I recently wrote of the three Oberufer Christmas plays and said that at Epiphany I would also be writing something more about the third of those, the Three Kings’ Play, which 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 Oberufer Christmas plays tell 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, while the Three 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 the 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 Three 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.
The plays therefore point the way to two definite but quite distinct forms of knowledge:
- To the Shepherds – revelation through the last echoes of the old instinctive clairvoyance
- To the Magi – revelation through heart-filled scientific knowledge
Since we are contemplating the Three Kings’ Festival of Epiphany, let’s take a closer look at the knowledge possessed by the three Magi. It’s clearly indicated in the Three 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. 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 age of the consciousness soul, 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 of the consciousness soul, the verse seems to suggest, we need to recognise that the spiritual world has withdrawn from us so as to advance the next step of our own evolutionary journey. 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 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 is another king in the Kings’ Play – King Herod. 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 Syrian citizens killed by their own government forces is now estimated to be over 133,000 and where well over four million people have been forced into exile to escape the violence.
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 19th century 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 daily interactions with other people can all help to create a better future, even if the numbers of those working consciously for good seem like an impossibly diluted homeopathic dose within the great mass of humankind.
To quote the closing lines from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:
“And when we have built an altar to the
invisible Light, we may set thereon the little
lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory.”