Episode 77: Ari Berk Part 2 – Mythic Origins of the Christmas Mystery and Other Age-Old Celebrations of the Winter Solstice and New Dawn
“For human evolution to continue, the conversation must deepen.” – Margaret Mead
In this intriguing 2-part dialogue with my friend Professor Ari Berk, acclaimed mythologist and storyteller, we share back and forth a wealth of information illuminating the deep sources of the mystery of life and death enacted each year in the cosmos at the time of the Winter Solstice. Their hold on the spirit and imagination of peoples of all ages everywhere “leaning into, wanting to participate in, the cosmic mysteries” has generated throughout the ages numerous stories, songs, ceremonies and celebrations to honor and evoke our shared divinity and the joy of creation.
In view of the New Era of potential global political change many feel has dawned in the early winter of 2008, this Part 2 dialogue is particularly interesting in its understanding of how the celebration of the evergreen, renewing energies evoked at Christmastime and the Winter Solstice can lift the spirits and create a foundation for bringing the light and warmth of our inner sun alive, and into all our relations throughout the year and our shared journeys on the planet.
“Dialogue is the Language of Evolutionary Transformation”™.
Contact me if you like at www.livingdialogues.com. Visit my blog at Duncan.personallifemedia.com. ”. (For more, including information on the Engaged Elder Wisdom Dialogue Series on my website www.livingdialogues.com, click on Episode Detail to the left above and go to Transcript section.)
Among others, programs you will find of interest on these themes are my Dialogues on this site with Michael Meade, Angeles Arrien, Coleman Barks, Sobonfu Some, Vine DeLoria Jr., and Michael Dowd.
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In furtherance of creating and maintaining the planetary dialogues now required in the 21st century, I featured a special series of dialogues with myself and other elders in the weeks leading up to and including the 2008 Olympics hosted by China and the U.S. 2008 elections. Those dialogues can be listened to separately on this site or as gathered as a series on my website www.livingdialogues.com under the collective title “Engaged Elder Wisdom Dialogues”. They address various specific political aspects of our planetary crisis, with its dangers and opportunities for a visionary and evolutionary shift. (We remember that the Chinese character for “crisis” is often described as meaning both “danger” when visioned from a fear perspective, and “opportunity” when visioned from a wisdom perspective.)
In all my Living Dialogues from their inception I talk in various ways about the call to generate dialogues across generational, ethnic, gender, and national boundaries -- building bridges of understanding and wisdom in the cooperative spirit and reaching out -- required by our 21st century realities, and the essential roles that we all are called to play in our evolution for it to take place.
This is the time for renewed dialogue, for visionary and inspiring discourse producing practical and innovative ways of living and sharing together, to engage our own elder wisdom and youthful inspiration, and in so doing to experience and exemplify that “Dialogue is the Language of Evolutionary Transformation”™.
And that is what we all do, in our mutual roles as host, deep listeners, and guests, when we gather together here from all parts of the globe in Living Dialogues.
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Announcer: You’re about to hear Part II of Duncan Campbell’s dialogue with Professor Ari Berk on the mythical origins of Christmas in the Western Christian tradition and also many of the ceremonies and celebrations that have taken place from time immemorial, as humans have encountered at this time of the year, the winter solstice, the new dawn that follows the shortest night of the year and welcomes back the warmth of the sun on our life journeys together.
