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The Meaning of Easter


"St. Paul" by El Greco

The Event at Damascus and the new Knowledge of the Spirit

Rudolf Steiner

Lecture - April 2, 1920, Dornach, Switzerland

Ever since the early days of Christianity it has been the custom to draw a distinction between the festivals of Christmas and of Easter in that the Christmas festival has been made immovable, having been fixed at a point of time a few days after the 21st of December, the winter solstice, whereas the day of the Easter festival is determined by a particular constellation of the stars, a constellation of the stars which unites earth and man with the worlds beyond the earth. To-morrow will be the first full moon of spring and upon this full moon will fall the rays of the springtime sun, for since the 21st of March the sun has been in the sign of spring. When, therefore, men on earth celebrate a Sunday — a day, that is, which should remind them of their connection with the sun-forces — when the Sunday comes that is the first after the full moon of spring, then is the time to keep the Easter festival. Easter is thus a movable festival. In order to determine the time of the Easter festival, note must be taken each year of the constellations in the heavens.

Principles such as these were laid down at a time when traditions of wisdom were still current among mankind, traditions that originated from ancient atavistic clairvoyant faculties and gave man a knowledge far surpassing the knowledge that present-day science can offer. And such traditions were a means for bringing to expression man's connection with the worlds beyond the earth. They always point to something of supreme importance for the evolution mankind.

The rigid point of time fixed for the Christmas festival indicates how closely that festival is bound up with the earthly, for its purpose is to remind us of the birth of the man into whom the Christ Being afterwards entered. The Easter festival, on the other hand, is intended to remind us of an event whose significance lies, not merely within the course of earth-evolution, but within the whole world-order into which man has been placed. Therefore the time of the Easter festival must not be determined by ordinary earthly conditions; it is a time that can be ascertained only when man turns his thoughts to the worlds beyond the earth. And there is deeper meaning still in this plan of a movable time for the Easter festival. It indicates how through the Christ Impulse man is to be set free from the forces of earth-evolution pure and simple. For through knowledge of that which is beyond the earth, man is to become free of the evolution of the earth, and this truth is indicated in the manner of dating the Easter festival. It contains a call to man to lift himself up to the worlds beyond the earth; it contains a promise to man that in the course of world-history it shall be possible for him, through the working of the Christ Impulse, to become free of earthly conditions.

To understand all that is implied in this manner of dating the Easter festival, it will be helpful to turn our minds to early secrets of the beginnings of Christianity, to some of those early mysteries which during a certain period of earthly evolution have become more and more veiled and hidden from the materialistic view of the world which arose at the beginning of the Fifth Post-Atlantean epoch and must now be vanquished and superseded. In order to see the whole matter in a true light it will be necessary first of all to consider the part played by the figure of St. Paul in the evolution of the Christ Impulse within the whole history of mankind.

We should indeed remind ourselves again and again what a great event in the evolution of Christianity was the appearance of the figure of St. Paul. Paul had had abundant opportunity to inform himself, by external observation, of the events in Palestine that were associated with the personality of Jesus. All that came to his notice in this way in the physical world left Paul unconvinced; when these events in Palestine had come to an end in the physical sense, Paul was still an antagonist of Christianity. He became the Apostle of the Christians only after the event at Damascus, after he had experienced the very Being of the Christ in an extra-earthly, supersensible manner. Thus Paul was a man who could not be persuaded of the meaning of the Christ Impulse by evidence of the physical senses, but who could be convinced only by a supersensible experience. And the supersensible experience that came to him cut deeply into his life — so deeply indeed, that from that moment he became another man. Nay, more: he became an initiate.

Paul was well prepared for such an experience. He was thoroughly acquainted with the secrets of the religion of the Jews; he was familiar with their knowledge and their conception of the world. He was thus well equipped to judge of the nature of the event that befell him at Damascus and to have a right view and understanding of it. The writings of Paul, as we know them, convey only a weak reflection of all that he experienced inwardly. But even so, when he speaks of the event of Damascus we can discern that he speaks as one who through this event attained knowledge of cosmic happenings lying behind the veil of the world of sense. From the very manner in which he speaks it is plain that he is fully able to understand the difference between the supersensible world and the world of sense.

