Jan 12th, 2010 by Bill
Aquarius 1: Standing out from the Crowd
Mark 14:1-9, 12-16
The Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread was two days away, and the chief priests and the experts in Jewish law were looking for a way to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him, but they didn’t want to do it during the festival in case there was a riot among the people.
While Jesus was in Bethany, eating a meal at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came in carrying an alabaster jar full of very expensive perfumed oil, pure nard. Breaking open the jar, she poured the oil on his head, to the great annoyance of some of those present. ‘Why this waste of the perfumed oil? It’s worth a year’s wages. It could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’ They were very indignant.
But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She’s done a lovely thing for me. The poor are always with you, and you can always do good to them whenever you want to, but you won’t always have me around. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body in anticipation of my burial. I’m telling you the truth, wherever the good news is preached throughout the world, what this woman has done will be spoken of. She will be remembered for it.’
Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted, and promised to pay him, so he began looking for a suitable time to hand him over.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was customarily slaughtered, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go to prepare the Passover meal for you to eat?’ He sent off two of his disciples, saying, ‘Go into the city where a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and say to the master of whichever house he enters, “Where is my guest room, where I might eat the Passover with my disciples?” He’ll show you a large upper room, equipped and ready. Prepare for us there.’ The disciples left for the city and found everything just as Jesus had said; and they prepared the Passover.
‘Go into the city, where a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.’ It was this instruction by Jesus to his apostles in chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel which prompted me to construct the theory of the zodiacal structure of Mark in the summer of 1989. This particular passage had intrigued me throughout the twelve or so years that I had been teaching courses on the Gospels. Who was this man? He’s not named. There is no mention of him before this incident, and he disappears from the narrative immediately afterwards. The fact that Jesus knew he would be there – just as he appeared to know that there would be a horse waiting for him on which he could ride into Jerusalem – would seem to suggest either that he had remarkable powers of foresight, or that he had set the whole thing up in advance. While this latter is a possibility, the text gives no indication of it, and the historically minded among us are left wondering why such a strange meeting was necessary, and, in the absence of emails, telephone calls or previous visits, just when and how it had been arranged.
The most perplexing aspect of it, from the point of view of its plausibility as history, however, is the unusual way in which this man was to be identified. We can readily accept that the plan required him to grab the apostles’ attention – much as, today, someone might say to a person they are to meet for the first time, ‘I’ll be standing under the station clock, wearing a pink carnation, and reading a copy of the Daily Telegraph’, but for a man to be carrying a jar of water in those days would go beyond what was required for recognition. Meetings between strangers are generally done discreetly, especially if there is some reason for them not to arouse too much public attention. But a man carrying a jar of water would not have been a discreet sign; it would have been an announcement in Technicolor and stereo! Men didn’t carry water in those days. This was woman’s work, at a time when the demarcation between male and female roles was clear and rigid. It would have been the equivalent of someone today drawing attention to himself by standing completely naked, or dressing up as a harlequin!
To the student of astrology, however, the man is readily identifiable as the pictogram of the zodiacal sign Aquarius, and I had seen him as such, but I couldn’t work out why he should appear at this point in the narrative. Why should one of the zodiacal signs be introduced, out of the blue? Baffling, indeed, but then, one afternoon, as I was supervising an examination and idly flicking through a Bible which happened to be on the desk (it was a Catholic school!) I realised, to my astonishment, that this was not an isolated appearance. All the other signs were there in Mark’s Gospel, in perfect zodiacal order, and they were so obvious that I wondered why I had never seen them before, why, apparently, no one had ever seen them before. Some were clearer than others admittedly, and some incidents didn’t seem to fit the scheme too neatly, but the sequence was unmistakeable; it had just been overlooked by generations of scholars who had been asking the wrong questions of the text.
I have spent a long time since then working on this theory and refining it, and, more importantly, trying to tease out the implications of such a zodiacal scheme for our understanding of the Gospel narrative. A zodiacal sequence does not preclude the story being historical, but it certainly reduces the possibility, and if it’s not history, or a kind of history, then what is it? I have come to the conclusion that Mark was writing an account of what we might call today the ‘spiritual journey’, using Jesus as a representative figure – Everyman or Everywoman – and that the stories in Mark’s bizarre narrative should be read as spiritual ‘parables’, as lessons on the spiritual life. They are not so much about a historical figure called Jesus, but about you and me. Mark’s stories are not simple, eye-witness accounts of incidents which stretch our credulity; they are immensely rich metaphors which challenge and excite our imagination.
