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The timeless wisdom of the Oberufer Christmas plays

I gave the following address at Emerson College on December 24th 2017, during the Christmas Festival organised by the Anthroposophical Society in Sussex. Since I first got to know the Oberufer Christmas Plays by acting in them some years ago, I’ve been aware of the timeless wisdom that they contain about human beings and our situation here on Earth. As I’ve referred to some of these themes in earlier blog posts, I apologise for the repetition here; but partly excuse myself because I have added some further thoughts in this address.

 

Throughout the Advent period and up until the end of the school Autumn term, teachers and other staff in Steiner Waldorf schools around the world are to be found busy in rehearsals for one or more of three Christmas plays, which they perform as a kind of gift to the pupils, their families and friends over the holiday period.

These plays – the Paradise Play, the Shepherds’ Play and the Kings’ Play – are known as the Oberufer Christmas Plays, after an island in the Upper Danube where these plays were first noted down and collected by one of Rudolf Steiner’s university professors, Karl Julius Schroer.

For those of you who’ve not come across them before, what are these plays about? The first one, called The Paradise Play, is quite short and tells the story as described in the book of Genesis of the creation of the world and the subsequent expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, after they had succumbed to Satan’s strategem to get them to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the one tree in the Garden of Eden that God had forbidden to them. Today, Christmas Eve, is I believe called the Feast of Adam and Eve in the Catholic Church, and the Christmas tree, of which we have a lovely example here, is sometimes called the Paradise Tree, and it represents the Garden of Eden. The Paradise Play is usually performed just before Christmas together with the second play, the Shepherds’ Play, which tells the story of the proclamation of the Birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the field. This is the nativity story as told in the Gospel According to St Luke. We’ve recently seen a performance of the Shepherds’ Play at Michael Hall school on 14th and 15th December. The third play, the Kings Play, tells of the visit of the three wise men, the Magi , to the birthplace of Baby Jesus, and then of the murderous atrocities of Herod in his attempt to destroy the boy he assumed would take over his throne, and it is traditionally performed on 6th January, the feast of Epiphany. This is the nativity story as told in the Gospel According to St Matthew.

Of course, Christmas in our own time has become a secular rather than a religious holiday – you’ve probably noticed that many people now prefer to say “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.” I saw recently a cartoon in a newspaper, which showed two people looking at a nativity scene in a shop window. One person was saying to the other: “Now that’s what I call really tasteless, bringing Jesus into Christmas!”

But there was a time when Christmas was not primarily about over-indulgence and conspicuous consumption. For Rudolf Steiner, who grew up in the rural Austro-Hungarian villages during the latter part of the 19th century, Christmas was still a time which was not primarily about consumerism, but was instead a festival when love, philanthropy and what you might call “right living” was given a fresh impetus in human hearts. As Christmas approached, these villages were suffused by a mood Steiner later described as a kind of magical breath that filled the homes and streets with joyful, hopeful anticipation. Even the poorest peasant householder would dedicate a corner of their dwelling to a nativity scene made from figures they had carved themselves from wood.

As a boy, Steiner would see these nativity scenes when visiting his neighbours. It’s easy for us to forget that he was born into the rural working-class and this was the milieu in which he grew up. As an adult, he expressed his empathy with poor working people as a natural result of having grown up among them. The villagers of Steiner’s childhood not only decorated their homes with nativity scenes but they also took part in traditional seasonal pageants. On Christmas Eve they would re-enact the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from Paradise; and on Christmas Day the story of the Shepherds as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Despite their simple settings, props and costumes, the villagers took these plays very seriously, with preparations beginning at the end of the harvest season and with rehearsals taking place by lantern and candlelight. The actors were men and boys only, including those playing the roles of Mary and the angel. Those taking part in the plays had to observe certain rules and uphold high moral standards.