When, even externally, we compare the life of Paul with the earthly experience of Christ Jesus, we discover a strange and astounding fact which becomes intelligible to us only when with the help of spiritual science. We are able to survey the whole evolution of mankind. I have often drawn attention to the great difference in the development of the human soul in the several epochs. I have shown you how man has changed in the course of evolution through the Indian, Persian, Egypto-Chaldean, Greco-Latin epochs, on to our own time. When we look back into the ancient past we find that man remained capable of organic physical development until an advanced age. The parallelism between the development of the soul and the development of the body continued until an advanced age; it is a parallelism that we can recognise now only in the three stages marked by the change of teeth, puberty and the beginning of the twenties. As far as outward appearance goes, mankind has lost the experience of such transitions in later life. In very ancient Indian times, however, men experienced a parallelism between the development of soul and of body up to the fiftieth year of life, in Persian and Egyptian times up to the fortieth year, and in Greco-Latin times up to the thirty-fifth year. In ordinary consciousness, we experience a like parallelism only up to the twenty-seventh year and it is not easy to detect even for so long as that. Now the Christ Impulse entered into the evolution of mankind at a time when men — especially those of the Greek and Latin races — experienced this parallelism as late as into the thirtieth year. And Christ Jesus lived His days of physical earthly life for just so long as the duration of the span of life which ran in a parallelism between the physical organisation and the organisation of soul and spirit. Then, in relation to earthly life, He passed through the gate of death.What this passage through the gate of death means can be understood only from the point of view of spiritual science; it can be understood only when we are able to look into supersensible worlds. For the passage through the gate of death is not an event that can be grasped by any thinking concerned entirely with the world of sense.

As physical man, Paul was of about the same age as Christ Jesus Himself. The time that Christ Jesus spent in His work on earth, Paul spent as an anti-Christian. And the second half of his life was determined entirely by what came to him from supersensible experiences. In this second half of his life he had supersensible experience of what men at that time could no longer receive in the second half of life through sense-experience, because the parallelism between soul-and-spirit development and physical development was not experienced beyond the thirty-fifth year of life. And the Event of Golgotha came before Paul in such a way that he received, by direct illumination, the understanding once possessed by men in an atavistic way through primeval wisdom, and which they can now again acquire through spiritual science. This understanding came to Paul in order that he might be the one to arouse in men a realisation of what had happened for mankind through the working of the Christ Impulse.

For about the same length of time that Christ had walked the earth, did Paul continue to live upon earth — that is, until about his sixty-seventh or sixty-eighth year. This time was spent in carrying the teaching of Christianity into earth-evolution. The parallelism between the life of Christ Jesus and the life of Paul is a remarkable one. The life of Christ Jesus was completely filled with the presence and Being of the Christ. Paul had such a strong after-experience (acquired through Initiation) of this event, that he was able to be the one to bring to mankind true and fitting ideas about Christianity — and to do so for a period of time corresponding very nearly to that of the life of Christ Jesus on earth. There is a great deal to be learned from a study of the connection between the life lived by Christ Jesus for the sake of the earthly evolution of mankind, and the teaching given by Paul concerning the Christ Being. To see this connection aright would mean a very great deal for us; only it is necessary to realise that the connection is a direct result of the supersensible experience undergone by Paul. [Rudolf Steiner here considers the "Christ Being" to be the spiritual being who entered the body of Jesus of Nazareth during the Baptism in the Jordan; and "Christ Jesus" to be Jesus of Nazareth plus the Christ Being. Ed.]

When modern theology goes so far as to explain the event at Damascus as a kind of illusion, as a kind of hallucination, then it is only a proof that in our day even theology has succumbed to materialism. Even theology has no longer any knowledge of the nature of the supersensible world, and entirely fails to recognise man's need to understand the supersensible world before he can have any true comprehension of Christianity.