Each section of Mark carries a lesson based on the intrinsic meaning of zodiacal sign that it reflects, and one way of learning what the individual signs represent is to look at the lives and the characters of people born under them. We’ve done this before with the other signs and I repeat here what I’ve said so often before: I’m not making the fatuous claim that everyone born at a particular time of year exhibits all the characteristics of a certain zodiac sign, that the human race can be divided neatly into twelve invariant groups. There is infinite variety among people, and infinite variety even among people of the same sign. But, there are certain characteristics which can be identified as typical, which some individuals seem to embody so clearly that their zodiac sign can be guessed even after slight acquaintance, sometimes just by looking at them.
Aquarians are among the easiest to identify. The words most commonly used to describe them are ‘eccentric’, ‘zany’, ‘original’, ‘independent’, and, less flatteringly, ‘opinionated’ and ‘perverse’. The typical Aquarian, like the man carrying the jar of water, is one who stands out from the crowd, one who almost makes a virtue out of being ‘off-beat’. This will manifest in a number of ways. Sometimes it will be in their dress, but more often it will be in their intellectual life. Aquarians like nothing better than expressing controversial opinions, and they seem especially fond of assuming radical political or religious positions, which they will defend tenaciously.
Many Aquarians are iconoclastic, showing scant regard for traditional and customary ways of thought. Both Johnny Rotten, the lead singer in the Sex Pistols, and Malcolm McLaren, who managed the group, were born under Aquarius, and their song God Save the Queen, which came out at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977, inaugurated the whole ‘punk rock’ movement, and scandalised the British establishment, which, of course, was its intention.
Some of the most prominent feminist thinkers have been born under Aquarius. (Aries has its share, but Aquarius has more.) Germaine Greer, Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Angela Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, and Betty Freidan, were all born in late January or early February, and these women have been among the intellectual leaders of the contemporary movement for women’s liberation. Oprah Winfrey is an Aquarian, and while not exactly a feminist, she has established herself as one of the most powerful – and one of the richest – people in the world. Her endorsement of Barack Obama is said to be worth millions of votes to the Democratic presidential hopeful.
The man carrying a jar of water is presented in the Gospel as an androgynous figure, and androgyny – blurring the distinction between male and female, or combining male and female in one figure – seems to be associated with Aquarius. Gertrude Stein, born this very day (3rd February) in 1874, was a pioneer feminist, but she was also a lesbian, and her story Q.E.D., written in 1903, is said to be one of the first ‘coming out’ stories in literature. Her relationship with Alice B. Toklas was, according to her friend Ernest Hemingway, similar to that of husband and wife. In more recent times, the singer Alice Cooper, originally called Vincent Furnier, while not a homosexual (as far as I know), deliberately defied convention by adopting a female name. He will be celebrating his sixtieth birthday tomorrow. Eddie Izzard, the cross-dressing British comedian, was born on 7th February 1962, and the brilliant Australian comedian, Barry Humphries, born on 17th February, is far better known as the insufferable Dame Edna Everidge.
One of the literary world’s most celebrated Aquarians is Dublin’s own James Joyce, who was born here on 2nd February 1882. (Incidentally, Joyce took astrology seriously, and ensured that all his major works were published at what he considered to be auspicious times.) Ulysses turned the literary world upside down, breaking all the novelistic conventions, and Finnegan’s Wake is one of the most idiosyncratic works of world literature.
Ulysses stands almost as a text-book of the Aquarian vision of life. It breaks all the stylistic and linguistic rules, but it also presents the common man as hero, twenty-four hours in the life of a Dublin nobody as equivalent in grandeur and significance to the ten year peregrinations of the Greek hero, Odysseus.
For all their individuality and idiosyncrasy, however, the typical Aquarian has a strong community spirit and is generally prepared to become involved in environmental and political action groups. Indeed, they seem to operate best in a group situation where they can maintain some measure of detachment. They are not, as a general rule, quick to marry, often preferring less conventional, and less restricting styles of relationship. Many Aquarians seem very uncomfortable with deep personal intimacy: the quickest way to lose an Aquarian is to tell him that you want to marry him!