Duncan Campbell: So, tidings of comfort and joy is really the deep message here. There’s also that expression at the beginning of this song of Jesus coming to save people from satan and the demons and so on. And, I think your deep interpretation, Ari, of how the allowing of these energies to express themselves in these ancient Midievel festivals was a way of re-mystification in its own way. A way of allowing the basic vital energy being reborn and not deadened by rituals become meaningless by repression and repetition. And, so now one of the things I’d like to do in this particular half of the program is to talk about Jesus and the Christian traditions. Specifically, and to begin with, talking about the fact that Jesus was, by all scholarship and historic understanding not born on December 25th. In fact, not born in December at all. And, if we look at the Bible, we see that in Luke 2:8, he describes Jesus’ birthplace as where shepherds were living in the fields keeping watch over the flock by night, born in the manger, where they were situated with shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over the flock by night. And, so everyone agrees this could not possibly have been the winter in this part of the world. So, therefore he must have been born somewhere between March and October or November. And, many people say there’s no way of really knowing in the Bible when he was born. There is, however, a very interesting Biblical tradition which I’ve come across, in which, by parsing Luke and John and various gospels, in a nutshell, without going into all the detail, they say that John the Baptist was born as a prophet and witness as Elijah in the Old Testament and that he was conceived at a time where he was eventually born on Passover. So, that Mary, who was a relative of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was visited by the angel and became impregnated and conceived approximately 3 months prior to Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. That would mean that she actually conceived approximately December twenty-five, or Christmas season. So, in a sense, even this interpretation is aligned with the notion that the light of the world as symbolized by the divine child, was conceived in the winter, but then born on the Feast of Tabernacles, which would be in the Fall and also consistent with the coming of the Messiah, and so on. I find that actually very persuasive and very interesting, and yet, putting that whole issue aside, we have to start with the realization that Jesus was a collective archetype that resonated with the archetype of Mithra with the Persians, or Zoroastrians traditions, who have all the same characteristics. He had 12 disciples, born of a virgin, born in a manger, on and on. Many of these myths, Isis and Osiris in Egypt, and countless others, actually have all the earmarks of these events which we associate with Jesus. And, so Jesus certainly as an archetype does not have any exclusive story. You know, the making of miracles, and so on, and he’s in a great lineage and tradition that goes back many thousands of years before Him. But, all that being said, what we’re now interested in is why did the Church pick December twenty-five? And, the answer is, in the 4th Century, they saw that they could not really, without tremendous strife, more than it was worth, eliminate the so-called pagan Saturnalia tradition, which persisted among the people. Because, it was their opportunity to access joy and give presents and, as you put it, have a reversal of roles, and for a moment, equality with their masters and so on. And, so, they decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So where the feast of the sun, S-U-N, the Saturnalia, was then replaced with the coming of the son, S-O-N, the son of God. And, so it does coincide with the winter solstice and also with all the themes are the same. The bringing of comfort and joy. In other words, people were in the midst of darkness and they needed warmth. They needed light. They needed hope. They needed a promise of redemption from the cold and difficult times of winter. And, reassurance, that this was not, in fact, the end. That life was going to be reborn in the Spring. And, if they persevered through this celebration and gave themselves the energy of hope, indeed the sun would come back, here comes the sun – the son, S-O-N, and the sun, S-U-N.
Ari Berk: Well that’s right. You know, you need this, the issue of why this date was chosen for where it is, is obviously a problematic one. And, as a mythologist, I like to approach myths in the following, perhaps overly simplistic way, which is that all myths are true. Now, they need not be true for you or I, or any individual. But, they were, in their context true. So, in this, you have to ask: “Well, why would people want to practice these rituals and tell this story at a particular time of the year?” Well, depending on who you ask, of course, you get a different answer. In the late 4th Century, we get a great deal of candor, a Christian writer, scriptor, Sirus, who writes this, again, very candidly: “It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in a token of festivity. Now, in these solemnities and revelries, the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the Doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel. And, they said the trinitivity should be solemnized on that day.” The very interesting. It’s a very interesting quote. One of the things it does is give precedence to cosmological; meaning that as human beings, are tied deeply and biologically to the natural world. We then lean toward and sympathize while taking part in these great cosmological mysteries. And, consequently, even historical information becomes secondary to those deep, spiritual, biological leanings, if you take my meanings. So, then the history of the day in itself becomes less important than the fact that this particular time of year, right around the end of December, we lean towards the sun. We lean towards wanting to participate in this great cosmological event. So, regardless of historical date, we follow our sort of bodies and hearts in that regard.