It is good that we should confess today, in all sincerity, how difficult it is to find our way into the ideas presented in the Gospels and in the Epistles of Paul — ideas that are so totally different from those to which we are accustomed. For the most part we have ceased to concern ourselves at all with such ideas. But it is a fact that a person who is completely given up to the habits and ways of thought of the present day, is far from being able to form the right ideas when he reads the words of Paul. Many present-day theologians put a materialistic interpretation upon the event of Damascus, even trying to disprove and deny the actual Resurrection of Christ Jesus — while professing at the same time to be true Christians. Such persons themselves bear testimony that they have no intention of applying knowledge of the supersensible to the essence of Christianity or to the event of the appearance of Christ Jesus in earthly evolution. The very fact that the figure of Paul stands at the summit of Christian tradition, the figure, that is, of one who acquired an understanding of Christianity through supersensible experience, is like a challenge to man to possess himself of supersensible knowledge. It is like a declaration that Christianity cannot possibly be comprehended without having recourse to knowledge that has its source in the supersensible. It is essential that we should see in Paul a man who had been initiated into supersensible, cosmic happenings; it is essential to see in this light what he laboured so hard to bring to mankind. Let us try in the language of the present day to place before our minds one of the things that seemed to Paul, as an initiate, to be of particular significance.

Paul regarded it of supreme importance to make clear to men how through the Christ Impulse an entirely new way of relating themselves to cosmic evolution had come to them. He felt it essential to declare: that that period of the evolution of the world which carried within it the experiences of the heathen of older times, had run its course; it was finished for man. New experiences were now here for the human soul; they needed only to be perceived.

When Paul spoke in this way, he was pointing to the mighty Event which made such a deep incision into the evolution of man on earth; and indeed if we would understand history as it truly is, we must come back again and again to this Event. If we look back into pre-Christian times, and especially into those times which possess to a striking degree the characteristic qualities of pre-Christian life, we can feel how different was the whole outlook of men in those days. Not that a complete change took place in a single moment; nevertheless the Event of Golgotha did bring about an absolute separation of one phase in the evolution of mankind from another. The Event of Golgotha came at the end of a period of evolution during which men beheld, together with the world of the senses, also the spiritual. Incredible as it may appear to modern man it is a fact that in pre-Christian times men saw, together with the sense-perceptible, a spiritual reality. They did not see merely trees, or merely plants, but together with the trees, and together with the plants they saw something spiritual. But as the time of the Event of Golgotha drew near, the civilisation that bore within it this power of vision was coming to an end. Something completely new was now to enter into the evolution of mankind. As long as man beholds the spiritual in the physical things all around him, he cannot have a consciousness which allows the impulse of freedom to quicken within it. The birth of the impulse of freedom is necessarily accompanied by a loss of this vision; man has to find himself deserted by the divine and spiritual when he looks out upon the external world. The impulse of freedom inevitably implies that, if man would again have vision of the spiritual, he must exert himself inwardly and draw it forth from the depths of his own soul.

This is what Paul wanted to reveal. He told how in ancient times, when men were only the race of Adam, they had no need to draw forth an active experience from the depths of their own being before they could behold the divine and spiritual. The divine and spiritual came to them in elemental form, with everything that lived in the air and on earth. But mankind had gradually to lose this living communion with the divine and spiritual in all the phenomena of the world of sense. A time had to come when man must perforce lift himself up to the divine and spiritual by an active strengthening of his own inner life. He had to learn to understand the words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” He was not to be allowed to go on receiving a divine and spiritual reality that came forth to meet him from all sense-phenomena He had to find the way to a divine and spiritual kingdom that could be reached only by inward struggle and inward development.

People interpret Paul today in such a trivial manner! Again and again they show an inclination to translate what he said into the language of this materialistic age. So trivial is their interpretation of him that one is liable to be dubbed fantastic when one puts forward such a view as the following concerning the content of his message. And yet it is absolutely true.

Paul saw what a great crisis it was for the world that the ancient vision, which was at one and the same time a sense-vision and a spiritual vision, was fading away and disappearing, and that another vision of the spiritual was now to dawn for man in a new kingdom of light, [Romans 13:12] a vision which he must acquire for himself by his own inner initiative, and which is not immediately present for him in the vision of the senses. Paul knew from his own supersensible experience in initiation that ever since the Resurrection Christ Jesus has been united with earth-evolution. But he also knew that, although Christ Jesus is present, He can be found by man only through the awakening of an inner power of vision, not through any mere beholding with the senses. Should anyone think he can reach the Christ with the mere vision of the senses, Paul knew that he must be giving himself up to delusions, he must be mistaking some demon for the Christ.