Steiner tells us that from his own observations of knowing the people involved, there were what he calls “utterly good-for-nothing fellows who would not dare to be dissolute as the days shortened. At Christmas time those who were invariably the most quarrelsome, quarrelled less and those who quarrelled only now and then stopped quarrelling altogether. A real power was active in souls at that time of the year and these feelings abounded everywhere during the weeks immediately before the Holy Night.” Steiner went on to say that “anyone who has lived among village people knows what the first rule of conduct signifies. The first rule was that during the whole period of preparation none of the actors might visit a brothel.” (I trust that the Waldorf teachers today are showing similar restraint.) A second rule was that no-one was allowed to sing bawdy songs or get drunk and the boys taking part were expected to be God-fearing and be capable of absorbing into their character the essence of the Christmas mood. The actors were also obliged to learn how to speak in strict rhythm and rehearse every movement and gesture in minute detail.

So when in later life Steiner was introduced to the Oberufer Christmas plays by his university professor Karl Julius Schroer, he immediately recognised what he described as the same “warm, magical breath of the Christmas mood” that he remembered from the village plays of his childhood. Schroer had collected these three plays in the local dialect from the island community of Oberufer in the Danube, where they had been performed for hundreds of years. Nowadays, as I mentioned, these plays are performed during the Christmas season at Steiner Waldorf schools around the world.

I think we can be fairly sure that Steiner further adapted Schroer’s texts of these plays. We may also assume that Steiner brought out and strengthened the ancient wisdom inherent in the plays. Now Steiner was perhaps one of the busiest people there has ever been – he must have been under greater time pressure than any of us can imagine, as the work he packed into his 63 years would have been more than enough for ten ordinary people. And yet we know that he gave much time and attention to the rehearsal and production of the plays at Dornach, and he provided a spoken introduction to every performance whenever he could. So what was it about these plays that was important enough to make Steiner want to attend hundreds of rehearsals and many performances over the course of his years at Dornach?

When I worked in a Steiner school and sometimes took part in these plays, I found there to be a special, intangible quality about acting in them. It may sound fanciful but I experienced this almost as a blessing, a sense of grace. I found this particularly to be the case when playing Balthasar in the Kings’ play, but also when playing God in the Paradise play (typecasting, some might say). Of course, those playing the Devil or Herod might have quite a different experience!

There is real wisdom in each of these plays and the text repays careful study and attention. Take the Paradise Play, for example, and the final speech that God makes just after Adam and Eve have been cast out of Paradise and after he has rebuked Satan for beguiling Adam and Eve into tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It’s both powerful and thought-provoking:

“See now this Adam, such wealth he has won

Like to a god he is become

Knowledge he has of Evil and Good

He can lift up his hand on high

Whereby he liveth eternally”

I was playing the part, so I had to try to make sense of these lines. They reminded me of an earlier scene in the play, just after God has created Adam, and is showing him the Earth for the first time. God says to Adam:

“The earth with hills and mountains steep

I give thee – fishes of the deep and

Birds of Air, that by this hand I made,

I give to thy command.

Share thou with me my domination

And be the lord of all creation.”

God is inviting Adam to become a co-creator, the steward of the Earth, although a steward who is so far lacking in the wisdom to run things properly.

So what do those last two lines I quoted earlier mean, when God says that Adam “can lift up his hand on high, Whereby he liveth eternally”? Through Satan’s cunning, Adam has acquired premature knowledge of good and evil, before he was evolutionarily ready to take this on, but in doing this, Adam has also taken on the potential to become a god.

The image of Adam lifting his hand on high (and surely it’s his right hand he lifts) reminded me of a king with orb and sceptre. Picture a king with a sceptre in his right hand, which is used for directing and willing and with the orb in his left hand, which is used for receiving and holding – so Adam has become like a God or a co-creator with God and who now must learn to use his power with wisdom, which implies that there will be all kinds of painful lessons to be learned as mistakes are made along the way. And isn’t that a perfect image of humankind today, as we grapple with cloning and nuclear energy and genetic modification and all kinds of new technologies? We have the godlike powers but we are still trying to learn the godlike wisdom to use them properly.