There are a number of lessons to be learned from this section of Mark’s Gospel, not the least of which concerns the symbolism of the water that the man is carrying, but today I simply want to point out one very simple, and I’m sure by now very obvious, lesson from this story. ‘Follow him,’ says Jesus to the apostles, and what Jesus says to his apostles, he says to us. We have to follow the water-bearer, by being prepared, as he was, to stand out from the crowd – not by cultivating a studied and annoying eccentricity, but by discovering, and then exhibiting that which makes us unique. Your individuality is your precious gift to the world. The world does not need your conformity, it needs your creativity, it needs you to live as your genius impels you and guides you to live, and this means having the courage to break through those layers of convention, those unwritten and unspoken rules of thinking and acting, which would keep your life and your thought within the narrow confines sanctioned by our tyrannical, homogenising culture. ‘Whoso would be a man,’ writes Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘must be a non-conformist’. These words appear on the gravestone of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect, who was not afraid to defy the customs of his time, and who produced some of the 20th century’s most beautiful buildings. He was, by the way, a Unitarian. (I would have loved him to be an Aquarian, too, but he wasn’t. He was born on 8th June, so he was a Geminian.)
How hard it is to resist conformity, even in a so-called ‘free’ society. George Orwell’s ‘thought police’ are lurking everywhere, detecting and punishing all who dare to stray from acceptable norms of consensus judgement, not with jail or death, perhaps, but with ridicule and lack of preferment.
I’ve suffered from this myself. I’ve been a student of astrology for 42 years, and I consider it to be one of the most important subjects I’ve ever studied, but I’ve often had to apologise for my interest in it to people with a dogmatic objection to it – an objection which has always been based on cultural antipathy and never on personal exploration or knowledge. Almost everyone you will ever meet who expresses hostility towards astrology will do so on the basis of inherited prejudice. And may I just say here that if you think that astrology postulates the existence of invisible rays emanating from the stars, then you know nothing about the subject whatsoever, and your opinion is not an informed opinion at all, it is a prejudice which you’ve picked up from your materialistic culture. Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, and a Unitarian of sorts, was rebuked for his own interest in astrology by the astronomer Edmund Halley (after whom the famous comet was named). Newton fittingly replied, ‘Sir, I have studied the subject, you have not’.
A few weeks ago I was reading a biography of Goethe, in which we learn that the great poet considered that he had been born at an auspicious moment, that his horoscope was a favourable one. His biographer, who tells us in the introduction to his book that he intends to show us that Goethe was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, dismisses Goethe’s astrological claim as ‘fantastic’, meaning ‘crazy’. So, on the one hand, Goethe is a genius; on the other, he’s an idiot. James Joyce believed that the three greatest figures in European literature were Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe, each one of these, like Joyce himself, interested in and influenced by astrology, and yet it is culturally acceptable today – indeed, it is culturally required today – to patronise the astrological interests of these towering geniuses as somehow indicative of an unfortunate tendency towards superstition which, sadly, even genius is not immune from.
So, the man with the water jar is prepared to stand out from the crowd, as is that other Aquarian figure in this section of the Gospel, the woman with the alabaster jar full of costly perfume. She breaks the jar and spreads the pure nard – said to be worth a year’s wages – on Jesus’ head, completely disregarding the protestations of the apostles who suggest, conventionally enough, that she should sell the precious liquid and give the money to the poor. Jesus’ comment that the poor are always with us and we can help them at other times, seems a bit harsh. But, harsh or not, it’s true. We can help the poor, and we must help them, but we will only eliminate poverty – material and spiritual – by a complete transformation of our thinking. This is the real lesson of Aquarius, and this is what I’ll be dealing with next week.
Aquarius 2: O Brave new World!
As he was leaving the temple one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look teacher! Such stones and such buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You see these great buildings? There won’t be one stone left upon another. There’s none that won’t be demolished!’
Sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign that all these things are about to take place?’ And Jesus began to tell them. ‘Be careful that no one misleads you. Many will come in my name saying “I’m the one” and many will go astray. Whenever you hear of wars and reports of wars don’t be alarmed. These things must take place, but the end is not yet. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These signal the beginning of the birth pangs. Look to yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts, you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings, witnessing to them for my sake. But first the good news must be preached in all the nations. And whenever they arrest you don’t bother about what to say, but say whatever is given to you at the time, because it won’t be you speaking but the holy spirit. Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father will hand over his child. Children will rebel against their parents and kill them. You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but whoever holds out to the end will be saved. When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the man on the housetop not come down; neither let him go into the house to take anything out. And let the man in the field not turn back to fetch his coat. Pity those who are pregnant or who are suckling babies in those days! Pray that it doesn’t happen in winter, because in those days there will be distress the like of which has not occurred from the time of the creation right up until now. Nor will it happen again. And if the Lord hadn’t shortened the days no human being would be saved, but because of those whom he has chosen he has shortened the days. If at that time someone says to you, “Look, the Christ is here” or “There he is”, don’t believe it, because false Christs and false prophets will rise up and give such convincing demonstrations of their power that, if it were possible, even the elect would be fooled! Keep watch, then! I’ve warned you about everything. But after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not shine. The stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather together his chosen ones from the four corners of the earth, from the farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven. Learn a lesson from the fig tree: when its branch becomes tender and the leaves appear, you know that summer is near. So when you see these things taking place you will know that the end is near, at the door almost. I’m telling you the truth: this generation will not disappear until all these things have occurred; heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But as far as timing is concerned, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the son; only the Father knows. Watch! Be alert! For you don’t know when the time is. It’s like a man travelling abroad; he leaves his house in the care of his servants, giving each of them a particular task; he tells the doorkeeper to keep watch. So, you keep watch, because you don’t know when the lord of the household is coming – whether late in the evening, at midnight, or at cock-crow, or in the morning! You don’t want him to come suddenly and find you sleeping! What I am saying to you I am saying to everyone: “Watch!”‘
One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.
Walter Bagehot (born 3rd February, 1826)
About ten days ago I received a package through the post. It was postmarked Tel Aviv, and so I opened it with a little more excitement than I can usually muster for brown envelopes. But I was disappointed to find that it contained an anti-Semitic rant from a British citizen resident in Israel who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who was fully expecting him to return to earth in the near future to punish the world for its iniquity. A quotation from the Gospel stood framed in black at the beginning of the diatribe:
And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.
The writer goes on to say that these Gospel prophecies of calamity are being fulfilled right now, and that the destruction of the twin towers, the Columbia spaceship disaster, and the flooding of New Orleans, are signs of God’s anger, and sure indications that Jesus is about to return. What’s more, he says, things are set to get even worse.
On March 17th 2008 or 2009, a deluge will hit the U.S.A – starting from Lake Michigan. Until November 2013, 200 million residents of the U.S.A will die from a devastating series of deluges there. Three quarters of the present area of the U.S.A. will sink under water. The Third World War will begin in 2009 and last until 2014.
Whereabouts in the Bible he gets this from, I don’t know, but remember, you heard it here first!
We usually associate this kind of stuff with fringe Christian groups – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – but we mustn’t forget that mainstream organisations preach a similar message, albeit generally without specific mention of times and places. Indeed, this very day, in Catholic and Anglican churches throughout the world, worshippers will be reciting a creed which clearly states that Jesus Christ will ‘come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of his kingdom there will be no end’; and during Advent, Christians of all persuasions are expected to prepare themselves for the second coming of Christ as they celebrate his first coming in Bethlehem.
It was estimated in 2004 that 59% of Americans believe in ‘the Rapture’, that, immediately before Christ returns, born-again Christians will be taken up into the sky to meet him, leaving the rest of us behind to suffer and die in the great war of Armageddon. I read a few years ago, but I can’t vouch for the truth of it, that some American airline would never have two born-again Christians piloting the same plane, so that no aircraft would be without a pilot in the event of the Rapture occurring.
In 1990 I saw a television programme about an eccentric millionaire who was buying plots of land up and down America and having three huge crosses erected on them, representing the three crosses that stood on Calvary at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. During our drive across the States in 1991, Morag and I actually saw one of these strange, imposing and unsettling triptychs, and wondered why on earth anyone would go to such trouble and such expense, and, more importantly, why the secular authorities would allow these sectarian icons to dominate the rural landscape. The elderly millionaire didn’t erect these crosses himself; he spent his time sitting in his garden, gazing towards the east, because, he said, that’s the direction from which the returning Jesus would descend. ‘I’m doing it,’ he said, ‘so that the Lord will feel at home when he returns to earth’, but why Jesus would want to see the instrument of his own cruel death the man didn’t bother to say.
