A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The nature of the Redeemer is a very real mystery to the Gnostic, not in the conventional sense of something that is to be deduced and solved but in that it is something that is too great to be expressed in ordinary words and speech. It cannot be figured out rationally or in statements of fact or theory. It cannot be reduced to a single person in history, a specific figure in religion or even a single experience that is true for all. In this case, we must approach the amplification of this intent with caution and the realization that all we can do is open some windows that may reveal a few facets of this great mystery. As recounted in the collect for this Sunday, “O Thou our Redeeming Power… our thought has not swerved from searching Thy secrets.”
Many references and insights of Gnosis may appear secret, but they are secret only in that they can only be apprehended through mystical experience; they transcend ordinary thought and speech. Without the Gnosis, without the mystical experience for ourselves, such theoretical knowledge is nothing worth. Only the interior experience can transform us. Our Pre-Eucharistic prayer refers to “the Grace beyond thought and speech.” The prayer of Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom), one of the principal Goddesses of Tibetan Buddhism, refers to her in the title “beyond thought and speech.” In the same way the nature of the Redeemer is beyond thought and speech.
The use of the word “nature” in this context might also be explicated by the Buddhist term for the essential and true nature of a thing, which is Dharma. It is similar in meaning to the Chinese Tao or “way” as well. This relates to a phrase in the Gospel of St. John where the Christ exclaims, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Yet we must not narrow this to one person in history; the nature of the Redeemer cannot be contained in such a fashion. The “truth” and the “way” suggests something much more intrinsically universal and yet individual in expression and realization.
In the Gnostic framework the individual is redeemed through a process of internalization and consciousness of the figure of the Redeemed Redeemer. One of the mythic representations that most fully expresses this process is that of the Holy Prophet Mani. Although Mani’s vision is the result of a unique transmission, he poetically draws upon the religious imagery surrounding him, including that of mystical Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Alexandrian Gnosticism. He describes the First Man (Human), the androgynous Anthropos, as a Man (Human) of Light who is tricked and trapped by the Darkness or is otherwise knowingly sacrificed to the Darkness to redeem the Light previously consumed by it. One can find remarkable parallels of the consuming of the Light by the Darkness in the story of Ungoliant, the monstrous spider who poisons the life and drinks the light of the Two Trees in The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. (I do not pretend that Tolkien was inspired by the Manichean writings, but suggest that, although inspired by Finnish, Celtic and Germanic mythology, he primarily drew upon a vision of mystical truths and a source common to the prophets of any age.) The Darkness wishes to defeat the Light by consuming it, and by that means the Light is fragmented into sparks and dispersed throughout the cosmos. Such a metaphor is described equally in the Lurianic myth of the fragmented sparks of Adam Qadmon and in the Sethian Gnostic accounts of the seed of Seth. In the Manichean myth the distress of the Darkness, in having consumed the Light, brings forth material creation and the living universe. This entire cosmos by which the Darkness hoped to capture and defeat the Light becomes a mechanism for freeing and putting back together the fragments of the Light dispersed throughout the Chaos. Yet this redemptive process does not happen automatically. The dispersed sparks of the Light of the First Man suffer from a faint of ignorance, a forgetfulness of their origin. The Father of Greatness who with the Mother of Life engendered the androgynous First Man together send envoys of light in the form of Messengers of Light to remind the fragments of the First Man of their celestial origin and perfection. In this scheme the process of redemption is remembering from whence we came. This call to remembrance is present in all the traditions of Gnosticism, in all times and cultures. It is poetically recalled in the “re-membering” of the body of Osiris in the Egyptian mysteries and in the Manichean myth with the gathering together of the fragmented light of the First Man.
“When men asked for the Redeemer, then the Mother of Life, and the First Man and the Spirit of Life decided to send to their children One who should free them and save them, to show them the knowledge and the righteousness and rescue them from evil.” (The holy prophet Mani) A Messenger of light is sent by the Father of Greatness and the Mother of Life for our Redemption. Another portion of Manichean writings lists not just one, but a stream of such messengers sent throughout history: “Seth-el, Shem, Enos, Nikotheos, Enoch, Elias, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani.” The Redeemer is not just an occurrence in history. The Messenger continues to come to us, the ever-coming and redeeming Logos. Like the Chanticleer of the dawn the Redeemer comes to awaken us from the slumber of ignorance, to guide us to Liberation. The Christ came to free us, to save us, “to show us knowledge and righteousness and to rescue us from evil.” He did not come to bring us a vicarious atonement by dying on a cross, but he came into this world to bring a message of liberation and a redeeming power to achieve it. According to the writings of Mani, the Christ only appeared to be a man: “While coming, the Son changed himself into the form of man, and He appeared to men as a man, being no man, and men fancied him to have been born.” The Gnostic Christ is both a mysterious otherness and a perfect likeness within us. In the Odes of Solomon, the redeemer figure states, “I am from another race.” We too, our essential spirits, are alien to this worldly reality; they are the exiled sparks of the First Man (Human), the Redeemed Redeemer. So too, we bear a kinship to Christ in that way. The goal of the Gnostic is not to become a Christian but a Christ. To seek to know this divine nature is to “wonder at the place from whence we have come.”
(The Untitled Apocalypse from the Bruce Codex)
In reference to the Redeemer as the way, the truth and the life”, the Sanskrit word dharma besides the true “nature” of a thing and the “way”, also means the “law.” The nature of the redeemer, then, is the Law, for the Law of the Gnostic is one, the Law of Love:
“And he also gave us the law: to love one another, and to honor God and bless Him, and seek Him—who He is and what He is—that we should wonder at the place whence we have come, and not return to evil again but follow after Him who has given us the Law of Love.”
(The Book of the Gnosis of the Light, from the Untitled Apocalypse of the Bruce Codex)
The commandment to love one another and to love God intends that we “should wonder at the place from whence we have come.” To discover the nature of the redeemer within us we must seek God within ourselves and find our way to the place from whence we have come. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If they say to you: whence have you originated, say to them: We have come from the light where the light has originated from itself.” When we seek who and what God is, we find who and what we are. The Redeemer and the redeeming power within us are one; the nature of the Redeemer and our true divine nature are the same. “If you will know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons (offspring) of the living Father.”
Redemption to the Gnostic means liberation, liberation from the collective powers of the mass psyche, as well as those bonds within our own individual psyches. If not for such a redeeming power from outside the system, the hyletic and even most of the mind-centered people of this world would never make it. The wheels of karma and fate are not sufficient to the task. Certainly, we have our own work to do in the process of purification and redemption; yet our worldly oriented egos alone are not sufficient to the task either. Without the Divine Aid we end up in the same hole, shoveling and shoveling the same old mire, without ever getting out of it. The Redeemer came to lift us out of both our individual limitations and the bonds of the mass psyche. Besides the message of an alternative world view, the Redeemer brought a liberating power, a power to alter our consciousness into more elevated states of perception, a power conveyed through the institution and revivification of mysteries, which the Church today calls “sacraments.” The sacraments are mysteries; the Redeemer also is a mystery. The sacraments are doorways to a transcendental mystery. The sacraments enact metaphors and myths of transcendent and timeless processes of purification and apotheosis. The rituals become external cues to an interior state of consciousness as well as external symbols of an interior and invisible grace from on high.
The whole world has a need for redemption and liberation. Mani writes of the light of nature trapped in the suffering world of material creation. To the Gnostic salvation is, as the alchemists of old, to liberate the light of nature and the light fragmented in ourselves. We can accomplish such a task only by becoming liberated ourselves through recognition of the transcendent and redeeming power within us, however it may reveal itself to us. Whether yellow, black, red or white, masculine, feminine, young, old, Neopagan, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Moslem or Jew. The Redeemer humbly adapts itself to our humanity, not just once 2,000 years ago, but every time it reveals itself to us. Every time that the mystery of the Eucharist takes place the redeeming power and light of the Logos sacrifices itself to the limitations of matter for our sakes. Like Buddhism, Gnosticism places more emphasis on the message and the redemptive process itself rather than on the individual founder in history. And yet, one cannot really discuss the nature of the redeemer without giving due recognition to the inestimable importance of the mystery-figure of Jesus in the Gnostic soteriology and world view. He lived an archetypal life, the Word made flesh, that we too might have that life of spirit and wholeness, which is our spiritual birthright, not by mere belief in a historical or pseudo-historical event, but through Gnosis, a knowing that his story is the story of each one of us and that we must discover the redeemer and the one in need of redemption within.
Another aspect of the redemptive process related to this world view is the bringing together of the masculine and feminine parts of the Androgynous First Man, Adam. In this regard the mythic figure of the redeemer transcends gender designations. The Gnostic myths are replete with stories of divine feminine figures redeeming the fallen masculine as well as divine masculine figures redeeming the fallen feminine. To some degree the Gnostic journey towards wholeness involves both these relationships within us, regardless of our outward gender. In the Sethian gospels Eve is called the Mother of life, the Mother of all living, just as the divine feminine is titled in the Manichean scriptures. The Gnostic Eve is not an evil temptress; rather, she is the bringer of enlightenment and Gnosis to Adam; she awakens him from the sleep of unconsciousness of who and what he is. Through the divine, feminine spirit of Eve, Adam’s progeny, the seed of Seth, carry the light and its message forth to all generations of Gnostics, which culminates in the advent of the Christ.
The Christ is the divine redemptive image of the redeemed Adam, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is the redemptive image of the divine Eve. Likewise, the Sophia who gives herself to the depths of the material chaos for our redemption is redeemed by the Christ to become the feminine image of the redeemed redeemer. The Gnostics portrayed this latter image of redemption in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The point of all this juxtaposition of masculine and feminine images is that we have both these natures and their relationship to the divine within us, spiritually. Thus, for the Gnostic, the story of the Advent of Christ brings not a mere recounting of historical or pseudo-historical facts but a rich mythic weaving together of timeless archetypes and our potential for liberation and redemption.
