St Luke tells us of the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist which is celebrated on June 24 each year.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechari’ah, of the division of Abi’jah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechari’ah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the Angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechari’ah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli’jah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechari’ah said to the Angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the Angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechari’ah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” Luke 1:1-25
It is important to celebrate the festivals, not so much to mark the outer seasonal changes but to become conscious of the changes within us. What have we been gestating within us since Pentecost and Easter? St John’s festival is the most inward festival we have. It is about getting to know ourselves and our place in the Universe.
Are we Barren too?
Can we place ourselves in this story? Are we like Elizabeth, barren beings? Incarnation after incarnation we have not conceived to enable us to give birth to love, for John is love. Are we like Zechariah, unbelieving? Even when the spiritual beings converse with us?
As we sit in our physical bodies straining for a greater perception and understanding of the Cosmos and our place within it, it is easy to forget that we have actually rejected the spiritual worlds. We place the emphasis on physical things that we can see and touch. Then, in our arrogance, we say that we can do ‘it’ ourselves. Who needs a God, who needs Angels, what do they know? As human beings we can know everything with our clever sciences. We even make ourselves into gods, trying to manipulate matter with cloning and genetic modifications. Yet, mostly blind to the divinity within us; we are divine beings with a creative ability that makes cloning look like child’s play.
Finding our Real Self
All we need to do is find our Real Self. John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate on June 24, most famously said it: He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30. Our Real Self must increase and our pseudo self must decrease. How do we find this Real Self that must increase? Well it’s simple really. By awakening our soul, making it fertile so that it gives birth to our I Am, and then journey to the crucifixion so that the Christ Impulse can fully enter into us. No problems, we say, we can do that.
This path, however, is strewn with tests, and the tiniest obstacle can cause us to stumble. Take Zechariah for instance, he holds an important position in his community, he is a Priest, and he is actually having a two-way conversation with an Angel. Not just any Angel, this is the mighty Angel Gabriel. Yet still he doesn’t really believe. This would hardly seem to be a test for such a person yet he failed and the Angel said …
“you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words,”
Imagine having a conversation with an Angel and then not being able to tell anyone about it. How could it be that Zechariah could slip up like this? Could it be because he could only see the physical reality – that Elizabeth and I have been trying to have a child all our lives, it is obvious that either she is infertile or I am shooting blanks, and now we are both very old anyway. It is physically impossible for us to have a child regardless of what any Angel might say. Many people thought like Zechariah at the time of Christ and that is why Jesus is quoted a few times with words similar to this:
“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26
St John’s Festival is the time for us to truly believe that Christ within us can achieve anything. Of course it is not just a matter of positive thinking to accept that all things are possible with God. We can’t just simply tell ourselves repeatedly that we believe all things are possible and whatever we want will happen. We have to do something. We have to really awaken our soul so that we can express ourselves though our I Am and then we have to be quickened by the Christ Impulse – then, and only then, are all things are possible. The barometer of our success is love.
Love is the Key
Shouldn’t Matthew really have written: with men this is impossible but with love all things are possible? John, in his first Letter, actually tells us that God is love. (1 John 4:8) It is useful sometimes to replace words like God with love when we read the Bible. It assists us to relate more personally to Bible texts which can seem irrelevant to our modern consciousness.
When the Bible tells us that God is love it indicates that love is a substance, a creative substance through which all things are possible. The more love within us, the more fertile we are.
Place yourself in this story which Luke describes. Imagine being born the child of parents old enough to be our grandparents or even great grandparents. Compare that with being born to a young couple who would have quite a different focus in life; a couple who had to make a home, earn a living and possibly have other children to care for. How different would it be to be born into a family who had longed to have a child over so many years? This speaks of a wise love and gratitude for a longing fulfilled.
St John’s Day, which celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, is first and foremost the festival of the birth of love. That wise love that is necessary for us to prepare the way for the Lord, our I Am. When reading the Bible, if we also replace the word Lord with the words I Am we come to a new understanding.
Accessing the Spiritual Worlds
And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Luke1:11
This birth of love is pre-empted by the presence of angelic beings. Since we have rejected the spiritual worlds and it’s beings, these beings strain to connect up with us. It is as if they are calling to us, “Yoo-hoo, here we are.”
Rev Mario Schoenmaker used to love telling the story about how the Gods went about deciding who should come to earth to save the human race. How they discussed all the details until they came to the trickiest question: where will we hide this God so that mankind must strive to find him? Finally they decided that the best place was in the heart of human beings, for that would be the last place they would look.