Such eccentricities may be harmless enough in the average citizen, but they become more troublesome when they are shared by politicians. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the most powerful man (or woman) in the western world to be someone who believes that we are living in the last days, and that God is going to step in soon and sort out our global mess; or who thinks that war in the middle east is a sign of Christ’s imminent return; or that some nation or other is controlled by Satan and so must be eliminated in the great battle of good against evil. President Reagan entertained such thoughts in the eighties, referring to Russia as the ‘evil empire’ mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and President Bush, a self-confessed, born-again Christian, came perilously close to expressing similar ideas in his early rhetoric about Iraq. I’m all for leaving the Bible out of politics.
Or, let me put it another way: I’m all for leaving these particular bits of the Bible out of politics, the bits which appear to tell us what is going to happen, because they are the most difficult to understand and to interpret. You can find them in both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures, and they seem to have been the obsession of every religious crank for two millennia. The problem is that although they look like prophecies, for the most part they are nothing of the kind. They belong to a multi-layered, poetic, highly symbolic and highly stylized genre called ‘apocalyptic’, a Greek work meaning ‘unveiling’, ‘revealing’, and in their Jewish context they are not so much predictions of specific incidents in the future, as general expressions of the dire consequences of collective sinfulness in the present. The fact that these dire consequences are presented in the language of cosmic upheaval – the sun refusing to give its light, the stars falling from the sky, unprecedented natural disasters – serves to stress, in metaphorical terms, the writer’s conviction that human sin invites calamity of global proportions. Apocalyptic deals with the breaking down of what appear to be permanent structures, and the apocalyptic passage in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 13, begins with Jesus announcing to his apostles that the Jerusalem Temple, one of the most magnificent buildings in the ancient world, would soon crumble into ruins. The destruction of the Temple actually did occur in 70 C.E., so if Mark’s Gospel was written before that time (as fundamentalist scholars claim), this statement of Jesus could be seen as a prophecy.
However, whether or not it’s a genuine prophecy, it’s certainly in the right place. It occurs in the Aquarius section of the Gospel, just before Jesus sends out his apostles to meet the Aquarian figure of the man carrying a jar of water, and Aquarius was associated in the ancient world with the toppling of structures. It was said to be ruled by the planet Saturn, just as was Capricorn, the previous sign, but, while the Saturn of Capricorn was associated with building up, stability, conformity, control, the Saturn of Aquarius was concerned with destruction, anarchy, and death. Saturn is the Roman equivalent of the Greek Cronos, Time, who, as The Grim Reaper, is depicted carrying a scythe, the symbol of death. According to the Greek myth, Cronos – Saturn – ‘eats his own children’, a perfect metaphor for the way Time eventually consumes everything it has itself generated. Goya’s famous picture of Saturn devouring his son is one of the 19th century’s most horrifying works of art.
So, a passage in which Jesus talks about the end of the present system of things, and the beginning of something new, is placed appropriately here in the Gospel’s Aquarius section, but how are we to interpret it? Fundamentalists take it literally and see it as describing real events at some future time – our own time, they say. Liberal groups, like our own, tend to ignore such passages completely, considering them as belonging to a primitive strand in Christian thought, which has been rendered obsolete by a growing belief in a more compassionate God, and a scientific worldview in which cosmic cataclysms have no place. Jesus, they say, was probably wrong about the coming of the kingdom of God.
On this issue, as on so much else in the Gospels, I have ceased to hold the conventional liberal view. Strange as it may seem, I believe in a world and universe shattering cataclysm and, what is more, I believe that it is imminent, almost at the door.
Of course, I don’t believe that these things will be external events, which could be recorded on a video camera. These are not and, I believe, never were originally intended to be, literal descriptions of external, temporal, spatial events. The major events of the Gospels – birth, death, resurrection, ascension, second coming – are psychological events, and the Gospels themselves indicate as much. In the Gospel of Luke we read that the kingdom of God ‘does not come visibly. People will not say, here it is, or there it is, because the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:17-19)
This is an extremely important passage, and really gives us the key to understanding the whole issue. If the kingdom of God is inside me, then it is pointless for me to expect it to come from outside, and waiting around, counting the earthquakes, looking up at the sky for Jesus to return are all fruitless distractions. If the kingdom of God is inside me then no wonder Jesus says that it is ‘at hand’. This is the good news of the gospel, that all who wish to find the kingdom do not need to go anywhere in order to find it, and they do not have to wait for someone to give it to them. It is as close as you are to yourself, and it is awaiting your discovery. The kingdom of God is not the transformation of the external world brought about by the return of Jesus and the destruction of the wicked – this is just another procrustean solution to add to the countless similar solutions proposed by religious and secular leaders alike throughout history, all of which involve chopping off inconvenient pieces of the human race.
