Thursday, December 16, 2010
On my drive out of and back into the city today (because I had to retrieve clean clothes for my daughter's school performance since she'd become a mud-swamp during recess), I listened to Christmas carols. Shepherds watching in fields. Holy infant. Christ is born in Bethlehem. Years ago, before I started researching alchemy, these songs told a story of the birth of Jesus. And they were beautiful. I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing them at the Royal Albert Hall in London when I was four years old. So beautiful. And they're still beautiful. With another level added.
In the alchemical metaphor, matter is worked through a series of alternatively soothing and mortifying steps. At the end, it is "killed," then it is left in a "tomb" to putrefy. Then it is brought back to life: resurrected. These "biblical" terms aren't mine. They are the terms that have been used for ages. Ages. And it sounds like I ought to be writing about Easter, since that is the rebirth. But there's something about the language of rebirth that drew my attention in a jaw-dropping way. When the matter is made gold, in the metaphor (for it is no more just about matter than it is about the matter of our selves), it is referred to as "the King," "the son of God" (as opposed to the son of man) and even "King of the Jews." "Our newborn king" in the carol is an alchemical reference to a successful alchemical process.
The shepherds watching in fields are the alchemists, watching and waiting. The star is the spark of life that the alchemist hopes she has stirred into the process through passion and love and hard work. Ages. It all goes back ages.
Most of the hymns in the hymnals used in churches were written (I observed this while I taught at an Episcopal boarding school for nearly a decade: I attended at least three chapel services a week, creating a lot of time to let my eyes trail down to the bottom of the page to see when the songs were written) during the 18th and 19th century, a time when alchemy was coming under fire of a cold rationality even Sir Isaac Newton would have shied away from. The teachings, I suppose, had to be conveyed somehow. People weren't reading fairy tales anymore or legends of the Round Table, former vessels for alchemical wisdom. So, hymns became the cups for hidden meaning. Christmas carols speak to the final step of the magnum opus, the moment when base matter has risen to a new state.
"The son" is the term given that matter when it is beginning the process. When that matter has turned to gold, it is called "the king." So, we ask, how is it the king is born in the manger (another term for crucible)? Because in alchemy the lowest is the highest and vice versa. The king has to be born in meager circumstance, because only in humility can we find greatness.
This is the message of Christmas.
And there is the other level.
Just as were I Jewish I would find the Kabbalistic meaning in all rites and rituals, and were I Muslim, I would seek the Sufi perspective, as an Episcopalian I find the mystical meaning in the same. And love it. And celebrate it with my whole heart. Because I know that I, too, am on my way to becoming "gold," to rising to new states of being, to being born surrounded by cows and goats and mice and oxen, hay and cold air. Alchemy makes Christmas at once personal and universal. Not just a story, a story that has been used to oppress and confuse and conquer. It is a timeless story of becoming new. I am at once the watching shepherd and the newborn baby and still the amazed four-year old hearing these songs about this moment in awe. And in me are the wise men guffawing when I screw up. And three kings bearing gifts for the mother who is also me, and I am the weary, worried father. And a bright star, leading me toward myself through the dark desert night. I am my own Bethlehem. In the liturgical calendar, I am about to begin.