Monday, January 5, 2015

Epiphany: revealing the hidden divine nature

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The traditional celebration of Christmas continues for twelve days, beginning with the midnight birth of Jesus at the juncture between December 24 & December 25 (three days after winter solstice, which generally falls on December 21st most years, as discussed in this previous post) and ending with the celebration of Twelfth Night at the juncture between January 5 & January 6, with its ultimate conclusion celebrated at Epiphany on January 6th. 

Epiphany is a word which means to "show forth" and refers to the revealing of the divinity of the Christ in the gospels stories. 

The word epiphany itself contains the Greek prefix epi- meaning "to" or "towards" or "upon" (and which is found in the word epistle, meaning "a formal written letter or message" which combines the "to" prefix and the verb stellein, "to send;" and in the word epithet, meaning "a title or label given to someone or something," which combines the prefix epi- with the verb tithenai, "to place upon;" and in the word epitaph, meaning "an inscription upon a tombstone," which combines the prefix epi- with the noun taphos or "tomb") and the Greek verb phainein, meaning "to show" (and which is found in the English word diaphanous, meaning "of such a fine texture as to be transparent or translucent," which combines the Greek prefix dia- meaning "through" and the verb phainein meaning "to show").

The same day which is referred to as Epiphany in most western church traditions is referred to as Theophany in the eastern or Greek church traditions, which literally means "the revealing of God" or "the appearance of a god or goddess to a man or woman," from the Greek word theos, "a god," and phainein, "to show". 

The day of Epiphany is traditionally associated with three specific events in the gospel accounts which have to do with the revelation or recognition of divinity in the Christ: with the visit of the Magi (or "Three Kings," who come and give honor to the Christ child and give symbolic gifts), with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan (in which the heavens open up, a voice proclaims "This is my son," and the Spirit descends like a dove), and in the wedding at Cana (in which the first public miracle is performed, in the changing of water into wine).

Some of the esoteric, symbolic, and celestial aspects of the visit of the Magi have been discussed in this previous post. There are indications that the baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan, and the wedding miracle at Cana, both have celestial foundations as well -- and that their intended meaning concerns not the events of historical personages thousands of years ago, but rather the condition in which every man and woman finds himself or herself during this incarnate, material life.

[The remainder of this post will examine evidence that the stories in the Biblical scriptures were not intended to be understood literally. Those not comfortable examining such evidence may not wish to read further].

We have already examined evidence that the figure of John the Baptist has strong connections with the zodiac sign of Aquarius, a figure who is of course associated with water and the pouring out of water, and also with the beginning of the ascent back up from the lowest point on the "zodiac wheel." We have seen that the constellation of Aquarius in the sky appears as a man carrying a jug or jar of water, in a distinctly pitched-forward posture, with an outstretched forward leg (see star-chart below). 

This leaned-forward posture, we argued in that previous post, was also responsible for the story about John the Baptist losing his head, since when rising in the east his head would still be beneath the horizon when the body has already cleared the horizon, and when setting in the west there would be a point at which his head was still above the horizon when his body had already sunk below it.

That previous post also showed sacred art from centuries ago depicting the beheading of John the Baptist, in which the Baptist is painted in a kneeling, pitched-forward posture, with his hands bound and positioned about where the "forward leg" is located in the constellation above. One could even argue that the beheading legend might also come from envisioning the jug of Aquarius as the severed head of John, with the streams of water transformed into blood in that case (and, it must be admitted, the small diamond-shaped head of the constellation is quite faint, making this view of the constellation a very plausible possibility).

Based on this identification of John the Baptist and Aquarius in these specific episodes, it is certainly likely that the episode of the Baptism of Christ also derives from the figure of Aquarius as identified with John the Baptist, and that the pouring out of water from the vessel carried by Aquarius is the foundation for the baptism of Christ by John. 