Duncan Campbell: That’s so well said, Ari. What it reminds me of also, just so we don’t get too Euro-centric here, is when I was in Peru in the year 2000, I was in the Crianca, which is the great temple of the Incas, in Cusco, the capital city of the Incas and Incan Empire. And, I saw in the room, in that temple, in which, they had enacted this ritual of the sun – S-U-N, on every solstice, which of course down there is on June 21st, not December 21st, and they had a huge gold sun, the diameter which must have been maybe 12 feet across of pure gold, which was set in such a way that there was an opportunity for the sun itself, from the cosmos, to shine in and refract off that gold disc and start a fire in a particular container for that purpose. And, then there were many, many messengers that were there with torches like the Olympic flame. They lit their torch on the 21st, as the symbol of new light for the kingdom and then they went to all corners of the kingdom as runners, again like the torch, to spread the good news that the sun was, in fact, coming back and that new life was coming back to the kingdom in that particular way. So, there’s just another example. In India, for instance, at the end of the Ramayana, the great hale of Rama and Sita, represented by Sita, who gets stolen away by Ravana, and lured by all the temptations of the senses and then recaptured by Rama, representing the great self and brought into the union of divine through the intermediary of Hanuman, the monkey god, who through his devotion to Rama, has the power, like the power of breath, or meditation, to link the human spirit and the divine spirit. But, at the end of all this, when they returned to their kingdom, they’re feted by people with a festival of lights, not unlike Hanukkah, again, a festival of lights. In all of these traditions around the world, there is a sense of the light has come. The light of hope. The light of energy. The light of vitality. And, we might look at the history now of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men in terms of what you just said. The Magi were an antiquity priests of Zoroastrianism and they were reputed to have come to Bethlehem because of what was talked about as the star of Bethlehem. But, since there was no evidence we could see of an unusual star at that time, they believed what they were talking about was a planetary conjunction noticed by these magician astrologers. Again, a cosmological even that pointed them toward a particular amplification of the light that was coming into the world. And, so, again, the meaning of the Magi relates to the natural world, to understanding that there was, you know, the common mythology, a star of Bethlehem, which led the human spirit to go and present gifts to it. So, at all of the core of presenting gifts, is really to presenting gifts to the divine within us, and that’s why I think children are chosen as the primary recipients in this ritual. Not the exclusive ones, but the primary ones because they do represent as Wordsworth said, “We all come in trailing clouds of glory”; we’re all connected to this spirit source, whatever we may call it. And, we can see it and feel it when our hearts are open in these kinds of rituals and then we can extend it to our fellow adults and leave behind the conflicts and the war. Not only the war against Christmas, but the idea of the war against anything. That you can actually go beyond that and inhabit that empowered space of deep peace and tranquility and deep joy and energy and celebration for compassion and reaching out to others all at the same time.
Ari Berk: This desire to sanctify and also protect the idea of children and childhood and youth this time of year is connected to Christmas in so many ways. I’m reminded of a story of St. Nicholas. A rather ancient story that tells of 3 youths sent out by their father, and in some version it’s 2. In this one it’s 3 and they’re sent out on some business for their father and they come to a lodge, this inn, and the innkeeper kills them and cuts them into pieces and intends to salt them and attempts to sell them as salted pork. The story then says that St. Nicholas, who was favored with the sight of a vision, saw what was happening and went to the inn and apparently reproached the landlord, who immediately confessed to the crime, and entreated St. Nicholas to pray to heaven. He sought forgiveness, it says. Scarcely had he finished, when St. Nicholas forgives him and then the pieces of the children re-unite and resuscitate St. Nicholas raises them up, blesses them and sends them on their way on the rest of their business to Athens. And, there’s the end of the story. So, that one of the chief characters obviously, then St. Nicholas becomes Santa Claus, is associated, not only for bringing joy to children, but a more conventional image is of gift giving. But, even in this very early story with, actually bringing the child back to life after it has been murdered or killed, you know, which is a remarkable beautiful grim in the story, but a beautiful metaphor for the resuscitation of youth and the potential of that through the rites of Christmas.
For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell