I was born into a non-churchgoing family and while I was growing up did not pay much attention at school to the Religious Knowledge lessons; so by the time my formal education had finished, I had acquired only the haziest notion of the Christian festivals and their significance.
Since becoming profoundly inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner and learning of the absolute centrality Steiner gave to what he called the Mystery of Golgotha, I’ve regretted my lack of knowledge and have been trying ever since to catch up on the meaning of the various Christian terms that are used in his lectures. I’ve learnt, for example, that what Steiner meant by the Mystery of Golgotha was Christ’s crucifixion and death, his descent into the underworld (“the Harrowing of Hell”) and subsequent resurrection.
Rudolf Steiner in Europe in the early days of the 20thcentury was of course secure in assuming that the vast majority of the people listening to his lectures would have immediately understood terms such as ‘Resurrection’, ‘Ascension’, ‘Pentecost’ or ‘Whitsun’. I suppose there was a time up until the 1950s or ‘60s when most people in many parts of the world would have shared a common culture based on a knowledge of the Bible.
There were still remnants of this shared culture when I was growing up; but those days have now largely gone and today, to use a reference deriving from the Christian story will be to leave many of one’s audience in the dark about what is meant. Worse than this, some people will jump to the conclusion that, to use Christian terms of reference somehow belittles or marginalises people of other faiths, or those of no faith. But even if one is familiar with the Bible, the esoteric Christianity taught by Rudolf Steiner can come as both a shock and a revelation if you are new to it.
For these reasons, I am now approaching with some hesitation the task of making the case that the Christian festival of Whitsun is of huge relevance at this particular time for each one of us, whether we are Christians or not. I did not previously have much awareness of Whitsun, certainly by comparison with Christmas or Easter. Yet I’ve discovered that Whitsun has a special relevance for us today because it is the Festival that celebrates the birth of the free human being as we attempt to overcome the desires of the lower self and surrender to the Higher Self. It has also become clear to me that there are fundamental connections between Christmas, Easter and Whitsun of which I was previously unaware.
Perhaps a good starting point for those who, like me, did not have a formal Christian upbringing and may be a little bit vague about the meaning of Ascension and Whitsun, would be to clarify some terms. Whitsun and Pentecost are two names for exactly the same Festival, which is the commemoration of the fiftieth day after the resurrection of Jesus Christ (‘Pentekostos’ is the Greek for 50). It was at Whitsun when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and they began speaking in tongues. Ten days before Whitsun (and forty days after the Resurrection and always on a Thursday) is the Feast of Ascension, which marks the day when the disciples witnessed the physical departure of Christ as he ascended into the presence of God in Heaven.
But what does this all mean, and why should it be highly relevant for every one of us today, irrespective of whether we have some religious belief or none?
To answer that, I have found it very helpful to refer to what Rudolf Steiner has said about the reasons for the incarnation of Christ the Sun Spirit within the human body of Jesus of Nazareth during the last three years of his life and why Steiner saw this as the most important event not only in human history but also in the evolution of life on Earth.
The Son-Aspect of God made the stupendous sacrifice of experiencing human death through crucifixion. A stupendous sacrifice, because according to Steiner, beings of the higher hierarchies have never experienced birth and death in their own worlds; in the divine worlds, there is no birth or death, only transformation or metamorphosis from one state of existence to another. Steiner has described in his lecture ‘The Etherisation of the Blood’ how Christ’s divine blood ran into the earth from the body on the Cross and in so doing transformed the whole etheric field of the Earth. The Resurrection occurred three days later, and has been commemorated by Christians on Easter Sunday ever since.
But I suspect that most Christians will find Steiner’s comments on aspects of the Resurrection to be astonishing and controversial. I personally find these comments deeply moving and they help me to understand part of what the Resurrection was really about. I can recommend here that one should read the lecture cycle ‘From Jesus to Christ’ and especially Lecture 6 for some truly mind-expanding concepts of the meaning of the Resurrection and in particular, the nature of the Resurrection Body. (As an aside, it is striking that in his 1924 lecture series on The Book of Revelation (not online but available from Rudolf Steiner Press), Rudolf Steiner says that the words of St John must be taken literally – and he explains in great detail how these are to be understood.) But of course, at our present stage of development, we can only understand a tiny part of the significance of the Resurrection for humankind, the Earth and the Cosmos. As St John put it in the last sentence of his Gospel, if all the deeds of Christ were to be written down, ‘I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.’
For six weeks after the Resurrection the Risen Christ showed himself to the disciples in the Resurrection Body, able to come and go and be in more than one place at a time. Then came the Ascension, when the disciples appeared to lose Christ as he was taken ‘up to heaven’. According to Steiner, this is where the Christ moves into the realm of the etheric field and thus disappears from physical view; but from now on and into our own times, the Christ is everywhere and within the etheric body of every plant, tree, animal or human being. On Ascension Day, further conditions for Whitsun were created.
Why did the Christ need to incarnate in a physical body and then experience death? The form in which the physical forces of Christ appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection was not, according to Rudolf Steiner, a body of flesh and blood, but a spirit body perceptible to the eyes of the soul of the disciples and women who had been prepared to perceive it. This Resurrection body, which Steiner calls the ‘phantom’, was the archetype of the physical body existing in the external world, with all the attributes of the physical body. It was this phantom body or archetype of the physical human being which had been under systematic attack by the adversarial forces; by the time of Christ’s incarnation these forces had so advanced the hardening and condensing processes on Earth that it was becoming likely that human beings would have lost all touch with their spiritual origins. Part of what the Deed of Christ brought about was to rescue the physical-etheric nature of human beings from the clutches of those beings who wished to destroy it. Steiner spoke more about this here.