And, as it turns out, sacred art has for centuries depicted John the Baptist in the act of baptizing Jesus as having the same distinctive features of the constellation Aquarius, including the position of the legs, the upraised arms and water vessel, and the streams of water flowing down (see for example the image in the fresco at top, painted during the first half of the 1400s).

The constellation directly below the streams of water coming from the jug of Aquarius is the Southern Fish or Piscis Austrinis, which is discussed and shown in star-charts in this previous post from 2012. Interestingly enough, in the sacred art from previous centuries in which John is depicted with features of Aquarius, the figure of Jesus is often portrayed with his hands together in the anjali mudra (see discussion here), which is also a "fish-like" hand gesture and one that is sometimes used to depict a fish swimming in the water in some children's songs that use hand gestures, for example. The fresco at top demonstrates this hand position.

Sometimes, the figure of Jesus is shown as being even more "fish-like" in form, not just with the hand gesture but with the position of the body as well, such as in the image below, painted in 1601:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Sometimes, the figure of John is shown as having a long staff, usually surmounted with a cross-piece to make it cruciform: the image above shows such a crucifix in John's hand. This feature probably derives from the outstretched "forward leg" of the constellation Aquarius itself. Below is another image of the baptism scene, this one from the 1500s, in which John is shown with such a cruciform staff:

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The Aquarius symbology should be evident in all three of the above figures of John the Baptist. The image of the descending dove in between the glowing clouds, present in all three images and in the scripture accounts of the baptism scene, should be evident enough: it is the important constellation Cygnus the Swan, flying "downwards" through the clouds of the Milky Way. Below is an image using the free open-source planetarium application from showing the constellations in question:

As the labels in the diagram indicate, the scripture accounts tell us that the descending Spirit appears and descends when "the heavens opened" -- literally when the heavens were "cloven" or "rent" (like a torn garment). See for example Mark 1:10, where the scriptures read: "And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened [or "cloven" or "rent"], and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him."

You can see from the Milky Way shown in the Stellarium application and the image above that this word "cloven" or "rent" is a very apt descriptor for the Milky Way as it rises up behind Aquarius and as the majestic constellation Cygnus flies "down" it. In fact, this feature of the Milky Way Galaxy which we can see from our observation point on earth is often referred to as the Galactic Rift or the Great Rift. This is almost certainly a clue included in the text to help confirm that the constellations indicated above are those being described.

There are reasons to believe that the Wedding at Cana, in which water is turned to wine, connects to the constellation Aquarius as well (for one thing, Noah was also described in the Old Testament as the first to make wine, and we have already examined evidence that he was associated with Aquarius as well).

It is possible that all these events and episodes actually represent literal and historic events, which just happen to also match up quite precisely to specific constellations that had been positioned in the sky long before they ever happened. It is also possible to argue that these events were foreseen and then were "pre-figured in the stars." 

However, both of these explanations are more difficult to maintain due to the fact that multiple scriptural accounts appear to match up to the same constellations. 

It appears much more likely that these scriptures, just like myths from virtually every ancient culture around the globe, were not actually intended to preserve literal and historical events which took place on planet earth, but that they are exquisitely-crafted celestial allegories designed to convey esoteric truths. If multiple stories around the world, and multiple stories within the Old and New Testaments themselves, can be shown to derive from the very same sets of constellations, then a very likely explanation is that the same constellations gave rise to many different esoteric myths which "dress up" those constellations in different ways, in order to convey profound knowledge which is difficult to grasp except through metaphor.

If so, then what could this series of stories connected with the Epiphany (or Theophany) be trying to convey?

For a possible answer, consider again the quotation from a 1936 lecture by esotericist Alvin Boyd Kuhn, cited in this previous post and discussed further in the subsequent post on the Three Kings (who are also closely associated with the Epiphany), in which Kuhn asserts:
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.
In other words, the Epiphany is about the mystery of human life, and it is not apprehended in its full force and applicability until you realize that you yourself are the central figure in it! 

The baptism scene, with its recognition or revelation of the divinity in the one whom the scriptures describe as descending into incarnate form, and then being "placed beneath the waters" in the baptism scene, describes and depicts the condition of every human soul which has plunged into incarnation, when we leave the realm of spirit (the realm of the upper elements of "air" and "fire") to be clothed in a body of "clay" -- that is, a body composed of the lower elements of "earth" and "water" (seven-eighths water, as we have been told).

These stories convey the message that each and every one of us carries within us a divine spark, which has been plunged into the water and obscured inside our material form. Immersed in this world of physicality and materiality, it is all too easy to be completely blinded to that "invisible realm" or realm of spirit, and to live as though we are completely material beings, denying or forgetting our spiritual nature altogether. One of the purposes of these texts is to cause us to remember -- and one of the purposes of the celebration of Epiphany, it seems, is to help us to remember that we ourselves, and every single human being we ever encounter, contain a "hidden god," a divine spark.

Although some of the centuries-old traditions and ceremonies which have accompanied the celebration of Epiphany in many cultures may not be familiar to all readers, many of them are very powerful and are still carried out to this day in some communities. Many of these old traditions seem to imply the message of the plunge of the divine spark into matter, where it is hidden, and where it must be found and then "raised up."

One of these is the ritual known as the Blessing of the Waters, in which a cross is taken to the ocean, or to a lake or large river, and immersed in the waters. In his masterful 1940 text Lost Light, Alvin Boyd Kuhn explains that the cross itself is a symbol of the incarnate condition of every man and woman in this material life: we have a physical component, represented by the horizontal bar of the cross, and a spiritual component, represented by the vertical bar of the cross. 

The placing of the cross into the waters represents our plunge into the material realm: the raising up of the cross from the waters represents the recognition or revelation of the divine nature which can be hidden and even forgotten but which can never be completely denied. One of our important missions in this life is to recognize and elevate this divine spark in ourselves, in others, and indeed in all of creation around us. Epiphany, which takes place on our annual cycle when the sun begins to climb back up out of the deep pit of winter solstice, is marked by rituals which convey this important task.

In many cultures, the cross is actually flung into the water, where youths then rush to be the first to find it and retrieve it -- raising it up from the depths. This ritual continues every year to this day. Below is a video showing one such ceremony, in a community within the Greek Orthodox faith (where Epiphany is called Theophany):

Alvin Boyd Kuhn gives his explication of the symbolism of the cross and the water -- and he makes clear that the cross has also long been used as a symbol in many "non-Christian" traditions, including those of the ancient Egyptians and of many of the cultures of the Americas:
In a very direct sense the cross is connected with the flood of water that must be crossed, with the baptism and the lower sea voyage. [. . .] This most ancient, perhaps, of all religious symbols (by no means an exclusive instrument of Christian typology) was the most simple and natural ideograph that could be devised to stand as an index of the main basic datum of human life -- the fact that in man the two opposite poles of spirit and matter had crossed in union. The cross is but the badge of our incarnation, the axial crossing of soul and body, consciousness and substance, in one organic unity. An animal nature that walked horizontally to the earth and a divine nature that walked upright crossed their lines of force and consciousness in the same organism. [. . .]
The Toltecs called the cross the Tree of Sustenance and the Tree of Life. [. . .] The cross is a symbol of life, never of death, except as "death" means incarnation. It was the cross of life on earth because its four arms represented the fourfold foundation of the world, the four basic elements, earth, water, air, and fire, of the human temple, and because it was an emblem of the reproduction of new life, and thus an image of continuity, duration, stability, an eternal principle ever renewing itself in death. The whisperings of esoteric fable report that the very tree on which Jesus was hanged was grown from a sprout or seed from the forbidden Tree of Life in Genesis! There are many instances of the cross burgeoning into fresh life. The savior is not nailed on the tree; he is the tree. He unites in himself the horizontal human-animal and the upright divine. And the tree becomes alive; from dead state it flowers out in full leaf. The leaf is the sign of life in a tree. The Egyptians in the autumn threw down the Tat cross, and at the solstice or the equinox of spring, erected it again. The two positions made the cross. The Tat is the backbone of Osiris, the sign of eternal stability. And Tattu was the "place of establishing forever." 414 - 416.
This passage explains that the ritual of throwing down the cross and raising it back predates literalist Christianity as it was formulated in the first through fifth centuries AD. It was a ritual in ancient Egypt associated with the Djed-column (Kuhn uses the form Tat, the older version of writing this same word in our lettering system -- today it is more commonly written as Djed). In fact, Kuhn explains that the Egyptians had a legend in which Isis lost the Tat column in the sea (Lost Light, 420-421) as well as a ritual in which they cast it down into the waters of the Nile (page 306). Also, in the video above you can see that the cross thrown into the water to be brought up again is wreathed in leaves, which relates well to Kuhn's discussion cited above about the cross blossoming with leaves as a sign of life.

