Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jesus, a sun god

Of all feasts, Christmas may have the greatest potential for linking us with other spiritual traditions. It started when Christian leaders in the third century borrowed a popular idea from rival pagan religions, a solstice feast honoring the birth of the sun.

Before the earth was known to be a revolving sphere, Christians and pagans alike wondered in awe over the sun’s daily course—disappearing in the west every evening, following some mysterious path below earth during the night, then reappearing in the east every morning. It inspired myth-making. The Goddess enveloped the sun in her body every evening and sent it forth in the morning. The Greek sun god Helios traversed the heavens from east to west in a shiny chariot, descended to the nether regions, and according to the poet Horace was "born anew every morning." Literature devoted to Helios shines with religious fervor and high artistry:
Helios, eye of the world! Joy of the daytime! Loveliness of heaven! Darling of nature! Jewel of creation...

Glory of earth and sky, the sun is the same for all,
Glory of light and darkness, the sun is beginning and end...

Helios, ruler of the world, spirit of the world, power of the world, light of the world.
Mystical, emotional ecstasy flows out of this sun-god literature. The last is from a Greek litany, but the same or similar phrases have been used in Christian litanies.
Surrounded by and steeped in Greek myth, Christians of the early centuries imagined Christ journeying the nether regions and rising in the east. “He descended to the dead,” declares the Apostles’ Creed. Christ became the true sun, the light coming into the darkness, the "Sun of Righteousness," the "Dayspring from on high."
Like pagan literature, our scriptures are dotted with light imagery. Luke l:78 speaks of "the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us." John 1:9 names Jesus "the real light which gives light to everyone." John 8:12 has Jesus saying, "I am the light of the world." In the gnostic Acts of Thomas Jesus appears after his baptism like a youth with a torch, the image of Helios in Greco-Roman art. The Nicene Creed continues the imagery—“God from God, light from light."

My atheist friends may consider this proof that Christianity serves up hogwash. Not at all! They’re right about one thing—we should not believe religious stories literally. But how many adults actually believe that three kings on camels followed a star from afar and arrived at a manger (feeding trough) the night Jesus was born? If you think it’s in the Bible, check again.

So why do we sing Christmas carols and love them so? What’s the attraction?
Religious images of all kinds link us with Transcendence, with the invisible realm, the realm of meaning. It speaks in symbols that can guide our lives in the outer world. Helios no longer adorns the heavens and neither does Jesus, but the psychic energy of Christ continues to resonate in American hearts, especially at Christmas when Nature’s cold and darkness direct us inward to mystery.
The nativity story’s meaning varies for each of us and may be related to birth and childhood, and it’s always difficult to express. On the surface, the primary function of Christmas for Americans today is buying and selling, but that doesn’t explain the warm feelings, the generosity, the return to religious stories we know are fictional. Unlocking the reasons for the lure of religious symbols can engage us for a lifetime.

I’m not telling those who are disgusted by literal belief and religious fanaticism to join a religion—their disgust is appropriate. I’m saying that, as humans, they must not shirk the main task of all humans—to grow in wisdom, to search for the psycho-spiritual energies that drive human emotions, to “KNOW THYSELF.” (Whence come these pleasant feelings? These embarrassing feelings? Why did I wake up sweating? What am I called to do?)
Religion helps some people to turn inward and find answers, but not the corrupted and deluded forms of popular religion—fundamentalism and dogmatism.
I invite readers to find their own interpretation of Christmas, with or without religion, but humbly accepting help from a Power greater than us can bring swift, sometimes effortless, help. I quote Jungian analyst James Hollis:
If truth be told, we wish we didn’t have to grow, but life is asking more of us than that.
This More is my Christmas wish for readers.

POSTSCRIPT (December 28).
I cherish this response to “Jesus, a sun god” from a Catholic priest:
Thanks for keeping me on your list...I enjoy your posts and am grateful for people like you!
I enjoyed this post from fellow Christian Scott Thompson:
Good job.
god
Kathleen Herrick wrote:
Wonderfully illuminating, Jeanette. Bravo!
One wonders if any Roman Catholic prelate has ever read anything at all about the historical context of early Christianity. The maddening ignorance one hears from parish pulpits speaks to the anti-intellectualism which must pervade seminaries.
Many clerics I know ARE aware of the historical context but, unfortunately, they’re not the ones educating seminarians and other priests. And Catholic intellectuals have plenty to do just dealing with right-wing pressure from our culture and from the Vatican. The crop of priests exiting our seminaries today tells me they have not been educated about Christianity’s pagan roots or even historical-critical scripture study, because they’re preaching literalist nonsense. These seminaries exist because John Paul appointed conservative bishops who themselves are unaware of their religion’s early history and do their best to keep priests penned in the traditional Church enclosure.

