picture of Christmas.

Because of its association with the Christ (and hence Christmas), Tiphareth, the 6th sephirah of the Kabbalistic Tree, may shed light the problem.

According to the occultist, Dion Fortune, Tiphareth is associated with the tarot sixes – victory (wands), joy (cups), earned success (swords), and material success (pentacles).    There’s nothing wrong with money.  It’s what we do with it that matters.

In Hebrew, Tiphareth signifies Beauty.  True beauty consists in the relationship of harmonious forms, on both the material and moral planes.   Yet all too often our focus gets stuck on the material plane.  Given the media hype to which we’re exposed every day, that’s no surprise.  Yet morality has always had a key role in a functioning society.  Without it, we could take no man for his word and that would spell disaster for commerce.

Tiphareth also called the Sphere of the Sun; because of its central location on the Kabbalistic Tree, it holds the same place in human lives, as does the Sun in our solar system.

As such, a strong sense of self is indispensible with Tiphareth.

Yet  Tiphareth requires  more.  It it requires the simultaneous centrality of self and communion with others.  Perhaps this why the gift-giving traditions of Christmas arose.

Tiphareth also is associated with the sacrificed God, the Crucified Christ, the Divine Redeemer who having, incarnated is fated to die.  Dion Fortune reminds us we can never understand Tiphareth unless we understand of the real meaning of sacrifice.

Whatever that is,  I suspect it has hasn’t much to do with the Boxing Day sales (unless of course, one counts thee running up of more credit card debt for which at some point in the future, real sacrifice will have to be made).

Christ Consciousness at Christmas

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Christ, a boy named Jesus born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, by revisiting the concept of ‘Christ consciousness’ you may find the holiday season more meaningful.

The Jesuit priest, philosopher, and palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, used the term ‘Christ consciousness’ to denote an Omega point, toward which he believed human collective consciousness is evolving.  Reaching the Omega point (the end of the world as we know it) will bring us not only ‘peace on earth and good will to men’ but also a transcendent, love-dominated enlightenment through which we will become one with the ‘ultimate reality’, otherwise known to some as God.

Quantum physics supports this view.  In essence, mankind, acting as a collective Christ, plays the role of the conscious quantum-mechanical observer:

“One might say that, by virtue of human reflection (both individual and collective), evolution, overflowing the physico-chemical organisation of bodies, turns back upon itself and thereby reinforces itself (see note following) with a new organising power vastly concentric to the first—the cognitive organisation of the universe. To think the world (as physics is beginning to realise) is not merely to register it but to confer upon it a form of unity it would otherwise (i.e. without being thought) be without.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

That’s all very well and good – but how do we relate Christ consciousness to our daily lives in the here and now?

The Kabbalah may help.

The 6th sephirah, known as Tiphareth and associated with the ‘Christ’, lies at the exact centre of the Kabbalistic Tree.  Because the Kabbalah is a system based on balance and symmetry, it’s not hard to understand why this sephirah is also known as Beauty.

At the point of balance, Tiphareth is where the archetypal brilliance of the higher sephirot are grounded in the rich, dark nutrients of the bottom sephirot.   According to the great occultist, Dion Fortune, Tiphareth is a link where ideals are brought to focus and transmuted into ideas.  As such it that it is a Place of Incarnation; it is also called the Child.

In Tiphareth, soul and body, self and ego, higher consciousness and personality come together.   It is associated astrologically with the Sun and heart-chakra; Tiphareth is the place of our humanity.

It also referred to as the place of the sacrificed god, thus its association with Christ Consciousness.   As Christians know, it wasn’t enough for Jesus to feel sorry for the lot of mankind; Jesus, or Christ, had to be born into the world and sacrifice himself in order to save it.

Thus Tiphareth is the place of the wounded healer, a concept on which all twelve-step programs of rehabilitation are based.  It’s the place where one, through the loving heart, brings his own human experience to the help of others – personal Ego is sacrificed for something more.

In this context, at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the life-giving Sun is farthest away from the Earth, Christmas – or the celebration of Christ Consciousness – offers spiritual symbolism far surpassing that of the birth of a lowly babe.

At Christmas, we’re privileged to glimpse the possibilities of a whole new world – a world in which in relationship with himself man stands truly at the centre of his universe.