This was what Paul was continually emphasising to those of his hearers who were able to understand it: that the old spiritual vision brings no approach to Christ, that with this old vision one can only mistake some elemental being for the Christ. Therefore Paul exerted all his power to bring men out of the habit of looking to the spirits of air and of earth. [Galatians 4:3,9] In earlier times men had been familiar with elemental spirits, and necessarily so, for in those times they still possessed atavistic faculties with which to behold them. But now these faculties could not rightly be possessed by man. On the other hand, Paul never wearied of exhorting people to develop within themselves a force whereby they might learn to understand what it was that had taken place, namely, an entirely new impulse, an entirely new Being had entered earth-evolution. “Christ will come again to you,” he said, “if you will only find the way out of your purely physical vision of the earth. Christ will come again to you, for He is here. Through the working of the Event of Golgotha, He is here. But you must find Him; He must come again for you.”

This is what Paul proclaimed, and in a language which at the time had quite another spiritual ring than has the mere echo left us in our translation. It sounded quite different then. Paul sought continually to awaken in man the conviction that if he would understand Christ, he must develop a new kind of vision; the vision that suffices for the. world of sense is not enough. today, mankind has only come so far as to speak of the contrast between an external, sense-derived science, and faith. Modern theology is ready to admit of the former that it is complicated, that it is real and objective, that it requires to be learned; of faith it will allow no such thing. It is repeatedly emphasised that faith ought to make appeal to what is utterly childlike in man, to that in man which does not need to be learned.

Such is the attitude of mind which rejects the event of Damascus as unreal, preferring to regard it as a kind of hallucination that befell Paul. If, however, the event of Damascus was a mere hallucination — or I might just as well say, if the event of Damascus was what a great number of modern theologians would have it to be — then we ought also to have the courage to say: Away with Christianity! For Christianity has brought with it a belief that is absurd and senseless.

This would be the necessary outcome of the teaching of modern theology, if only people took it — first of all, seriously, and secondly, with courage. As a matter of fact they do neither. They shrink from having nothing but a merely external, sense-given science, and yet at the same time they deny the real, inner impulse of the event of Damascus, while still professing to hold fast to Christianity! It is precisely in such things that the soul-and-spirit sickness of our age comes to clearest expression; for a deep inner lack of truth is here laid bare. Truth would be obliged to confess: Either the event of Damascus was a reality, an event that can be placed in the realm of reality, then Christianity has meaning; or it was what it is asserted to be by modern theology, which wants always to associate itself with modern science; then Christianity has no meaning. It is important that people should face such conclusions, for there is no doubt we live in an age of severe testing. Through man's becoming inwardly untrue in regard to the very matters that are most sacred for him — for he ought no longer to call what he has, ‘Christianity’ — through this, a tendency to untruth, often unconscious but no less destructive on that account, has taken hold of mankind. That is the real reason for the existence of this tendency. That is why this tendency to untruth is so closely interwoven with the events that will inevitably lead to decadence in the whole cultural life of Europe, unless people rethink these things in time and turn to spiritual knowledge.

And if we would turn to spiritual knowledge, it is emphatically not enough to rest content with looking at life in any superficial way; it is absolutely essential for us to take things in all their depth of meaning and to be ready to contemplate the necessity of mighty changes in our own time.