The preparation for the birth of love can only happen from the living altar within us. This altar is our thinking-heart. Our striving comes into play when we activate our thinking, enlivening our soul, and begin using our spiritual gifts, then the spiritual worlds and it’s beings can participate in our lives. Not by imposing themselves on us but through our invitation for them to participate.
In 1996 Rev Mario spoke about how this happens.
I have often said in the past that the spiritual worlds are dark. As soon as you enter into unconsciousness you are in the spiritual worlds and it is utter darkness. When you go to sleep at night it is darkness; you don’t realize that it was dark until you open your eyes in the morning. So the spiritual worlds are dark and it is only when you bring your own light with you that you can perceive the spiritual worlds. The spiritual worlds don’t open themselves to you; you have to open them with your light. 1.9.1996
The signal we give to the spiritual worlds that we are ready to connect up with them, as Luke tells us in the text, is the burning of incense. If we burn incense today, particularly at an altar, the smoke from the incense symbolizes that our thoughts create forms which can become a reality. Because it was Zechariah’s turn to enter the temple and burn incense then this incense must have risen from the kindled flame within Zechariah’s heart. This flame notified the spiritual worlds that Zechariah knew that love (John) must incarnate to assist the I Am (Jesus) to be infused with the Christ Impulse. This is the powerful thought that must always accompany the lighting of incense. Then the smoke from the incense will create the future in the right way. Our ideas of these things are usually taken so materialistically that we only focus on the act and remain unconscious of the intent behind it. Yet is it the intent that is the deed.
Rudolf Steiner spoke these (paraphrased) words in 1919 just after the end of the First World War.
“Our thinking becomes the opposite of the way it was in earlier times – we must develop energetic thinking and in this way one or another divine being will approach us. We have now reached this momentous point of time in earth-evolution. This happens inwardly now and becomes for us spiritual insight.
In our thinking, perception, and feeling however we don’t take this seriously. It is a fact that the time is ripe for people to appear who are able to bring suitable and capable souls to meet those spiritual impulses which have been entering our physical world since the last third of the 19th century. Side by side with the materialistic time in which we live, the doors between the spiritual world and ours stand open since the end of the 19th century. People who open their souls and minds to spiritual impulses can have relations with the spiritual world. It is a fact that this spiritual world makes itself felt in many a human spirit. More and more people will have learned to listen to the still small voice, and so open their inner being to the impulses of the spiritual world.” Paraphrased from R. Steiner 14.12.1919
It becomes clear that the thing that stands in our way is our soul. Our soul is asleep, not only that, it is also lazy, which prevents it connecting up with our I Am. This, in turn, means that our instinctual astral (our lowest soul level) takes over and emotions bubble up from the depths of our being and prevent us from being objective. Small annoyances quickly turn to anger. If our soul is awake and our connection with our I Am is strong it takes a lot to make us angry. Understanding takes the place of anger; understanding founded on love.
There are many ways in which our soul hinders access to our I Am, our Real Self. One of the most common things today is that people seek out those who agree with them. Instead of standing in our differences we try to persuade others to agree with our ideas continually. This is most dissatisfying. It shows how cut off we are from spirit. It also shows how unsure we are and it also reveals a level of arrogance. We actually take pride in our arrogance and independence today. This stems from a deep inner fear, even though the Angel is speaking to us. We mustn’t be like Zechariah who “was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Fear arises when we have no experience of our Real Self.
The only way out of the darkness is through the new forces that must be drawn from the depths of our soul. Then we can override our astral emotions and allow the higher, nobler soul levels to connect up with our human spirit, our Real Self.
The first thing we encounter when we connect up with our spirit is the need for brotherhood and community. It is the astral that says it doesn’t need a community, that we can find the Christ Impulse ourselves, for Christ is accessible to anyone and everyone. This may bear some truth, however, there are forces to be developed within us that can only be developed in fraternity, in community.
In the same lecture in 1919, at the end of World War I, Steiner urges us to develop a greater confidence in one another. Trust in other people is so rare today (in 1919), he said. I wonder what he would think now, trust is non-existent. Most commercial interactions operate from the premise that everyone is lying and any attempt to prove otherwise is met with disinterest. Steiner’s worst fears are now reality. So where does that leave us? In despair, of course! However, our despair gives rise to the strong motive that we must develop ourselves spiritually.
Steiner continues by saying that we cannot connect up with the spiritual worlds without this confidence in others. Not confidence arising from blind belief in authority, but from common sense. We must always remember that the insight we gain from the spiritual worlds can always be comprehended by common sense.
