A Homily for New Year’s Day
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The New Year’s holiday is part of the progression of the Christmas season. Occurring subsequent to the winter solstice, Christmas and the New Year have similar significance as the rebirth of the light and the renewal of life at the darkest time in the semester of the sun’s waxing. The birth of the new year, like the holy birth of Christmas, is symbolized as a child, the birth of the infant light. Many old European customs and celebrations reflect the symbolism of the child during this beginning of the new year. One such custom is the election of the Children’s Bishop (episcopus puerorum). The elected child would dress up as a bishop, journey in children’s procession to the archbishop’s palace, and from a window in the palace, give a pontifical blessing upon the entire gathering.
New Year’s Day occurs in the Christmas cycle as one the twelve days of Christmas, the period between the ending of the lunar calendar and the beginning of the solar year, a time betwixt and between, a time of misrule when the usual rules and authorities of the world are suspended. It is a time of temporary chaos, confusion, celebration, and breaking down of old established forms to make way for a new light and new resolutions, the eternal new-born child of the year. These twelve days represent an opportunity for a psychological and spiritual renewal as well.
The Children’s Bishop was also called the fatuorum papam, the Fool’s Pope. At this time of the new year people would celebrate the festum stultorum (feast of fools). During this feast, a servant at court or, more often, the court fool would serve as the Lord of the Misrule in place of the usual head of the manor. The Lord of Misrule would rule for the one night of the feast and entertain the assembled guests with the making of foolish and madcap rules for everyone to follow. In the reversal of the relationship of the ruler to the ruled, a reversal of conventions and values also occurred.
The Lord of Misrule has a function similar to that of the medieval fool, whose task it was to mock authority and give a humorous and compensatory perspective to the convention of rulers and rulership. His task is also to point out the absurdities of convention by poking fun at the head of the court and keeping the conventional authorities from getting too puffed up with themselves.
The Gnostic in the world has a role similar to the role of the fool in medieval society. The role of the Gnostic is sometimes to reverse the conventional view of reality, to turn the wisdom of the world on its head, like the image of the Hanged Man in the Tarot with his radiant nimbus and beatific smile. The Gnostic writings often point out the absurdities of the conventional figure of Jehovah and reverse the interpretation of the Old Testament myths. The values of the world and the spiritual values of the Gnostic are often contrary. Even so, the values of unconscious are often polarized to the values of the conscious persona as well.
The “Time of Misrule” provides an opportunity for entering into the unconscious, so that something greater may come into consciousness, so that a greater consciousness might come to birth. The writings of Hermes Trismegistus describe a technique for bringing forth this birth of consciousness. “Your consciousness is in God; draw it into yourself, and it will appear; will, and it takes birth; suspend the senses of the body and the birth of the Godhead takes place.” Suspending the senses of the body breaks down the world that the lesser self (ego) has built up. The breaking up of the ego’s conventional structures for obtaining information allows consciousness to bring in and assimilate the birth of greater consciousness. This is the way of the birth of the Divine Life within. As stated in a Valentinian homily, “Those who dissolve the world and are not dissolved themselves are lords of all creation and destruction.”
The ego in the psyche has a function similar to the Gnostic Demiurge, which means “architect.” Like an architect, the ego creates an ongoing stream of worlds and ideas, but they are artificial creations. There is a difference between an artificial creation, lacking life and consciousness, and a creation to which we have given birth. The process does not so much involve a dissolution of the ego itself but a dissolving of the world that the ego has artificially created out of error and ignorance. Consciousness must overcome the four functions of the ego: sensing, thinking, feeling and intuition; it must overcome the power of the four elements in order to enter the stillness and silence of Midwinter where, in the hush of the night, in our own soul, the spiritual birth takes place.
The Hermetic writings state that the body of Gnosis is built by an inner purification through the mercy of God.