What lies behind these plays? We could perhaps say that the Paradise Play is to do with the forces of Will, depicting as it does the beginning of Humankind.

We might say that the Shepherds’ Play is about Feeling and the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts. It’s about empathy, the wisdom of the heart, the caring for one another that the birth of Jesus will reinforce and strengthen throughout the world.

And we could say that the Kings’ Play is about Thinking – and indeed it seems to me the play most closely aligned to anthroposophy, because the Three Kings are a kind of image of the seeking after of higher spiritual knowledge or the truths of esoteric Christianity. The Kings’ Play is traditionally performed at Epiphany on 6th January.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “vision of God” and in the Christian tradition it refers to the visit to the newborn Jesus child in the stable at Bethlehem by the Three Kings; or in other words, the revelation of God the Son as a human being to the Three Kings or Magi. Epiphany is sometimes called the Festival of the Three Kings for this reason, and Rudolf Steiner had some interesting things to say about it. He said that in our present time less importance is attached to Epiphany than to the Christmas festival itself but in the future, Epiphany will assume greater and greater significance as we begin to understand its symbolism.

The Shepherds’ Play and the Kings Play are telling us of two proclamations of the birth of Jesus: the Shepherds’ Play shows us that one proclamation is made to the shepherds in the fields, as told in the Gospel According to St Luke; while the Kings’ Play shows us the proclamation made to the three Magi from the East, who follow a star leading them to the Jesus child. This is the Nativity as related in the Gospel According to St Matthew.

So these plays are showing us two ways in which higher knowledge came to exceptional individuals in earlier times. Individuals such as the simple shepherds in the fields who with their great purity and kindness of heart still possessed a certain power of clairvoyance that came over them like a dream.

And the Kings’ Play shows us that there were individuals who had reached the heights of learning, like the three Magi from the East, in whom the ancient faculty of gazing into the how and why of cosmic happenings had been preserved.

Let’s take a closer look at the knowledge possessed by the three Magi. It’s clearly indicated in the Kings’ Play that these Magi (another word for spiritual masters or initiates), were able to read the secrets of the movements of the stars. This ancient knowledge of the secrets of the stars also contained the secrets of happenings in the world of human beings.

Steiner posed the question: “What has become of the wisdom possessed by the Magi?” And his answer was that it has become the mathematical astronomy of today. However, unlike today’s astronomers, the Magi were able to gaze at the world of the stars, not only with their eyes but also with their inner vision and their esoteric knowledge and thus they were able to see the secrets of the universe and of humankind. In a way we can scarcely understand today, the Magi could also perceive the stars talking to them. However in our present age, today’s mathematics has become pure abstraction, says Steiner, but he also says that the same forces that are unfolded in mathematical thinking can again be filled with life, enriched and intensified in imaginative perception. Then, from our own inner forces, we can once again behold the heavens through inner perception, inner vision, as the Magi discerned the secrets of the Christ child.

Perhaps it is thoughts like these that prompted Steiner to give the following meditative verse at Christmas 1923:

The stars once spoke to Man.

It is world destiny that they are silent now.

To be aware of this silence

Can become pain for Earthly Man.

But in the deepening silence

There grows and ripens

What Man speaks to the stars.

To be aware of this speaking

Can become strength for Spirit Man.

In our present age, the verse seems to suggest, we need to recognise that the spiritual world has withdrawn from us in order to advance the next step of our own evolutionary journey. In Steiner’s account of how humanity is evolving, since the 15th century we have lost the atavistic sense of clairvoyance which we used to have, and thus lost our awareness of the connection with the spiritual world. This was a necessary but very dangerous step in the evolution of humankind. It was necessary because as humans we have the unique privilege of developing freewill, which could only happen by entering an age in which our connection with the divine-spiritual beings and their will for our future appeared to be severed. And it was dangerous because this apparent severance from spirit existence has given the adversarial powers an opportunity they didn’t have before, which is to convince human beings through our science and technology that physical, material reality is the only reality; and thus to thwart our true destiny, which is to evolve, aeons from now, into what Steiner called the Tenth Hierarchy, a new angelic order of spiritual freedom and spiritual love.