The kingdom of God is the transformation of individual consciousness, which comes unexpectedly, ‘like a thief in the night’, and when it does, it will turn our interior universe upside down, shattering our world view. The sun, moon, and stars of our interior space will tumble from their orbits; our former certainties will be destroyed, our petty aims and expectations will be totally transformed. Our world will never be the same again. This is why the Gospel writers use the language of cosmic catastrophe to describe it.
The transformation of consciousness, which Christians know as the coming of the kingdom of God, is described by all the spiritual traditions in similar terms. The Tibetan Buddhists say that it is
like taking a hood off your head……everything opens, expands, becomes crisp, clear, brimming with life, vivid with wonder and freshness. It is as if the roof of your mind were flying off…..All limitations dissolve and fall away…as if a seal were broken open.
The Hindu sage Patanjali describes it in this way:
all your thoughts break their bonds;
Your mind transcends limitations,
Your consciousness expands in every direction,
And you find yourself in a new, great
And wonderful world.
Dormant forces, faculties and talents
Become alive, and you discover yourself
To be a greater person by far
Than you ever dreamed
Yourself to be.
This ‘new, great and wonderful world’ will not be handed to us by some political messiah, nor will it be inaugurated by some god or demigod, who drops down from the sky. The world is already great and wonderful; we have just lost the ability to perceive it. Human beings have amazing capacities which lie neglected and atrophied under the dead weight of our limited self understanding and our frantic and fruitless search to find happiness in material accumulation and competition. When we, inheritors of the Christian tradition say, ‘thy kingdom come’ we should not be praying, forlornly, for a political and economic Utopia, but, hopefully, for a new mind to be born within us, a new consciousness, which will see all things differently.
As William Blake says in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
The task of all spiritual systems is to cleanse the doors of our perception, to open up the chinks in the cavern of the mind. This is the meaning of the ‘upper room’ which Jesus’ apostles are led to by the man carrying the jar of water. ‘He will show you a large upper room, equipped and ready; prepare for us there,’ says Jesus. The large upper room is the mind, which each of us must equip and prepare to receive the Christ, symbol of a transformed consciousness, who will not appear in the eastern skies, robed in glory and ready to destroy the wicked, but who will come ‘like a thief in the night’ to cleanse the doors of our perception and to turn our interior world upside down.
Aquarius 3: The Age of Aquarius
‘This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius’,
Song from the 60s musical Hair
There’s no doubt that the best-selling books these days are cookery books. Jamie at Home: How to Cook your Way to the Good Life, and Delia Smith’s How to Cheat at Cooking are numbers one and two in the Amazon best-seller list, and good old Nigella Lawson is not too far behind at number 12 with Nigella Express. But, as we all know, ‘a human being does not live on bread alone’, and spiritual matters feature quite prominently in the best-sellers, too. Number seven on Amazon is The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, which has had the distinction of being the best-selling non-fiction hardback in Ireland for a good few weeks. I was in Eason’s a couple of weeks ago to check out the status of my own book, and I was pleased to find half a dozen copies placed at eye-level (the pope’s book on Jesus was on the bottom shelf!) but there were piles and piles of The Secret, suggesting (to this jealous author) that Rhonda Fleming is well set to become a millionaire, if she isn’t one already.
The Secret is just the latest in a long line of ‘spiritual’ books which fall into the very popular ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’ genre. When Duckworth were deliberating how to categorise my own book, they were torn between ‘Religion’ and ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’, since it comfortably fits into both, but, since publishers are concerned more with profit than with accuracy, they opted exclusively for ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’ since placement here would ensure better sales. Anyone who spends time in bookshops will readily appreciate the financial wisdom of this. You rarely see anyone in the ‘Religion’ section – maybe a few academic-looking types, or the odd cleric – but ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ has a consistent stream of browsers of all ages and all types.
