A Homily for Christmas
by Bishop Steven Marshall
Christmas Eve, sometimes called Holy Night, celebrates the ageless story of the birth of Christ. As the divine light of Christ incarnates in a tiny babe in a lowly manger, to us this story represents the nativity of the divine light within the Gnostic soul, the coming of the royal light into the lowly frame and darkness of this world. When the outer world grows cold and dark it is even more necessary to keep the spark of divine light kindled and bright.
Though the light shines in the darkness, the darkness can not itself give birth to the light. The earth would be naught but cold damp clay without the life coming from the light of the Sun. Even so, the spirit which gives life comes from somewhere else, a mystical dimension beyond time and space. The alchemists assure us that “nature unaided always fails.” Without divine assistance in the Hermetic art the alchemist can not achieve the goal of the Great Work, the Philosopher’s Stone. In the same way, our human natures can not transform our ego personalities without the assistance of that spark of our Divine Self and the birth of that consciousness within us.
It is reported that during delivery, as a baby’s head just breaks through from the birth canal, that for a brief moment an otherworldly light fills the room, like the light of a golden dawn. That light is soon obscured in this world but serves to remind us of the glorious aeon from which we have come and the darkness into which each new life comes. Our task is not to bewail the existential facts of the matter but to aid those who come into this world to keep the memory of that light alive and kindled within them.
Christmas, coming as it does upon the winter solstice, is a time of paradoxes. We see the light shining in the darkest season, the fire blazing in the cold of winter, life stirring in the fallow of the year. We participate in the paradoxes of the season when we acknowledge the infant light at the darkest point of the year. As stated in one translation of the Gospel of John, “The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.” Just as the light of the sun is secretly rekindled and reborn, so are we given an opportunity for our divine spark to wax and grow in light. Christmas is a feast of the interior light, a rekindling of the spiritual spark within us, even as we see the fire blazing in the cold of winter.
Fire is the center of all Yule activity: the Christmas lights on trees and houses, the Yule log blazing on the hearth, and candles on the advent wreath. The fire signifies the flame of joy and charity in our hearts and the spiritual fire that has been sown into this earth. As stated in the Gospel of Thomas, “ I have cast fire upon the world, and behold, I guard it until the world is afire.” A line from the Chaldean Oracles echoes, “Behold the formless fire flashing through the hidden depths of the universe.” The life of our planet is a fire sown into the darkness of material creation. The light of Christ is a “fire born of water.” The fire born of water has been a mystery to all peoples from the beginning of time, and it is that light, with a renewed dispensation, which stirs in this season.
Christmas is also a time of sacrifice in that we often participate in the giving of gifts and contributing to charities at this time. The nativity and birth that we celebrate at Christmas Eve is a sacrifice as well. The Logos sacrifices the glory and light vesture of the celestial aeons in order to take on human form and dwell upon the earth. As Gnostics we recognize that the incarnation not the crucifixion was indeed the true sacrifice of the Logos. Certain Gnostics of the past claim that the Perfect One never took on a physical body, yet humbled himself to be born and live in the appearance of humanity all the same. Whether a physical or phantom body, or purely a literary tradition, the birth of the Christ child is a sublime and timeless mystery. There is no book, no scripture, no authority outside of one’s Self that is an authentic source regarding such a mystery. It is a mystery that can only be witnessed individually in each one’s own heart. Then one knows, one knows in a crack between the worlds, what the mystery of Christmas is all about.
Christmas is not about the celebration of an historical birth. Christmas is about becoming conscious of the renewing light that streams into the soul on Holy Night, that kindles into flame, the soul spark witihin us, the birth of the Christ-Light within us. “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, But not within thyself, thy soul shall be forlorn.” (Angelus Silesius) This consciousness is the heart of Gnosis, the Self-knowledge, the recognition of one’s true and royal Self, a magnanimous radiance of inexhaustible beneficence and compassion. As the Gospel of Thomas states, “If you know yourself, you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the Living Father.” This is a Gnosis of the Heart, a certainty beyond faith, as the Hermetic philosophers have said, “the wisdom that is essential for peace profound.” This is the peace of which the angels sang, “Peace on earth; goodwill to all mankind,” a universal blessing poured forth upon the earth.
