Saturday, December 20, 2014

Winter solstice, 2014: the Stable and the Manger

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The earth will pass through the point of December solstice this year on December 21st at 2303 Greenwich time (now referred to as UTC), which is 1503 Pacific time and 1803 Eastern time for those in North America (numerous sites on the web can help you determine the time at your location if the references above aren't enough to zero-in on it).

As has been remarked upon in many other discussions, the word "solstice" descends from a combination of the Latin noun sol ("the sun") with a form of the Latin verb sistere ("to stand"), and thus means "sun-standing," as in "standing still." We find another example containing a derivation of sistere in the word "interstitial," which describes the "boundary space" in between two larger spaces -- the border-zone, the threshold region, the "standing-in-the-middle" place.

When the earth is hurtling towards the December solstice, it causes the sun's apparent path to observers on earth to move further and further south each day. As a consequence, ever since we passed the June solstice, the sun has been rising on the eastern horizon at a point further and further south, and arcing across the sky on a path that is further and further towards the southern horizon, and then setting at a point along the western horizon at a point that is further and further south each day. 

At the solstice, the sun seems to "stand still" before it turns back around and reverses the process. The reason for this standstill is discussed in this previous post involving the metaphor of a mighty sailing ship with the bowsprit acting as the north pole. 

For those observers in the northern hemisphere, where the sun's steady progress towards the south has caused its rays to be less and less direct, and the warming effects less and less effective, plunging the world deeper and deeper into winter, as the days grow shorter and shorter and the nights longer and longer, the anticipation of that turnaround is tremendous. It seems as if life itself hangs in the balance, and the time in which the sun finally grinds to a halt in its southward progression and stands still before finally turning back towards the north feels like a breathless pause in which the entire world freezes in place to see if the life-giving orb will actually "make the turn."

It is this moment, when all the world collectively "holds its breath" (figuratively speaking), that Alvin Boyd Kuhn says is commemorated in the concept of the "Silent Night," the stillness that is celebrated in the Christmas tradition, with carols which proclaim: "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie," and (in "It came upon a midnight clear"), "The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing" (13).

In a lecture entitled The Stable and the Manger, delivered in 1936, Alvin Boyd Kuhn elucidates the connections between the elements of the Christmas story and the significance of the winter solstice as a spiritual allegory, in which spirit which has been plunged deep into matter begins its "upward turn," but prior to doing so there is a pregnant pause in which all is in perfect stillness, and the tension between the two creates a moment of equipoise in which "all is calm."

Outlining the framework of the metaphor, he explains:
The sun in its apparent passage from the high glory of summer to its enfeebled power in the solstice of winter exactly symbolizes, because it repeats, the experience of the soul in its alternating swing from the heights of spiritual purity in disembodiment -- in summer -- to the depths of diminished shining in the lowest arc of its immersion in a body, its night, its winter. 11.
And, tying this concept to the Christmas story, he explains that it is this commingling of the spark of spirit plunged into the body of matter which gives birth to the "third principle," the higher self, the Christ within. Kuhn says:
Suffice it to say for the moment that obviously if a higher and a lower force are to meet and unite at the point midway between their status of being, they must so meet as the result of the ascent of the one and the descent of the other. Nature could not well arrange such a meeting in any other way. That nature has so arranged the matter is one of the bits of knowledge furnished us by the ancient wisdom. When God or Life at the beginning of each period of its activity bifurcates into the polarization of spirit and matter, the two forms of being move toward each other, meet in the middle ground, so to say, effect their conjunction and interplay, and at the end of the cycle retire into latency again. For the earth evolution that point of middle distance between the two is the body and life of man. here is where the "marriage" takes place and the Son, the Christ, is born. And when the two forces meet at this point, they counteract each other's energies and bring each other to a standstill. Spirit descending came to a stop in the arms of matter, for the inertia of matter stilled the vibrations of spirit. 9.
Thus, he notes, it is highly appropriate that the ancient scriptures describe the birth of the Christ as taking place in a stable -- the word itself means "steady" and "standing upon a base," appropriate for this story that takes place at the very base of the year, the bottom of the zodiac wheel shown below, and appropriate to the point where as Kuhn says "spirit and matter, soul and body, are 'stabilized' in relation to each other" (12).

He further points out that the stable is the place "where animals come to stand for the night," and a place where the animal nature connects with the benevolent care of the higher human intellect (which presumably designed and constructed the stable, to shelter and protect the animal), and which thus may symbolize this point where "the brute kingdom is elevated by the grace of mankind, as mankind in turn is exalted by the grace of the gods" (12).

But that is not all -- for, as Kuhn goes on to explain, the Christ-child who is born at this point of tension between spirit and matter, where spirit has descended to its deepest place in the cycle, is then laid in a manger -- the place where the animals are fed! The animal nature must be fed and nourished and ultimately elevated by their participation with the Christ nature (17 - 19).

Astronomically, we have seen that the sign of Virgo, standing as she does at the autumn equinox where days begin to be shorter than nights, presides over the plunge of the spirit from the higher realm into the material realm (see the image of Virgo, wearing the crown of the "Queen of Heaven," located just above the horizontal line before the "crossing point" indicated by the red "X" on the right-hand side of the zodiac circle as we face it in the diagram above). Virgo appears in the ancient Egyptian myth-cycle as Isis, holding the divine Horus on her lap in exactly the same way that she appears in the New Testament accounts as the Virgin Mary, holding the divine Jesus:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The identification of Isis, and Mary, with Virgo is evident from an examination of the outline of the constellation itself, but also from the fact that Virgo is associated with wheat and with grain, and that in fact the constellation is often depicted as holding a sheaf of wheat, and in fact the name of her brightest star, Spica, comes from a Latin reference to an "ear of grain" (and in Arabic this star is called Sumbalet which also means "an ear of wheat"). The fact that she lays her divine son in the manger, where the grains are fed to the animals, should cement this identification between the heavenly queen and the Virgin in the story found in the gospel account. See also the discussion of Mary and Virgo, and the visit of the Magi, in this video.

There are many more astonishing connections to be found in the lecture of Alvin Boyd Kuhn, and in consideration of the spiritual symbology present in the point of the winter solstice with all its implications. The reader is encouraged to consult the full text of that lecture (click on the word "fullscreen" to bring up a facsimile of a book format), and what better time to do so than this portentous point on the year, when all the world stands still at the December solstice?

But, perhaps the most important part of Kuhn's entire lecture is found before he actually begins to elucidate the details of the solstice-scene at all, when he explains that these exquisite metaphors are meant to convey a drama of which the central player is each and every human being. He asserts:
Bible stories are in no sense a record of what happened to a man or a people as historical occurrence. As such they would have little significance for mankind. They would be the experience of people not ourselves, and would not bear a relation to our life. But they are a record, under pictorial forms, of that which is ever occurring as a reality of the present in all lives. They mean nothing as outward events; but they mean everything as picturizations of that which is our living experience at all times. The actors are not old kings, priests and warriors; the one actor in every portrayal, in every scene, is the human soul. The Bible is the drama of our history here and now; and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until every reader discerns himself [or herself] to be the central figure in it! The Bible is about the mystery of human life. Instead of relating to the incidents of a remote epoch in temporal history, it deals with the reality of the living present in the life of every soul on earth. 4.