Steiner also says this: The fact is, we are in the period of humanity’s evolution in which the Gods will immediately help if men turn to them, but in which the Gods are compelled by their laws to deal with free men, not with puppets.
So what incentive do we have really? Steiner continues: Incentive must now arise from a feeling of world-responsibility, such thoughts will sustain our souls because the forces proceeding from these thoughts will enable us to do the right work. Everything depends upon thoughts, and thoughts themselves depend upon opening our hearts to the impulses of the spiritual world. This leads us back to Zechariah standing at the altar of incense. His thoughts reach the spiritual worlds and an Angel stands there.
If we are to prepare ourselves to receive the spiritual worlds Steiner then urges us to abandon our concept of time by using the backwards exercise. The effort required to look at the sequence of events backwards breaks us free from the physical world. Try to picture a TV show backwards picture it as starting at the end and going back to the beginning. Think through the music of a song backwards to imagine and feel a melody, not in the succession in which it is played, but letting the tones run backward. Steiner 14.12.1919
What is needed most in this world is a free and independent spiritual life. Not dictated by government, nor church, nor cult. A spiritual life which explores inner perceptions based on clear thinking and common sense. This calls for courage in our soul. Such courage that refuses to be squashed by external pressures, especially from the media which seeks to numb us into unconsciousness. Our thinking needs a continual work-out.
At the same time it is difficult not to be tempted by the satisfaction that comes from readymade images and concepts. We must use our thinking continually to test the information that comes our way; most of all to ensure that it is logical. Active thinking is the I Am at work. Fabricated thoughts and images are an astral seduction. Active thinking produces a tension or intensity in our soul.
Intensity of Soul
The festival of John is a good time to see the importance of developing our I Am to a certain intensity. This intensity, which is a tension of soul and I Am, is a pre-requisite for taking Christ into our soul. At the same time we must be aware that the I Am can be either over-intensified or lacking in intensity if Christ is not involved.
All around us we can see a lack of intensity; especially in today’s religions which focus on the past. Many religions cannot see the present or the future because they can’t see past the physical, especially the physical man Jesus. This is a sad state of affairs because the physical is dying, petrifying; life belongs to the etheric life-force, not the physical. The living etheric Christ stands in our midst and we must not look for the man Jesus but for the spirit Christ. Then we must experience with St Paul the reality, “Not I but Christ in me”. Our words then become deeds because it slowly dawns on us that this living Christ sees us. He is watching us, and watching over us, all the time.
One of the prime reasons for realizing that Christ sees us is because the passage to the Real Self can bring some shaky experiences. The I Am brings memories of its past incarnations and if we are not conscious of our I Am we will have feelings that may not make sense. Counsellors will see more and more of this. Counsellors will also experience this in themselves. If counsellors do not have an understanding of the soul and the Real Self it will truly be a case of the blind leading the blind.
It is not just a matter of knowing that we have a soul and an I Am, it is a matter of experiencing the reality of that. Our task is to wrestle with the facts to enable us to come to the real experience.
Striving for Knowledge
The following is an interesting quote that Steiner uses about the 14th Century writer Petrarch who is regarded as the father of Humanism and who agreed that we cannot know what is holy unless we work for it.
“The path to holiness via ignorance may possibly be smooth, but it is faint-hearted. All good things have a single goal but many paths lead thither and fellow-travelers along these paths differ greatly; the one moves more slowly, the other more quickly, the one in obscurity, the other visibly, the one bowed with humility, the other buoyant with exultation. All journeying is blessed; but the noblest is that which proceeds freely and openly before the world. The knowledge that has wrestled through to belief is far superior to naive simplicity, be it never so pious; and not one of the fools who have ever entered the kingdom of heaven has as high a place as a man of knowledge who has won the crown of blessedness.”
St John’s festival reminds us that complacency and prejudice will destroy us, and destroy this world. The struggle for knowledge, the striving to experience spiritual reality, brings its own rewards. This knowledge must be logical, not convoluted and confusing.
This knowledge awakens in us a love so powerful that all things are possible. In freedom and fraternity the brotherhood of Christ will prevail against the forces of opposition. Invisible etheric hands joined one to the other will fill this earth with light so that spiritual beings receive the invitation to work with us. In this way we make visible the invisible worlds. Then the work of the baptizer comes to fruition.
Ideas and quotes from Significant Facts Pertaining to the Spiritual Life of the Middle of the 19th Century, October 31, November 1 and 7, 1915 Available at the Steiner Archive