Christmas belongs not only to a few who call themselves Christians but to the entire earth. The lowly animals, birds, plants and trees all participate in this nativity of the divine light at Christmas. An old French legend tells how all the animals were given the gift of speech on Holy Night; so that they were granted the ability to give outward expression to their consciousness and recognition of the light. Our compassion for our human brothers and sisters is increased when we realize that the animals and trees are also wondrous light-beings in even more humble, limited and unrecognizable form than ourselves.
Corrine Heline describes the universal blessing of Christmas Eve as a descent of the divine energy of the solar logos. The Christ energy shines down and reaches the heart of the planet where it concentrates in the form of a six-rayed star. This is also an inner process within each of us, an inner conjunction of the sun and the earth. As the Logos descends into the earth to bring Light to the world, so we can see in ourselves the light, life, and hope of the world descended into the darkness of matter to redeem the fragmented sparks of divinity scattered throughout the universe.
The ancient Roman festival celebrated near this date is the Saturnalia, involving the ceremonial marriage of Cybele (the earth Goddess) and Attis (the sun-God). The marriage consummated in a cave, even as the Christ child is sometimes said to have been born in a cave, again symbolizes the conjunction of the sun and the earth. The ceremonial emergence of the representatives of the God and Goddess from the cave sanctuary represents the new birth of the Mystae in the sacred bridechamber and the birth of the inner light. In the Egyptian mysteries, the Mystae emerge from the inner shrine chanting, “The Virgin has brought forth! The Light is waxing!”
In the Biblical story, the Christ child is born in a cave or stable used to shelter animals and is laid in a manger— a humble birth for the proclaimed King of kings. We also share that humble existence in this world. We also experience the sacrifice of the glorious light of the aeons and see our light power as a tiny spark of its original flame. The holy birth of Christmas represents the birth of the Christ-Sun within us, an awakening of our consciousness to who we are and the light from whence we came, an awakening from the sleep of forgetfulness.
The manger where the holy babe is laid is a place for keeping grain and fodder. Grain is a symbol of the seed of life that endures through the winter, a symbol also for the birth of the solar God in the Eleusinian mysteries. As the shaft of wheat was presented the Mystae would exclaim, “Brimo has given birth to Brimos!” That shaft of wheat might be represented as well in the host of the Eucharist, “the Heavenly Bread, the Life of the whole world, which is in all places and endureth all things.” The city where the holy child is born is called Bethlehem which means “House of Bread.”
The life represented in the bread and grain was a very important part of the Christmas celebrations of times past. The last sheaf of grain from the harvest represented the life spirit of the entire field. In earlier times the folk custom was to carefully save the last sheaf, both the grain and the straw. The grain was ground and made into Christmas cake, sweet porridge or pudding. The straw was woven into the figure of a tree, a man, a bird or a goat.
The straw goat, which some families still include in their Christmas celebrations, represents the seed of life that endures through the winter and signifies the holy light that still shines through the cold and dark of winter to appear to us on this Holy Night of Christmas Eve. There is a small rent in the veil before the Treasury of the Light. A magical light shines down into the heart of dark winter wherever there are gathered those who have prepared a vessel for it on earth. That vessel is the pure heart, a heart of compassion and forgiveness, a heart made ready after the pattern of our Holy Mother of Compassion and Mercy. Such a heart gives birth to the light of Christ. It shall always remain a virgin birth; for her love remains forever itself, pure, undefiled, unsullied and unadulterated, regardless of its myriad forms of expression on earth. Her love eternally sanctifies itself and all it touches. It is the mystic rose of her love in our hearts that is the immaculate vessel that gives birth to the Christ child within us.
As expressed most beautifully in a poem by Gertrude Farwell:
Soft candle stars the gloom
About a single rose:
Flower and bough of pine perfume
The twilight hour; in flame that throws
A nimbus round the evergreen.
Whilst fragrance breathes the Living Name
Of Love Incarnate yet unseen,
Rising from petal, pine and thorn.
Mary the pure is kneeling fair,
Of Gabriel’s “Ave!” now aware,
Wondering if aright she’s heard
“Blessed art thou”—unsought acclaim,
Immaculate vessel that the Word
Made flesh may shine on Christmas morn.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.