One reason for this, I suppose, is the wide-ranging nature of the category. It encompasses angels, crystals, spiritual healing, Tarot cards, astrology, meditation, dream interpretation, ghosts, UFOs, Jungian psychology, hypnosis, self-help, paganism, and the like, which means that there is something of interest here for all but the most hardened sceptic. But it is a relatively new category. I don’t remember so much book-shop space being devoted to these subjects when I began my reading career in the sixties. Indeed, books on such esoteric subjects tended to be placed, almost apologetically, in out-of-the-way corners of the bookshop. You had to search for them in those days; now they hit you in the face.
Not too long ago, the subjects which make up the Mind, Body, Spirit category were lumped together as ‘New Age’, but this term, which has become associated with woolly mindedness and credulity, has fallen out of favour somewhat. And yet, in spite of the disparaging way in which it is referred to by both the conventionally religious and the conventionally anti-religious, I think that ‘New Age’ describes a genuinely modern movement in religious and spiritual understanding and that the term is neither redundant nor misleading. We really do seem to be on the threshold of a paradigm shift, which promises to be just as revolutionary as anything our ancestors witnessed. These are exciting times, but they are also frightening for many, because the old certainties – religious and moral – are being eroded and we don’t like to feel so unsettled – hence the growth of religious fundamentalism, which is something of a reaction against the toppling of the old structures.
One interesting feature of the New Age phenomenon is that it was predicted. As I’ll show in a minute, the Bible reflects it and esoteric writers since biblical times have told us that our own day would be characterised by just such a shift in spiritual consciousness. Writing in the early 20th century, the great poet and mystic W.B. Yeasts described the turmoil and anguish of these days in his poem The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
For Yeats, the age inaugurated by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago is coming to an end, and a new age is about to begin; we are living through its birth-pangs, hence the misery, the pain, and the mayhem.
This esoteric tradition is based upon a simple astronomical fact of which we, who have cut ourselves off from the sky, are completely unaware, but which was well known to our star-gazing ancestors, and informed much of their spiritual writing. This astronomical phenomenon is called the precession of the equinoxes, a rather technical term for the fact that the earth wobbles on its axis causing a gradual shift in our relationship with the star-patterns in the sky. Because of this ‘wobble’ the sun’s position on the first day of spring – the spring equinox – moves gradually backwards along the zodiac, so that, in approximately 26,000 years, it will move all the way around the zodiacal circle. Since there are twelve constellations in the zodiac, it will stay in each one of them for a little over two thousand years.
But what are simple astronomical facts to the modern rational mind were full of meaning to our more intuitive forebears. For them, this 26,000 year cycle constituted The Great Year, which, like an ordinary year, has its ‘seasons’ and its ‘months’. Their belief was that when the equinoctial constellation changed there was a corresponding change in human consciousness reflecting the characteristics associated with the new constellation, and that each of these twelve two-thousand-year ages marked significant and identifiable developments in religious symbolism and spiritual aspiration. Two thousand years ago the equinoctial point moved into the constellation Pisces. At the present time it is about to enter Aquarius. According to the ancients, then, we stand on the threshold of a new age: as the 1960s song said, ‘This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius’.
Now, I am not, for the moment at least, expecting you to believe in the literal truth of this; I only want you to appreciate that many ancient authors wrote as if it were true. The noted 19th and early 20th century historian of religion, Franz Cumont, considered astrology to be the most persistent superstition ever to infect the human mind, but he was wise enough to know that this ‘erroneous belief’ has ‘exercised endless influence on the creeds and the ideas of the most diverse peoples’ and that an understanding of it is necessary if we are to come anywhere near a correct interpretation of ancient religious writings. Sadly, we no longer have any appreciation of these things, so we translate stellar symbolism into history and find ourselves in hopeless confusion as a result
But Cumont is undoubtedly right. The change in religious symbolism over millennia testifies to the profound effect of astrological thinking upon the ancient world. The plain fact is that religions do seem to change according to the change in the equinoctial constellation. Go back 6000 years to the time when the equinox was in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. This was when the cow and bull cults began to dominate religious consciousness. In Egypt we find the ceremonies centred around the bull, Apis; in India, Hinduism begins, and the cow becomes sacred; the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, becomes the sacred emblem of Crete. In this period we see the beginnings of the bull cult which was eventually to become Mithraism, a religion which seriously vied for supremacy with Christianity, and in which bathing in the blood of a sacrificed bull was at the centre of its ritual and its symbolism.
The equinox moved from Taurus about 4000 years ago and entered Aries, the Ram, and who can doubt that the dominant symbolism changes dramatically? Now we have the Ram or the Lamb as the sacrificial animal, as Judaism begins. There was a ‘Passover’ from Taurus to Aries, and Abraham, the Father of Judaism, finds a ram caught in the thicket, which he offers to God in place of his son Isaac. The paradigmatic Passover story concerns Moses, whose journey from the securities of Egypt into the uncertainties of the wilderness are a poetic expression of the movement of the equinox from Taurus to Aries. The Passover ceremony is marked by the sacrifice of a lamb whose blood is to be sprinkled on the doorposts of the Jews to save them from the Angel of Death who would pass over their houses. And when Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, he comes down the mountain to find that the people have built a golden calf; their ‘sin’ is that they have gone backwards, looking to the securities of the former age, instead of onward into the unknown future. The Israelites leave Pharaoh behind, and the word Pharaoh in Hebrew comes from the same root as the word for bull.
Two thousand years ago the equinox changed constellations once more; there was a ‘new Passover’, this time from Aries to Pisces, with a consequent change in the symbolism. The lamb of Aries is ‘slain’ (‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ says John the Baptist on seeing Jesus), and the fish of Pisces begins to take precedence. Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen whom he calls ‘fishers of men’; he feeds the multitude on bread and fish; he eats fish with his disciples after the resurrection; he directs Peter to find a coin in a fish’s mouth. In all, there are twenty-eight references to fish in the Gospels. Furthermore, the first Christian symbol was not the cross but the fish, and the letters of the Greek word for fish – ichthus – became the initial letters of the first Christian creed: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. Eating fish on Fridays, current in Catholicism until quite recently, was a type of communion with Christ; Friday was chosen because it is the day of Venus (Venerdi, Vendredi, in the Romance languages), and Venus was said to be exalted in Pisces.
And now, the two thousand year age of Pisces is drawing to a close, and we ask: what will take its place? Yeats asked the same question in the poem I referred to earlier:
What rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
And Yeats knew the answer:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
The equinox is passing into Aquarius, symbolised by the Man (whose opposite, complementary sign is Leo, the Lion) and, according to the ancients, a new religious consciousness is emerging, painfully, because the old dies hard, but inevitably, because the movement is always onward. Those of you who are familiar with the rich symbolism of the zodiac will have some idea what this presages: human-centred religion, technological and communications revolutions, ecological awareness; changes of patterns in primary relationships, egalitarianism.
Ten years ago I would have said that the changes in religious symbolism were simply the result of writers reflecting a very ancient esoteric belief system; but, witnessing the abundance of Aquarian features in the modern world – features which seem to be emerging unconsciously – leads me to accept, somewhat reluctantly I admit, that human consciousness is actually developing according to a pattern discerned by our sensitive ancestors. The implications of this are astonishing: it suggests that we are participants in some amazing unfolding of consciousness, that we are not the chance outcome of random mutations of matter, but part of a mysterious cosmic process, the stages of which, for reasons that are currently hidden from us, are reflected in the earth’s changing relationship with the sky. Our religious images are not accidental or arbitrary. Their source is what Yeats called the spiritus mundi – ‘the spirit of the world’, what, to Jung, was the collective unconscious, and the images emerge when it is appropriate for them to do so. It is also likely that they emerge most clearly in those cultures which are developmentally ready for them, which gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘chosen people’.
A new Passover is imminent. Dramatic changes are afoot in our religious and spiritual symbolism and practice. Signs of such change can be found in the increasing popularity of the Mind, Body, Spirit genre and the decreasing popularity of church going, which seem to indicate that people no longer find the old authorities intellectually convincing or the old ceremonies psychologically satisfying. What outworn approaches to spirituality do we need to leave behind? What emerging symbols and images do we need to embrace? How can our own religious system begin to adapt itself to the changing needs of a new age? Despite the fact that religion always seems to be in love with the past, the Bible is full of images of change and of instructions to welcome change. At the beginning of the Age of Pisces Jesus told us that ‘New wine needs new wineskins’, and ‘Let the dead bury their own dead,’ In the Book of Revelation God says ‘Behold I make all things new.’
And the Bible also contains a warning for those who constantly look backwards: like Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, they turn into pillars of salt.