Catholics who leave the Church because they chafe under its dumb moral rules often land in an even more ignorant form of Christianity—evangelicalism. The ones who leave Christianity altogether are the most educated, but then they’re not around to reform the Church.

I think the biggest reasons we don’t see change are inertia and nostalgia. I feel it myself at Christmas time because I love traditional hymns and sing them with the offensive language.

Here’s an illuminating and hopeful fact to consider: It took Christianity centuries to penetrate into the hinterlands of the Roman Empire. We can expect that the new paradigm, post-Christian spirituality—whatever its form—will take many years to penetrate our culture. I’m encouraged by the signs we can see already.

2 comments:

Karen Tate, Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio said...

Jeanette, I find you so refreshing. Thank you for your wisdom and insight. As a Goddess Advocate, you are the perfect example of a Christian I can find common ground with. You're one that knows the history, knows about the "borrowing" from Pagan traditions, can accept the missing pieces of the puzzle, namely Goddess, or the archetype and ideals of the Sacred Feminine which has been lost to humanity and how with that restoration of values we just might save ourselves. Hail all the Sun Gods and Goddesses across antiquity. And let's not forget, Jesus was just the last in a long line of dying and rising pagan gods - that thought always makes my literalist Catholic family a little nuts! Happy Solstice!

ZAROVE said...

Actually she doesnt know the History.

While Christmas was origionally a Pagan Holiday, its not quiet True that Christians borrowed it, and certainly not to make conversion easier for Pagans. She also got wrong twhat the origional Holiday was all about. It really was not about the Rebirth of th Sun and had nothign to do with "The Goddess".


The Origional Holiday was Saturnalia, a feast held in honour of the god Saturn. Saturn was not a sun god, he was a Titan who was overthrown by Jupiter. He also taught man civilisation and agriculture. Because of the latter part, how Saturn helped man to build Civilisation and feed himself, He was Honoured in the tench Month. (December literally mesans the Tenth Month, with the ROman Calander starting in March.)

Saturnalia was such a huge feast that all were given Time off to Celibrate it. Slaves were Temporarily freed, for example. No work was to be done. All Military personel, excpet htose in absolutley vital spots, were freed from duty service.

Christians dwere mainly slaves and lowr class at the Time, and suddenly found themselves freed of any oppression. This was still before Christianity was legalised. ( And contrary to popular Myrhth Constantine just legalised it, he did not make it the Official religion of Rome.)

Christians hen faced a moral quandry. They were Free to Celibrate Saturnalia, but did not wish to Honour a false god. They had all the time off, and everyone else was having parties and enjoyign themselves. They wished to be part of the festivities but not to Honour Saturn. So they created, fo themselves, an Alternative, deciding rather arbitrarily on the Birth of Jesus.

This was doen to proviude zchristians a means to enjoinign the festive Time of Year without Compromising Christianity's strict Monotheism.

It was not done to help convert Pagans.


The Anceint Romans also didn't care much for the SOlsctices and Equinixes. The idea that all pagan Culures were interested in them for Religious Reasons is a 19th Cenury invention.

Also, and further contradictory to popular Myth, people knew the Earth was Round sicne the Time of Aristotle. By the 3rd Century AD, it was a well accepted Fact that the Erth was roud. While the prevailign view was hat the Earth was the centre of the Universe, the Ptolomaic Model quiet plainly tells you about the Sun's Couerse inth Sky. There woudk be no need for mythd about the Goddess enveloping the sun.

Not that it mattered, as the Goddess herself wasnot actually worshipped in Antiquity. She was the product of 19th century Romantic writers imaginign a feminine Deity to encompass Nature and to contrast Christianity, and hurlign her backwards in Time. She was later adopted by Wicca's Founder Gerald Gardner and then by Feminists in the 20th Century.

The Ancient Romans had no concept of an ocerarching feminien deity, and certianly didn't refer to her simply as "The Goddess".

The Pop History presnted here has beocme engrained onthe edges of social conciosuness but its really not Valid Historical information.