In referring to the Redeemer as “the way, the truth and the life,” the way implies a process, in Gnostic terms, a process of interpreting religious symbols to represent, illumine and further develop an interior Gnosis. The varied, diverse and occasionally contradictory mythologems of the Gnostics model this process. These are not “just” psychological symbols but symbols in a Jungian sense, symbols that are not simply to be studied but to be used in the process of portraying the interior realities of Gnosis, a process facilitated by mystery actions using them (sacraments). When we “do” something with them they may “do” something with us. Symbols, in this sense, represent spiritual potencies that are at once intra-psychic and extra-psychic, mystic and cosmic, individual and collective, subjective and objective. In this manner, the religious symbols of Christmas: the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Christ child and others can take on an even more transcendent and illuminating character.
The mother Mary of the Christmas story is called, in the Western Church, the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception refers to the doctrine that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was conceived without original sin to be a fit vessel for the birth of the Christ Child. To put this in a Gnostic context we must understand that the doctrine of original sin was by no means universally held in Christendom until after its popularization by St. Augustine of Hippo. The Gnostic myth rather indicates a doctrine of original divinity. In this fashion, we are all immaculately conceived. But we are yet far from that divine nature with in us. Rather than an original sin, we suffer from an original ignorance, an ignorance of our divine origin. Each of us, in spirit, is conceived immaculately in the love of the Father of Greatness and the Mother of Life. We have the potential and capacity to bring forth the “virgin birth” of the Christ within us. Yet without Gnosis and an awakening from our ignorance, without the Gnosis of this Divine Love, we have nothing. In reference to the “virgin birth,” it is the realization that the Mother of Life, her unadulterated love remains ever itself, one, undefiled and pure, regardless of its myriad forms of expression, for it is by the Law of Love that we are brought to “wonder at the place from whence we have come.”
A passage from an Ethiopian manuscript based on the Protevangelion describes Mary’s conception and announces her role in the birth of the Savior:
“Gabriel appeared to her and said: Peace be unto thee, O Woman. Fear not, for thou hast found mercy with the Lord, and behold, thou shalt conceive and bring forth a daughter and thou shalt call her name Mary; from her shalt spring the light of creation and Him for whom the worlds wait.”
Mary is the immaculately conceived and purified Holy Grail prepared for the descent of the Christ. Yet, she in many ways is an image of our own souls and represents our individual role in and preparation for the Advent of the Christ within us. As announced by St. John the Baptizer: “For this is He that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight a pathway for our God.’”
Mary affirms this role in the Gospel story of the Annunciation by saying, “Be it done according to Thy word.” She realizes that the Holy Grail that is herself, before it can bring forth the Christ Child, must be cleaned and emptied to receive the Fullness. So too must we, in some way, empty and clean our cups to receive the Christ, for the ego-personality alone cannot transform the base metal of our personality into the golden chalice of the divine birth. The womb of Mary, the Mother of life, represents the Holy Grail. Through Gnosis we are prepared to conceive the interior Virgin Birth, spiritually. She has been called the Spirit of Prophecy and the Daughter of the Voice, both represented as a dove. Dove, or the Latin “Columba”, is the title for virgins, such as Mary who were dedicated in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Christmas season brings to us the Dove of Peace. Thus, it is the spirit of Mary, as a dove, who ushers in the peace at Christmastide. She speaks in the heart, announcing the coming of the Redeemer and our own Redemption. She introduces us to the nature of the Redeemer, the Prince of Peace that dwells within us. As in Jung’s “Hymn to Izdubar” in “The Incantations of Liber Secundus” of The Red Book, we must in some paradoxical fashion become the mother of our Selves: “I am the maiden, the simple mother, who gave birth but did not know how.” The mother “who gave birth but did not know how” speaks to the mystery of the process of the birth of Christ, which must occur within each of us.
As our consciousness grows and our ego is transformed, the birth takes place, the peace descends upon us, and we bring to fruition the seed of our redemption. Thus, we become one with Christ and know the Redeemed Redeemer within us; we know the redeemed and the Redeemer as one. We know the one who is redeemed and the one who gives birth. The Holy Mother of all gods, Our Lady reveals to us the nature of the Redeemer who dwells within us and is our truest Self. We find the mystery that that which is born in us, like Christ, has always been, is now, and ever shall be, the ever-coming and Redeeming Logos.
My Lady is a fragrant rose,
And near to God my Lady grows;
And all my thoughts are murmuring bees
That haste in silent ecstasies
Upon her beauty to repose.
Sweeter than any flower that blows,
Since all the scents her lips disclose
Are prayers upon the heavenly breeze,
My Lady is.
Her summer never comes and goes
And, for the sweetness she bestows,
My heart’s the hive where, by degrees,
I hoard my golden memories.
For Mary, as my Angel knows,
My Lady is.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.