But even in this present age we are not alone, however; help is all around us. We must find the courage and imagination to speak to the stars and re-establish our links with the spiritual world; but this time in full consciousness.

Turning to the Magi themselves, one of them is portrayed as a Moor, an African; the second as a white man, a European; and the third as an Asian from India. And about this Steiner says something which I find very moving (and which gives the lie to those misguided people who accuse him of racism):

“What must never be forgotten is that the proclamations to the Shepherds and to the Kings contained a message for all mankind – for the earth is common to all. In that the revelation to the shepherds was from the earth, it was a revelation that may not be differentiated according to nationality. And in that the Magi received the proclamation of the sun and heavens, this too was a revelation destined for all mankind. For when the sun has shone upon the territory of one people, it shines upon the territory of another. The heavens are common to all; the earth is common to all. The impulse of the ‘human universal’ is in very truth quickened by Christianity. Such is the aspect of Christmas revealed by the twofold proclamation.”

But there are two other kings in the Kings’ Play – Jesus and Herod. And they open up two different worlds before us: one which promotes the development of humanity in a good way; and the other world, which is served by the adversarial powers and in which Herod represents the diabolical element. Unlike Jesus, and unlike the three Magi, who are working out of love, or more precisely, who are applying the intelligence of their hearts to their knowledge of the stars, Herod is working out of the opposite of love.

What is the opposite of love? Not hate. No, the true opposite of love is fear. Herod is afraid. He is afraid of losing his throne to this new-born king, whom he assumes will be a temporal rather than a spiritual ruler. And out of Herod’s fear, and his ignorance of spiritual laws, he is willing to commit the most terrible atrocity imaginable: the mass slaughter of all boy-children in his kingdom under the age of two.

Actually, one feels almost sorry for Herod, who in his fear and ignorance is preparing a truly appalling karma for his future lives. In the play, Mary appears to Herod in a vision and tries to warn him about what he is doing to himself:

“Great King, to Mercy mend your mind

Lest grief come suddenly behind;

If so much guiltless blood you shed

What call you, King, on your own head?”

But Herod is not to be dissuaded from his terrible crime and orders his servants to kill all the children, “to make the children’s blood gush out.”

And at this point, I can’t help but ask myself what has changed in the last 2000 years? Still today we have rulers who are acting out of fear and ignorance rather than a heart-filled wisdom. A prime example is president Assad in Syria, where the death toll of his own Syrian people in the conflict is around 500,000, together with over 6 million internally displaced people and another 5 million seeking refuge abroad. We could multiply these examples in other conflicts around the world.

Why is this, I wonder? Why is it that so many politicians and leaders today still lack “the light that gives warmth to simple shepherds’ hearts, the light that enlightens the wise heads of kings?” Why are so many of them, to use a 19thcentury term that deserves to be revived, such moral imbeciles?

Whatever the answers to those questions, each of us can help to improve matters. None of us is powerless – our thoughts, our example, our prayers, our daily interactions with other people can all help to create a better future, even if the numbers of those working consciously for good sometimes seem like an impossibly diluted homeopathic dose within the great mass of humankind.

And of course, we can also go to see the Oberufer Christmas plays, to remind ourselves of what remains true and good in the face of evil. We’ve missed the Paradise, and Shepherds plays for this year, but we can still see the Kings Play, which is being performed at Michael Hall on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th January at 7.30pm; and then on Sunday 14th at 5.00pm.

Thank you for listening – very best wishes for a peaceful and restful time during these Holy Nights and in the New Year ahead.

 

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