25 December, 2007

How Christianity saved paganism

by Jorge Reyes

We're so pagan and don't know it. 

I write this essay close to the December holidays, a time that most of us celebrate what we call Christmas, a holiday that to some is infused with meaning and symbolism, and for  others it is nothing more than a nice secular holiday season.

This time of the year, though, is one of the most venerated and cherished times ever.  It is a time when the days grow shorter and when we become very nostalgic.  It is also a time when we like to be at our most magnanimous; engaging in benevolence; shunning avarice, hypocrisy, and egotism-- at least for the time being. 
Never mind that's how we like to think of ourselves, even if we go back to our old selves come January.

 But there's more to this sense of altruism than meets the eye.
What drives us all to this feeling of goodness is, perhaps, that this is one of the oldest and most ritualized times celebrated by many, many cultures as far back as civilization, much farthest back than our own Christian belief in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. 
The winter holidays are a special type of holidays, and pagans as much as us moderns are fully aware.  Something changes in the air, and we sense it.  There's nothing supernatural about this.  It just is.  You see, this is the only time in the year when the days get shorter and there seems a sad, nostalgic, and spirited desire to see life renewed all around us, light winning out against the forces of darkness.

This is the time of the year when the earth is farthest from the sun, days becoming cooler. This is the time, not accidentally, when throughtout the world, many cultures consider this time of the year the saddest. And, the closer it gets to December 22 or thereabouts, the closer we tend to think of life and death. It is a time when our own ancient brethens sought to win the war against darkness, as they slowly saw how light receded into a mere backdrop laden by heavy, grey clouds, and how our friend the sun simply seemed to recede ever more from us; birds chirping with a language as rich in mystery as ancient music; but it was a sad music; with a tenor that portended to a e future when life, once again, would burst with light for us all-- ourselves, our families, and our community.

And so it was, that to early Christians, Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world, was born on this day to save us all from the palling curtains portending death and into life. It was life born without sin, from a virgin woman; unsoiled and impregnated by mortal life. Can any of us say the same about our own birth, and death? Can nature? Can the cycle of the ever receding light say the same? for it was nothing short of a miracle for the sun to be recycled into something new, better perhaps, and into a new year.

There are four points in our calendar each equally divided by what's known as the solstice and the equinox. The equinox is the time of the year when the earth circling in its own axis in a sort of oval is at a point most centered from the sun in which all days are equal in length. This often happens on March 21 and September 23. The other time of the year, the most exquisite as far as symbolisms, is the winter solstice. During the solstice, the earth still going around in an ellipse, an oval, is farthest from the sun. This often happens on June 21 and December 22. As I wrote, this is the time when days get shorter. This is the time when Jesus of Nazareth, according to legend, was also born. And this is the time when other religious saviors were born as well, including Mithras, a god of very ancient and pagan belief.

Mithras, like Jesus, was also born of a virgin woman on December 25. In Rome, when the Romans tolerated all religious cults, a temple dedicated to Mithras had the following saying at its entrance: "And thou hast saved us by shedding the eternal blood."

The mythical Jesus comes from many traditions, all ancient and pagan in origin. From the years 4 A.D. on, Jesus is depicted with a lamb on his shoulders. The same was depicted of Athens as far back as 570 B.C. Jesus and his mother, Mary, were also depicted as "Madonna and Child", just as Isis was depicted as "Isis and Child" in 1800 B.C!

Ancient man saw the winter solstice as a battle between eternal dark and sunlight. In fact, this belief system was so powerful because it was empirically observed every year, hence its overwhelming importance in myths, lore, and historical anecdotes; hence its rich power to us today.

Every religion has a belief system based on these equinox or solstice seasons, and most often they are celebrated in the form of a feast, fetival, and/or a combination of both. Not one culture is alike, but symbolically every culture has some basic archetypes whose origin are the same. This time of the year, I think, is one of them, and it is my favorite, too. The peoples of ancient China, India, South America, Africa all felt that the sun was needed for life, and they invented ways to ask for it in the only way they understood their surroundings-- in the best and most sincere way possible-- by creating a god.

This is why I think that paganism is as much a living reality today as it was for ancient man, very little has changed.  We are still an ancient people living in a modern world.  Those ancient longings and myths are still very much with us, as now, when we celebrate in our own ways the winter solstice celebration.  We are the children of those ancient nomads and warriors venerating Jesus Christ or Mithra or Isis, even when some of us outright reject them but continue to ask about the mystery of our lives, and how powerful those symbols are still to us today.

We're so pagan and don't know it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

From what historians say, Jesus Christ wasn't even born on December 25. Some reports put his birth in May or June!