After reading this and watching the video, the centuries-old paintings and frescoes showing John the Baptist in the river scene carrying a wooden staff in the form of a cross become even more full of powerful meaning.

Kuhn argues that the ritual of throwing down the cross into the waters and raising it up again represents the divine spark in each of us, thrown down into incarnation and hidden, which we must recognize and elevate. The rituals in which one swimmer finds the cross and brings it up, and then is recognized as special for the entire year, seems to drive home the lesson that "every reader [must] discern himself [or herself] to be the central figure" in the myth or sacred drama. In a very real sense, the concept of the epiphany or the theophany is "all about you" -- you are the "star" of the show, just as the swimmer who lifts up the cross first is the "star" of the drama for that year.

Other traditions from Epiphany or Theophany around the world which emphasize the same message include the tradition of baking a single black bean into a cake: the feast guest who finds the bean in his or her piece is "king" or "queen" for the festival. This again speaks to the symbolism of the "hidden god" or the "hidden divinity" inside each man and woman: this is the message of our human incarnation, conveyed in all the ancient scriptures of the world, according to this interpretation.

And here we return to the fact that in the paintings above showing the Baptism of Jesus, which is associated with Epiphany or Theophany or the revelation of his divine nature, the figure of Jesus is depicted with his hands in the distinctive position of "prayer," associated with the word "Amen" in Christian tradition, and with the benediction "Namaste" in India and other cultures.

This previous post explored the fact that the word "Namaste" means "I bow to you," and by extension "I bow to the divinity in you," and even "The divinity in me recognizes and acknowledges the divinity in you." Similarly, the word "Amen" which is associated with this very same position of the hands is the name of the ancient Egyptian god "Amun" or "Ammon" or "Amoun" -- the hidden god.

This confluence is most appropriate for Epiphany, in which the hidden divine nature is revealed.

We could go on and on contemplating the amazing and profound truths which this examination opens up for us to explore. However, one practical application which seems to be something we can think about every day (and one that I am working on in my own life) is the concept of blessing and not cursing. If we take seriously the fact that every man and woman we meet is possessed of an internal divine spark, then we should want to look at them with positive intentions, seeing beyond the physical and material and "animal" responses we might have when -- for example -- they cut us off in traffic (or stop at a green light long enough to get through it themselves and cause us to miss it).

It may seem strange at first, but reacting to such a situation with real thoughts of blessing towards them produces a whole different set of reactions than reacting with cursing (even if they never even know what was going through your mind or said in your car).

And there are many more applications much more profound than that one.

Previous posts have explored the definition of blessing as being related to the recognition and elevation of spirit, in ourselves, in other people, in animals and plants and streams and rocks and in entire the rest of the material universe.

And the concept contained in the ancient scriptures and traditions regarding Epiphany -- not just in the New Testament scriptures but in the sacred traditions of ancient Egypt and in other ancient cultures around the world -- seem to be pointing us in the very same direction.

Remains of an ancient Egyptian Djed-column (or "Tat cross" as Alvin Boyd Kuhn and other earlier writers usually refer to it), Wikimedia commons (link).