So the Mystery of Golgotha was for all human beings and for all life on Earth, not just for Christians. Just as the physical sun shines on everyone on Earth, so has the Deed of Christ affected every single one of us ever since. The irony of course is that in modern times, as Wikipedia’s article on the Ascension of Jesus puts it: “a literal reading of the ascension-stories has become problematic, due to the differences between the pre-scientific cosmology of the times of Jesus, and the scientific worldview that leaves no place for a Heaven above us.”
Despite this, let us press on to Whitsun, even though we may lose some scientists along the way. Ten days after the Ascension came the event of Pentecost at Whitsun, and the descent of the tongues of fire upon the heads of the disciples. Here the Holy Spirit came in the form of the Gifts of the Spirit on the first Pentecost. Before he was crucified, Christ had told the disciples: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you”. John 14:16–18
That promise was fulfilled when Peter and members of the early Church were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks:
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. Acts 2:1–4
The apostles were inspired to talk in tongues when the Holy Spirit descended on them as they prayed together. Upon hearing the unfamiliar language spoken, the gathered onlookers in Jerusalem believed them to be drunk. But, Peter explained, they were in fact inspired by the spirit. He then delivered the first Christian sermon, which led to the conversion and baptism of 3,000 people. It is this sermon that many believe was the birth of the Christian church as an official movement.
Whitsun is, in fact, the completion of Easter and the completion of Christ’s mission on Earth. At Whitsun the spirit of a community or of a humanity based on the will of free individuals prevails, rather than that of a group soul or a bloodline. For an understanding of the Whitsun event from an esoteric perspective, I can do no better than urge you to read Judith von Halle’s lecture, ‘The Whitsun event at the time of Christ’, which is to be found in her book And If He Has Not Been Raised… Here are some quotations from that lecture:
“With the completion of Christ’s mission every human being was given the possibility of comprehending the Trinity without having to leave his body. The mission of Christ, the plan of the Gods, encompassed the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. On Christmas Day the body was prepared into which the Father God could send His Son. The power of the Father God is expressed in this event: Ex deo nascimur. Since then the human being can feel that he as well is born out of the immense Godhead and into his earthly body.
There then follows the Easter festival, in which the human being can know the Son of God while on Earth. The human being has to become aware that of course he inhabits a body but he is not just a body. The human being can understand that in death his soul can rise again in Christ: In Christo morimur.
Rudolf Steiner once said: ‘From the moment of this inner experience of Easter, if we now suffuse the spirit which has become centred within itself with meaning that is not from this world but from the spiritual world, we will experience Whitsun. It depends on this inner experience of Easter whether we experience Whitsun’. This is why Whitsun is firmly linked to the movable feast of Easter”.
Judith von Halle continues:
“The Father sends the Son to the Earth. The Son experiences earthly death, He penetrates the body of the Earth, and the Resurrection takes place. From now on, through the Holy Spirit, the human being is able to bring about the return to the Father. This is the basis for understanding karma. You can only understand the idea of karma when you have first come to an understanding of the idea of Whitsun, for Whitsun is not a ‘passive’ festival of grace like Easter, for which the human need do nothing, Whitsun is rather a festival where the human being is active. Here the human being can work positively on his karma if the Rosicrucian saying lives within him. He knows that he is at home in the spiritual world: Per spiritum sanctum reviviscimus. Reviviscimus means, we will live again. The human being must take this step himself within evolution on the Earth: the fully conscious step of returning to the Father, developing himself through all his incarnations. The possibility of taking this step has been given to him by the Son of God (‘No one cometh to the Father, but by me’ – John 14:6). But it is up to the human being to carry it out.”
The Pentecost event at Whitsun gave us the possibility that the individual soul who is willing to ask for help out of his or her spiritual striving could be flooded with Christ Power. Each one of us has his or her Higher Self or spiritual principle, which is Christ-filled. But it does require our individual effort. Steiner puts it like this:
“…because this essence and meaning can be fully grasped by spiritual knowledge alone, not by material knowledge, it follows that the truth of the Whitsun festival can be grasped only when men realise that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the challenge to humanity more and more to achieve Spirit-knowledge, through which alone the Mystery of Golgotha can be understood”.
Steiner also said:
“Thus we now understand what the power of the Holy Spirit is: it is the power which will raise each man ever more and more above all that differentiates and separates him from others, and makes him a member of the whole of humanity on the earth, a power which works as a bond of soul between each and every soul, no matter in what bodies they may be”.
This is why Whitsun is the festival for our age, the epoch of the Cosmic Whitsuntide. It gives us the possibility for the community of the future, in which each one of us is able not only to move into full individual consciousness but also to develop a sense for universal brotherhood – but only if we can find it within ourselves to resist the dangers inherent in this emphasis on the individual – which are selfishness, egoism and materialism.
The Christ impulse pours in at this time but it needs the inner initiative of the individual soul to lift and open itself to that impulse. To end, here is another quotation from Judith von Halle:
“Whitsun is the birth of the conscious and free fourfold human being, is the birth of the free human being not only in the way it has given the fullness of grace of the Easter event to each human being, regardless of how he stands in relation to Christ, but is also the birth of the free human being in his astral body and in his individual self, in his soul and in his spirit. Because every human being must and above all can create by himself this connection to Christ in his soul and in his self, it is also clear that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not only intended for the disciples at the time of Christ, but can be for every person who is presently in the world.”