Again and again we must ask: What is a festival such as that of Easter for the greater part of mankind? It may be said of very many people that when they are in the circle of their friends who still want to gather together to keep the festival, all their thinking about Easter runs along the lines of old habits of thought; they use the old words, they go on uttering them more or less automatically, they make the same renunciation in the same formula to which they have long been accustomed. But have we any right today to utter this renunciation, when we can observe on every hand a distinct unwillingness to take part in the great change that is so necessary in our own time? Are we justified in using the words of Paul: “Not I, but Christ in me!” when we show so little inclination to examine into what it is that has brought such great unhappiness to mankind in the modern age? Should it not go together with the Easter festival that we set out to gain a clear idea of the destiny that has befallen mankind and of what it is that alone can lead us out of the catastrophe — namely, supersensible knowledge? If the Easter festival, whose whole significance depends upon supersensible knowledge — for knowledge of the senses can never explain the Resurrection of Christ Jesus — if this Easter festival is to be taken seriously, is it not essential that people should consider how a supersensible character can be brought again into the human faculty of knowledge? Should not this be the thought that rises up in our minds today: All the lying and deception in modern culture is due to the fact that we ourselves are no longer in earnest about what we recognise as the sacred festivals of the year?

We keep Easter, the festival of Resurrection, but in our materialistic outlook we have long ago ceased caring whether or not we have a real understanding of the Resurrection. We set ourselves at enmity with the truth and we try to find all manner of ingenious ways of accepting the cosmic jest — for indeed it would be, or rather it is a jest that man should keep the festival of the Resurrection and at the same time put his whole faith in modern science which obviously can never make appeal to such a Resurrection. Materialism and the keeping of Easter — these are two things that cannot possibly belong together; they cannot possibly exist side by side. And the materialism of modern theology — that too is incompatible with the Easter festival. In our own time a book entitled “The Essence of Christianity” has been written by an eminent theologian of Central Europe, and is accounted of outstanding importance. Yet throughout this work we find evidence of a desire not to take seriously the fact of the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. There you have a true symptom of the times!

People must learn to feel these things deeply in their hearts. We shall never find a way out of our present troubles unless we develop understanding of the enmity cherished by the modern materialistically minded man towards the truth, unless we learn to see through things like this, for they are of very great significance in life today.

During the Fifth Post-Atlantean epoch a new tendency has been at work, a tendency towards a scientific knowledge that is adapted to the power of human reason and judgment; and now it is time that this should go further and develop into a knowledge of the supersensible world. For the Event of Golgotha is an event that falls absolutely within the supersensible world. And the event of Damascus, as Paul experienced it, is an event that can be understood only out of supersensible ideas. On the understanding of this event depends whether one can in very truth feel something of the Christ Impulse, or whether one cannot. The man of the present day is faced with a severe test when he asks himself: In the time that has been christened ‘Easter,’ how do I stand to supersensible knowledge? For Easter should remind him, by the very way its date is determined, to look up from the earthly to what is beyond the earth. The man of modern times has left himself no more insight into what is beyond the earth than at most that which is given him in mathematics and mechanics, and now in spectro-analysis. These sciences are the groundwork upon which he tries to build up his knowledge concerning all that is beyond the earth. He no longer feels that he is himself united with those worlds, and that the Christ descended thence when He entered into the personality of Jesus.

Let me beg you to give these thoughts, which are so pertinent to our present problems, your full and earnest attention. I have often pointed out what a fine spiritual nature such as Herman Grimm must needs think of the Kant-Laplace theory. It is true, the theory has undergone some modification in our day, nevertheless in all essentials it is still the prevailing theory of the universe. It is said that the solar system has come out of a primeval nebula, and in course of mighty changes undergone by the nebula and its densifications, plants, animals and also man have come into being. And carrying the theory further, a time will come when everything on the earth will have found its grave and when ideals and works of culture will no longer send their voice out into the universe, when the earth itself will fall like a bit of slag into the sun; and then, in a still later time, the sun will burn itself out and be scattered in the All, not merely burying, but annihilating everything that is now being made and done by man.

