Christmas, Easter, St John’s Day and Michaelmas – for all these Christian festivals it is true that they are close in time to an astronomical event, namely a special relationship of the sun to the earth in the course of the year. This clearly establishes the connection with nature. At the same time, the chronological shift of a few days puts them a little outside the laws of nature. Christmas is three days after the winter solstice, Easter, the most mobile seasonal festival, is closer or further away from the spring equinox with week-long deviations, St John’s Day follows the summer solstice with a three-day delay and Michaelmas is six days after the autumn equinox. The festivals are never placed before the astronomical event, but are always found a little way into the new season. The images associated with them have both a content drawn from nature and a soul content. They are thus suitable for building a bridge from the human being to nature and for experiencing nature as creation. This is an aspect that must be given high priority in education, the soul development of young people.
Let us start with Christmas. In the darkest season of the year, but then – when the daily arcs of the sun are already increasing again unnoticed – in the season in which the dying processes of nature predominate, lies the birth of the Child Jesus. It is the childhood forces themselves that are venerated with this festival. They enter the world archetypally with the birth of Christ and are defencelessly at its mercy. The world gives them shelter only with difficulty, relegated to a stable, excluded from human life together, among animals and in complete poverty, misjudged by most; only by the shepherds, on whom it is incumbent to safeguard the gift of God, is the arrival of these forces on earth recognised and their representative sought out.
Western art has recorded the event in countless images based on the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. The child is naked, the young mother looks at it with deep love. The bond of love between the mother and the defenceless child is the central motif of these paintings. Something light, the mood of a pastorale, wafts around the pictures.
But there is a second Christmas event that stands prominently alongside the first: the adoration of the Magi. The source for these pictures is the Gospel of Matthew. The priest-kings represent the wisdom and power of the world. They bow their heads before the child and thus before the forces of childhood. These cannot be grasped with power and wisdom; earthly wisdom does not understand them; The power of kings can destroy them – Herod does this in the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem – but they cannot be awakened and brought to fruition with earthly power. Love is the only force or power that makes them blossom.
Childhood forces are not of this world, they are not subject to earthly laws, they are delicate and vulnerable, but they carry all that is to come, all new life as a seed within them.
Easter is the time of natural life unfolding. New life emerges from nature that has died off. Images of fertility and the germ cell (egg) as the beginning of life come from the context of nature. At the same time, another dying-and-becoming for humanity takes place archetypically at Easter through the death and resurrection of Christ. The date of this festival is quite far removed from the natural context: the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox is Easter. This can be at the end of March, but also at the end of April. Easter contains two soul images: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Only when they are linked do they make sense. Someone who remains in the mourning of Good Friday has understood Easter just as little as someone who does not admit the death on the cross. Overcoming death does not mean that it does not occur, but that it is not an existentially destructive force but a life-transforming one. The human being does not exhaust themselves in their material existence, but is at the same time a soul-spiritual being with whom this transformation takes place. All images that have this dying-and-becoming as their content also depict an aspect of Easter.
The summer solstice takes place on 21 June. The highest (northernmost) position of the sun is reached. It is the time of the greatest light in the year. Nature unfolds to its fullest through the abundance of light and warmth. On 24 June, the ecclesiastical year celebrates the birth of John the Baptist. He is associated with the image of the austere ascetic, the admonisher who heralds the end of the old era and points to the new one that will follow. John shows the limits of the old, what has been, and exhorts us to repentance and catharsis. The old has unfolded in perfection and completeness and has come to its end. Were it to continue to exist, it would be a dead or obsolete form. A beautiful image of this can be found in the St. John’s fire. Goethe puts one aspect of this image into words:
“For what the fire seizes with life, is no longer unformed and a burden on earth. It dissipates and invisible turns, hastening upwards to where it began.”
We think of the Archangel Michael on 29 September, when the solar year has already passed its equilibrium point between day and night by one week and the days become shorter. Life is slowly fading from nature. Michael had a prominent position in the circle of archangels. Special places of worship and contemplation were dedicated to him. They were located off the beaten track, often difficult to reach, on mountains. They include Mont Saint Michel in France, St. Micheal’s Mount in Cornwall, Skellig Michael in the southwest of Ireland or Sacra di San Michele west of Turin. This signature of the Michaelic, that which is secluded, difficult to reach and elevated, is part of the image. Furthermore, two great soul images again characterise the Michaelmas period. The first is the archangel with the scales and the second is the warrior in knight’s armour who defeats the dragon with the sword. The confrontation with evil, with the forces of darkness, is at the centre of this festival and correlates with the natural event of dwindling light, the rising darkness and cold.
Now, if we think of the annual festivals globally, we must always think of the antipodes. This leads us to allow the rising life forces of Easter time, the polar equinoctial time, to resonate finely at Michaelmas – just as we are sensitive to the dying-and-becoming of the crucifixion and resurrection when we contemplate the battle with the dragon as a soul event. The second axis of the cross of the yearly festivals is formed by St John’s Day and Christmas. When we celebrate the complete unfolding of nature in light and warmth on St John’s Day, a fine undercurrent hinting at Christmas is part of it, so that we experience the feast in its completeness. Then the image of the childhood forces, of the seeds of the future is added. At Christmas, then, the event of the Nativity is in the foreground, but has its complementary mood colour through the festival of St John.
The younger the children are, the more the image of the festive seasons must also be reflected externally and in a temporal process. We have to live towards the festival, prepare it. The joy of anticipation of the event is essential. Festivals are never just points in time, but always periods of time. In our agnostic and areligious epoch, Advent is the time when a remnant of understanding for this fact probably still lives the most. Authenticity is also always important: if, for example, Christmas is exhausted in the distribution of gifts, lavish food and even more lavish drink and no longer has any reference to the birth of Christ, we have to ask ourselves whether it is not better to leave it be. Even a slight, barely noticeable, latent dishonesty regarding religious content can have a harmful effect. Young people in particular have a finely tuned sense of this. For young people, by the way, the importance of the external image recedes a little into the background. A motif in a biography, the gesture of a politician, for example Willy Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto on 7 December 1970, associated with a festive day, in this case with Christmas, carrying a message of peace, can have more of an effect than reeling off festive traditions that are no longer wholly grasped internally.