Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sol Invictus

Sol Invictus, ‘the unconquered Sun,’ was a Greco-Roman deity popular especially in the later Empire, beginning with the era of the military emperors, particularly among the soldiers.
A syncretistic deity, connected to the observable phenomena of nature, his cult was a conscious replication in the human world of the sun’s movement through the heavens. His feast day, the 25th of December, relating to the winter solstice, celebrated the turning point from the shortest day, longest night, towards the lengthening of days, the time of increasing light. He was a favorite god of the emperors themselves, including Constantine, who exchanged his worship for that of the true and living God.

It’s amazing, how similar the truth can be to our not quite correct guesses about it. Among the episodes of man’s search for God, we are not surprised to find how universal is the attraction of man for the sun and how frequently the solar disk has become the object of our veneration in place of the Divine Being. From ancient Egypt’s first stab at monotheism, the pharaoh Ikhnaton’s cult of Aton, the sun, with which he tried to overthrow the worship of Amon-Re and the pantheon, to the solar cults of ancient Peru, and China, Greece and India. Even among the pagans of today, the sun worshippers who bathe practically naked in its light on the beaches without giving theology a thought, he reigns.

The ancient Church immediately incorporated feast days of the Christ into its calendar, imitating the biblical festivals of Judaism which it early discarded, and emulating in some respects the pagan feasts it was replacing. In the law codes of the first Christian emperors are edicts allowing the observance of the old pagan holidays as to the festivities while banning the religious offerings to the false gods that were the reason for them. This they did, the laws explicitly state (Code of Justinian, Book 1, Title 11, Paragraph 4), ‘so as not to eliminate occasions of joy and revelry for the people.’ Even in those days, politicians, Christian though they might be, knew better than to suppress all at once what little fun the common folk enjoyed.

The commemoration of the birth of the Christ, of Jesus of Nazareth, was celebrated by the early Church on the same day as was His epiphany, the manifestation of Himself to the world at His baptism in the waters of the Jordan River by holy prophet and forerunner John, that is, on the 6th of January. Only later, after the Church had been incorporated into the Empire’s plans for world domination, was the commemoration of the actual birth, the incarnation, of the Christ separated from that of His epiphany.

The date chosen for this separate commemoration?
In step with their program of supplanting the native paganism throughout the Empire with Christianity as the national cult, the feast day of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun, was chosen. After all, wasn’t the coming of Jesus Christ the turning point in human history, just as the winter solstice was the turning point in nature, from the time of growing gloom to increasing light? It all made sense to the ancient mind; it still does, even to us today, when we think.

So much for the history of the feast day we are about to celebrate—yes, still celebrated in the Church for twelve days, not one—which we call ‘the Nativity of Christ,’ revealing in the name a somewhat better reason for it than does the common English expression ‘Christmas,’ which has taken on other meanings for the world. Yet there is more to this connexion between Christian beliefs and the pre-Christian speculations about the sun in relation to God, to the Divine Nature.

In the ethos of the ancient Church, there is this notion of God’s revelation of Himself being accomplished only through the Divine Logos, through His Word. We would never have been able to have any real contact with the Being—Yod-he-vav-he, Yahweh in Hebrew, Ho Ôn, ‘the Being,’ in Greek—had He not sent forth His Word into our midst. That Word was recognized as being Jesus Christ, as He is announced in the first chapter of the holy gospel according to John.

This notion was translated into an attitude that the Word of God, the self-revelation of God, was available in two books—the greater book, and the smaller book. What were these two ‘books’? The greater book was the book of nature. The smaller book was the written scriptures, the Holy Bible. The greater book was called ‘greater’ because it was greater, larger. It was God’s nature revealed, written very, very large, in His physical poem, the heavens and the earth.

The smaller book was called ‘smaller’ because we could ‘hold it in our hands’ as the apostle writes. It was God’s nature revealed in human language, a human literature taken up to become the vehicle of God’s most sure and complete revelation of Himself, everything that He wants us to know about ourselves and Him in one handy, little volume, and in a dialect—human speech—that we could understand. Hence, the two books, one Truth revealed in both, never in opposition to each other.

That being true, it follows that what is written small for us in the Bible is also written large for us—if we are wise—in the greater book of the heavens and the earth. This is where the wisdom of the Church in supplanting Sol Invictus with the truly ‘unconquered Son’ enters. In English and other Germanic languages we are favored to have a similarity in the sound of two words, ‘sun’ and ‘son’, that is not present in most other tongues. Sometimes this confusion works well, other times not.

Herein is found one of the most excellent examples of the wisdom of God imparted to the Church in the idea of the book of nature and the book of scripture revealing Him and confirming each other. The Holy Triad, the Trinity, a doctrine much misunderstood and maligned by those who want to believe in a single Divine Being, is revealed in the Bible but not all in one place and never by name. In the book of Nature, however, we have been given a sign that is both simple and unique. It is the sun.

The sun is one thing, it is one being. Yet there never was a sun without light, but light is not the sun. There never was light without heat, and heat is neither the sun nor is it light. Though the sun is the source of both light and heat, and there never was the sun without either, in the same way light and heat could not be without the sun. Moreover light, though it is one thing, has two ‘natures’. It exists both as waves of pure energy, and as photons, particles like matter.

Do you see where ancient man in knowing that the sun had some wisdom to offer about the Divine Nature was not entirely wrong? But the mystic key was missing until the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so that we could hear from His lips, see with our eyes and touch with our hands, His holy, otherwise hidden, Divine Nature.

Just as there was never a time that the sun existed without light or heat, so never was there a time that there existed the Father without Son or Spirit. Just as light and heat are not the sun, in the same way the Son and the Spirit are not the Father. Just as the sun is their source, so is the Father Their Source. Just as light exists as waves and photons but is one thing, so does the Son exist as divine and human but is one Person. Just as the sun, light and heat are one, so are the Father, Son and Spirit only One. The sun in physical nature reveals the Triune God of Divine Nature. The greater book and the smaller book agree.

Sol Invictus
, the unconquered Sun, was yet another form of that ‘unknown God’ to whom the altar was raised in the agora of ancient Athens, and we are not surprised when we discover that the God of nature is the God who created nature, and the God of scripture is the ‘Poet of heaven and earth,’ and that they are not two different Gods, but One and the Same. C. S. Lewis writes,

God sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again, and by his death, has somehow given new life to men.
(Mere Christianity, Book 2, Chapter 3)

What Lewis has tapped is the deepest well that was ever drilled by God for man, proving that preparation was made for us to know Him long before any man had become fully conscious, had become fully human, had been changed from soil to soul by the inbreathed life of the living God.

The waters from that wondrous well
That made my eyes to see
And made my mind to ever show
My greatest friend to me.

— from Greatest Friend, by Mike Heron, Incredible String Band

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