A Seasonal Thought
The Great Novena
by Rev. Michaël Merle
The Great Novena refers to the nine days between Ascension Thursday and Whit-Sunday (Pentecost). What great and wonderous fulfilment and culmination took place in this contemplative time between Ascension and Whitsun? How are these two great festivals joined in the Great Mystery of Easter?
The deep significance of the Ascension is that in the spiritual vision of the disciples who see the Christ rising heavenwards, the essence of the experience is, in fact, that Christ remains in union with the earth. Thus the Christ impulse holds man securely on the earth. "In this picture of the Ascension, something more is manifest to the disciples.… Through the Mystery of Golgotha Christ brought to pass within earth-evolution a cosmic event. Christ came down from the heights of spirit, linked Himself with humanity in the man Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled the Mystery of Golgotha, united His evolution with that of the earth. It was a cosmic Deed accomplished for the whole of humanity." [Rudolf Steiner, 7th May 1923]
In the vision of the disciples, with their inner eye of soul that sees the resurrected Christ ascend into the heavenly sphere, the true depth of this event was understood by the soul-spirit of the disciples. The Ascension is a uniting of Christ with the earth experience so that the physical-etheric nature of man could continue its development. Our place as man is not just in the heavenly spheres, but also, and very importantly, here on the earth.
After the spiritual vision of the Ascension, the disciples withdraw in deep contemplation. "For in their awakened souls is the knowledge that through the Mystery of Golgotha complete provision was made for the physical-etheric nature of mankind as a whole. But what happens, they wonder, to the being of spirit-and-soul? Whence does man acquire the power to receive the Christ Impulse into his nature of spirit-and-soul, into his ego and astral body? The answer is found in the Whitsun festival. Through the Mystery of Golgotha the Christ Impulse has taken effect on the earth as a reality which is within the comprehension of spiritual cognition alone. No materialistic knowledge, no materialistic science can understand the Mystery of Golgotha. Hence the soul must acquire the power of spiritual cognition, of spiritual perception, of spiritual feeling, in order to be able to understand how, on Golgotha, the Christ Impulse was united with the impulses of the earth.
Christ Jesus fulfilled His Deed on Golgotha to the end that this union might take effect, fulfilled it in such a way that ten days after the event of the Ascension He sent man the possibility of imbuing also his inner nature of spirit-and-soul, his ego and astral body, with the Christ Impulse. The permeation of the human spirit-and-soul with the power to understand the Mystery of Golgotha is the sending of the Holy Spirit. This is the picture of the Whitsun festival, the festival of Pentecost. Christ fulfilled His Deed for all mankind. But to each human individual, in order that he may be able to understand this Deed, Christ sent the Spirit, in order that the individual being of spirit-and-soul may have access to the effects of the Deed that was accomplished for all men in common. Through the Spirit man must learn to experience the Christ Mystery inwardly, in spirit and in soul.
Thus these two pictures stand side by side in the history of the evolution of humanity. That of the Ascension tells us: The Deed on Golgotha was fulfilled for the physical body and the etheric body in the universal human sense. That of Whitsun tells us: The single human being must make this Deed bear fruit in himself by receiving the Holy Spirit. Thereby the Christ Impulse becomes individual in each human being.
And now something else can be added to the picture of the Ascension. Spiritual visions such as came to the disciples on the day of the Ascension always have a bearing upon what man actually experiences in one or another state of consciousness. After death, as you know, the etheric body leaves the human being. He lays aside the physical body at death, retains the etheric body for a few days, and then the etheric body dissolves…. Since the Mystery of Golgotha, man beholds, together with this departing etheric body, the Christ Who has rescued it for earthly existence through the ages of time to come. So that, since the Mystery of Golgotha there stands before the soul of every human being who passes through death the Ascension picture which the disciples were able to behold that day in a particular condition of their soul-life.
But for one who makes the Whitsun Mystery, too, part of his being, who allows the Holy Spirit to draw near to him – for such a one this picture after death becomes the source of the greatest consolation he can possibly experience: for now he beholds the Mystery of Golgotha in all its truth and reality….
The Mystery of Golgotha was fulfilled for mankind as a whole, in respect of the physical body and etheric body only. The sending of the Holy Spirit, the Whitsun mystery, signifies that the soul and spirit of man can partake of the fruits of the Deed on Golgotha only if he finds wings to bear him to actual understanding of the essence and meaning of that Deed.
But because this essence and meaning can be fully grasped by spiritual knowledge alone, not by material knowledge, it follows that the truth of the Whitsun festival can be grasped only when men realise that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the challenge to humanity more and more to achieve Spirit-knowledge, through which alone the Mystery of Golgotha can be understood.
That it must be understood – this is the challenge of the Whitsun Mystery. That it came to pass for all mankind – this is the revelation given in the Ascension." [Rudolf Steiner, 7th May 1923]
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