But first you must purify yourselves from the mindless torments of matter, one of which is ignorance, though there are many others, which force the man who is confined to the prison of the body to suffer by way of the passions. But these at once depart from him on whom God has had mercy, and so the body of Gnosis in man is built.
The ego persona can not manufacture the body of Gnosis by way of its own creations. The process of giving birth to a greater consciousness within us is not under our ego control; it requires the grace of God for the miracle of spiritual rebirth to occur. Yet it also requires an act of will on our part, a fervent intention, a desire for this change to occur.
In interpreting this passage, we must meditate on the rising above or transcendence of the passions of the body. This is not at all the same as the repression of the bodily appetites with which most of us in our Puritan culture are well acquainted. In many ways the path of rebirth is the reversal of the Puritanical repression of the bodily passions. In repression we are exerting the control of our lesser wills; in transcendence we are invoking and receiving the grace of a higher Self within us, that takes us to a still place where, like in the hush of midwinter, the new birth comes about in us. “This is the way of true rebirth. And now my child be still, and keep solemn silence; and thus will the grace from God not cease to come upon us.” Kyrie Eleison. “O lord, pour forth thy grace upon us.”
As in the Hermetic Literature, C. G. Jung was also very much inspired by the subject of rebirth in Gnosticism:
When a summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds and from the lesser the greater emerges, then as Nietzsche says, “One becomes Two,” and the greater figure, which one always was but which remained invisible, appears to the lesser personality with the force of a revelation. He who is truly and hopelessly little will always drag the revelation of the greater down to the level of his littleness, and will never understand that the day of judgment for his littleness has dawned. But the man who is inwardly great will know that the long expected friend of his soul, the immortal one, has now really come, “to lead captivity captive”; that is, to seize hold of him by whom this immortal had always been confined and held prisoner, and to make his life flow into that greater life—a moment of deadliest peril.
In the above quote we hear echoes of the insights contained in the Hermetic writings about rebirth. Here Jung describes the rebirth in relation to a summit of life. This suggests the transitions and passages that we experience in our lives. It also implies the need to transcend the “little will” and the “lesser personality” to make this transition from the lesser into the greater life. These changes and transitions are often painful and entail a letting go of a previous state in order for a new state to appear. In such a fashion, there is a mystical death before the interior and spiritual rebirth. How this spiritual rebirth differs from many life passages is that the aftermath of our suffering and loss transports us to a place of greater consciousness where the pain and sorrow is transcended. As promised in the Revelation of St John: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and their shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be anymore pain.”
In order for all things to made new, the former things must pass away. The consummation of Gnostic rebirth gives us a way to transcend the sense of loss and pain, and to make the transitions and passages in our lives occasions for renewal and joy. We can consummate this rebirth by becoming the dwelling place for the interior God and the greater life. The Revelation of St John proclaims, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” According to Jewish mystical writings the Tabernacle of God is dwelling of the Shekinah, the feminine presence of God. In the Gnostic writings She is Sophia, the Holy Spirit, the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. She is described as a city, a community of people not built by human hands, a fellowship of knowers. The fifth Gnostic Mystery describes this mystical fellowship in terms of a new birth of the light within our hearts.
“Behold a small star from the heavens descends to earth with light more brilliant than the sun. It comes to dwell in the hearts of the children of men and women, and these hearts are the foundation upon which is built the Eternal City, New Jerusalem.”
So this renewal in which there is no more pain, comes through the hearts of those in an invisible fellowship of Gnosis and in community with each other. If we care for each other through the passages, we can make them occasions for renewal and joy. Consciously will, desire and intend with inner resolve and the birth of the Godhead takes place within the tabernacle of our hearts. As we go into the New Year let us make our resolutions not on the basis of worldly expectations but on the true grace of insight and resolve that comes from the divine light within us. So may we prepare a place in our hearts and in our community for the mystical rebirth to take place. Then we shall proclaim with our Indwelling Divinity, “…for the former things are passed away. Behold, I make all things new.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.