Such a view of the ordering of the world must inevitably arise in a time when man wants to grasp that which is beyond the earth with mathematical and mechanical knowledge alone. In a world in which he merely calculates or investigates qualities of the sun with the spectroscope — in such a world we shall never find the realm whence Christ came down to unite Himself with the life of the earth! There are people today who, because they cannot get clarity into their thoughts, prefer not to let themselves be troubled with thinking at all, and go on repeating the words they have learned from the Gospels and from the Epistles of St. Paul, simply repeating by rote what they have learned, never stopping to think whether it is compatible with the view of the evolution of the earth and man that they acquire elsewhere. But that is the deep inward untruth of our time: men slink away into some comfortable dark corner instead of bringing together in their thought the things that essentially belong together. They want to raise a mist before their eyes so that they may not need to ‘think together’ the things that belong together. They raise a mist before their eyes when they keep a festival like Easter and are at the same time very far indeed from forming any true idea of the Resurrection of which they speak; for a true idea of it can only be formed with spiritual and super-sensible knowledge.

The only possible way in these days for man to unite a right feeling with Easter is for him to direct his thought in this connection to the world-catastrophe of his own time. For in very deed a world-catastrophe is upon us. I do not mean merely the catastrophe that happened in the recent years of the war, but I refer to that world-catastrophe which consists in the fact that men have lost all idea of the connection of the earthly with that which is beyond the earth. The time has come when man must realise with full and clear consciousness that supersensible knowledge has now to arise out of the grave of the materialistic outlook. For together with supersensible knowledge will arise the knowledge of Christ Jesus. In point of fact, man has no other symbol that fits the Easter festival than this — that mankind has brought upon itself the doom of being crucified upon the cross of its own materialism. But man must do something himself before there arises from the grave of human materialism all that can come from supersensible knowledge.

The very striving after supersensible knowledge is itself an Easter deed, it is something which gives man the right once more to keep Easter. Look up to the full moon and feel how the full moon is connected with man in its phenomena, and how the reflection of the sun is connected with the moon, and then meditate on the need today to go in search of a true self-knowledge which can show forth man as a reflection of the supersensible. If man knows himself to be a reflection of the supersensible, if he recognises how he is formed and constituted out of the supersensible, then he will also find the way to come to the supersensible. At bottom, it is arrogance and pride that find expression in the materialistic view of the world. It is human pride, manifesting in a strange way! Man does not want to be a reflection of the divine and spiritual, he wants to be merely the highest of the animals. There he is the highest. But the point is, among what sort of beings is he the highest? This pride leads man to recognise nothing beyond himself. If the natural scientific outlook on the world were to be true to itself, it would have the mission of impressing this fact again and again upon man: You are the highest of all the beings of which you can form an idea. The ultimate consequences of the point of view that sets out to be strictly scientific, are such as to make a man turn pale when they show him on what kind of moral groundwork they are based — all unconscious though he may be of it. The truth is, we are today living in a time when Christ Jesus is being crucified in a very special sense. He is being put to death in the field of knowledge. And until men come to see how the present way of knowledge, clinging as it does to the senses and to them alone, is nothing but a grave of knowledge out of which a resurrection must take place — until they see this, they will not be able to lift themselves up to experiences in thought and feeling that partake of a true Easter character.

This is the thought that we should carry in our hearts and minds today. We still have with us the tradition of an Easter festival that is supposed to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. The tradition we have, but the right to celebrate such a festival — that we have not, who live in present-day civilisation.

How can we acquire this right again? We must take the thought of Christ Jesus lying in the grave, of Christ Jesus Who at Easter time vanquishes the stone that has been rolled over His grave — we must take this thought and unite it with the other thought which I have indicated. For the soul of man should feel the purely external, mechanistic knowledge like a tombstone rolled upon him; and he must exert himself to overcome the pressure of this knowledge, he must find the possibility, not to make confession of his faith in the words: “Not I, but the fully developed animal in me,” but to have the right to say: “Not I, but Christ in me.”

It is related of a learned English scientist [T.H. Huxley] that he said he would rather believe that he had by his own power worked his way up little by little from the ape stage to his present height as man, than that he had descended from a once ‘divine’ height, as his opponent, who could not give credence to the ideas of natural science, appeared to have done.

Such things only serve to show how urgent it is to find the way from the confession of faith: “Not I, but the fully developed animal in me,” to that other confession of faith: “Not I, but Christ in me.” We must strive to understand this words of Paul. Not until then will it be possible for the true Easter message to rise up from the depths of our hearts and souls and enter into our consciousness.


Thanks to The Rudolf Steiner Archive