Christmas has a special appeal all over the world, even in societies with limited exposure to Christian heritage.
This is because the idea inherent in Christmas is ancient, and resides in humans’ collective psyche.
In this collective psyche, Christmas is the birth of light: the rise of the sun after its weakness, and for many, its absence. It is that momentous point in earth’s relationship with the sun – which we now know as the winter solstice - the moment at which night’s darkness begins to diminish (in the northern hemisphere, where the majority of people have always lived) - and the day begins to grow again.
This is a long moment, from 21st to 25th December – a moment many ancient civilisations, chiefly the Egyptian, saw as a transition: the sun, that the ancients perceived as almost dead in the period before the winter solstice, is slowly reborn again at the end of these days, on 25th December.
Not surprisingly, in Egyptian mythology, Horus (a manifestation of the god Raa, that roams the sky and incorporates the sun in its entity) disappears every year on 21 December only to return, to be born again, on the 25th. Horus undergoes a form of death, before his resuscitation, his coming back from a world unseen, to the world seen bringing with him warmth, growth, and life.
The same idea existed in ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, pre-Christian France and Ireland, several South American cultures, and of course in Greece (the early students of ancient Egypt). All of these societies venerated the days from 21 to 25 December as they realised they signify a momentous point in earth’s relationship with the sun, the grand giver of light and therefore of life on earth.
The forms of veneration differed according to the religious traditions of these societies. Invariably, however, they were subtle and secret for the elite, simple and public for the rest. And so, indeed, at the basic level presented to the masses, many societies worshiped the sun or gods that represented it, sun-gods.
However, for those with a more sophisticated understanding, the veneration was a deep appreciation of and gratefulness for the cycle of light, and the energy seeping through it.
Early civilisations understood that life in our observable universe follows and reflects patterns: whether in plants, trees, mountains, oceans, animal behaviours, or in celestial phenomena. And as these civilisations gained higher cognitions, they came to understand that human life itself is a reflection of the same pattern.
This homogeneity indicated that there is a central force behind the repeated pattern. The ancients came to the realisation that the central force was represented in existence through an omnipresent energy, an energy whose most refined essence in the existence we know, is Light.
In this thinking, attempting to understand the repeated pattern was a way to follow this energy, to follow light, a way to push human cognition beyond merely living the cycle of life, beyond knowing the cycle of life, to reaching with the mind the fartherest outer expressions of the power behind this cycle, the power of which light is a part.
And indeed, undergoing this mental journey opens up within us an unfoldments of deep understandings of that power, understandings that are, in themselves, veneration of the Creator behind and in that power.
Through this journey, humanity evolved different conceptualisations that connected the cycle of light humanity observed in and all around it, with that power, that Creative Force they sensed but could not see.
For the many, these conceptualisations were reduced to the most powerful expression and source of this cycle of life: light, and ultimately, the sun. And so in these reductions, sun-gods appeared; and in these simplifications, these gods were historicised and personified.
For the few, however, those wise enough to comprehend and firm enough to persevere with their comprehension, those conceptualisations became a faith of inner unfoldments, a faith lived internally, deepening and widening the journey to and with the Creative Force.
And so, in these sophisticated understandings, the disappearance of the sun was not a literal death of Raa – or of the many gods that denoted the sun. Horus was not a historicised person, who had undergone a journey with his venerated mother, in which he suffered his passion, witnessed a death, became a part in a resurrection in the holy trinity comprising alongside him, his mother and father, before achieving his eternal divinity.
The death of the sun, the disappearance of Raa was a metaphor. There was much more, in the winter solstice, than the simplistic birth of the sun-god. The real meaning was the return of the sun, the symbol designating Light, the most ubiquitous form of the Creative Force, and its endowing us with life on earth. Pausing with the essence of this idea – in the days of Christmas, that moment of solar transition - was pausing with the Divine Presence.
A core idea in the ancients’ understandings of the winter solstice, of the birth of the Christ – the cosmic man unfolding layers after layers of divinity - was the idea of manifestation as a form of emanation. The two meanings are interconnected: the Source expresses Itself through reflecting a part of It outside of It – and the part, being of the same nature as the Source, becomes a manifestation of the Source. Raa, the divinity behind the light of the sun, is Horus, the presence of the sun – of light - in the observable universe. Here there is no historicity, no personification, no birth of any one man, but the eternally repeated pattern of an idea that represents what is ineffable, what is beyond human cognition, in conceptions that the human mind can approach.
Rigour was key in this school of thought. In rigorous observation of life, of Nature – what the German poet and philosopher Goethe called immersive seeing – one comprehends the cycle of life and its repeated patterns, and by persevering with this open, intelligent observation, one is gradually graced with elements of the wisdom that begins to be unfolded in front of his/her cognition. With perseverance – what Sufism denotes the grandest form of jihad: controlling our materiality in pursuit of our divinity – one gets closer and closer to mature conceptions of the Source. The magic of grace is manifested within us. And as in the winter solstice, light is born in us. Christ - the cosmic man with layers and layers of divinity – comes into being.
In Christmas we rejoice at the return of the light, its rebirth again in our world, and with this we celebrate sustenance of our life. In ancient schools of philosophy, we also celebrate that birth of elements of divinity within us. In these understandings, it is a moment of gratefulness for the Creator who had endowed life with expansion after a period of contraction, as well as endowed us with the grace of His Presence. In both celebrations – of sustence around us and of light in us - Christmas is a transition from darkness to illumination, and so is full of joy. Indeed, Glory for God in the highest, on earth peace, and goodness toward all.