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Christian Ritual, Esoteric Significance of

All cultures have instituted what anthropologists call “rites of passage” as well as ceremonies associated with certain seasons or times of the year. Christianity is no exception. The most common are associated with birth, transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and death. Often ceremonies are associated with the solstices and equinoxes. These are generally considered by most people to have only psychological and social, sometimes agricultural, significance. For instance, the thread investiture ceremony (upanayana) in Hinduism admits a boy to his caste, with its associated privileges and responsibilities. The “vision quest” of most Native North American tribes associates a boy (and in some tribes a girl also) with an animal or some natural phenomenon with which he (or she) is associated for the rest of that person’s life. The bar mitzvah (or, for girls, the bas or bat mitzvah) admits the boy (or girl) into the religious life of Judaism as a young adult. Rice festivals occur in many Asian countries and corn festivals were (and in some places still are) held by the natives of North and Central America. Certainly some such ceremonies do have only social or cultural significance. Other festivals are associated with a culture’s mythology, e.g., the Holi festival in India associated in myth with the death of the demoness Holika. But other ceremonies, usually termed “sacraments” in Christianity, are considered by many theosophical writers to have a deeper significance as well, called “esoteric” or “occult.”

Most, if not all, important religious ceremonies are derived initially from a scripture or from an oral tradition. In other words, they are what might be called “imbedded.” It is that which gives them their validity from a social or theological point of view. From a theosophical point of view, however, validity of ritual derives also from a deeper influence that the rituals are said to evoke. The principal source for this claim of esoteric validity in Christianity is Charles W. LEADBEATER’s Science of the Sacraments, first published in 1920 and based, he said, upon his clairvoyant investigations into the subject. There are also some further claims made in his Some Glimpses of Occultism: Ancient and Modern (1903), The Hidden Side of Things (1913), and The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals (1920) reprinted in a revised form as The Inner Side of Christian Festivals (1973). From his standpoint, as well as that of other theosophical clairvoyant writers (Geoffrey Hodson, Phoebe Bendit, Dora Kunz), all collective actions (whether done in a ceremony, in a celebratory parade, at a spectator sports event, or even by an unruly mob) involve THOUGHT FORMS and these can have either a salutary or harmful effect on the participants, depending on the nature of the thoughts and emotions involved. But such thoughts and emotions also call forth a response from discarnate beings, nature spirits, and devas (termed “angels” in Western culture). It is this complex interaction of forces which constitutes the esoteric significance of ritual, Christian or otherwise.

According to Catholic tradition, there are seven sacraments: Holy Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Absolution, Healing (or Anointing of the Sick), Holy Matrimony, and Ordination (or Holy Orders). In his Science of the Sacraments, Leadbeater goes into considerable detail in describing the unseen influences of each, especially that of the Eucharist or “Mass.” He also describes the invisible effects of various blessing ceremonies, including the blessing of holy water. That book should be consulted for the details. In addition, Leadbeater describes similar influences in the ceremonies of Vespers and Solemn Benediction. He does not do the same for occasional services, such as Prime, Sext, Complin, and Burial of the Dead, so one assumes that these do not have the kind of inner effect as the others he describes. It should be noted that Leadbeater is unequivocal about the Real Presence of the Christ (sometimes referred to in theosophical literature as the Lord Maitreya) in the Holy Eucharist, long a matter of dispute among theologians, some of whom, like their Protestant counterparts, consider the Eucharist to be merely a symbolic memorial of the Last Supper.

The basis for the “spiritual mechanics” of Christian ceremonial, if one can call it that without implying any demeaning connotation, is the devotion (thoughts and emotions) of the celebrant and congregation, the response from the angels and the Lord Christ, and the “atmosphere” of the building in which the ceremonies are performed. That is why Leadbeater terms it a “science” of the sacraments. And that is why, Leadbeater says, valid ceremonies should follow a consistent liturgy with only slight changes to acknowledge differences in festival days throughout the year. The more informal and constantly changing liturgies of some Protestant Churches cannot achieve the same hidden effect, he states, even though they may be beneficial in other ways. If the ceremonies are properly done, both from a liturgical and devotional point of view, they spread a beneficial influence on both the participants (clergy and congregation) and the surrounding neighborhood. That, in fact, is the main reason for doing them.

Leadbeater states that the Asperges at the beginning of the Eucharist ceremony causes a “bubble” of etheric, astral, and mental matter to be formed over the congregation and altar, matter which is continually enlarged and eventually shaped by a deva, which he calls the Angel of the Eucharist, into a non-physical edifice during the subsequent ceremony (Canticle, Censing, Introit, Kyrie, and Gloria). The resulting spiritual form, which is depicted artistically in the frontispiece of The Science of the Sacraments bears some resemblance to a Buddhist temple in Mandalay, Burma with a huge central domelike spire surrounded by four smaller spires. During the actual ceremony of consecration of the elements (wafer and grape juice or “bread and wine”), a different angelic Presence is invoked, termed the Angel of the Presence, which, he says, is a thought creation of the Lord Christ Himself. According to Leadbeater, although the purely physical matter of the elements remains the same, the underlying non-physical matter of the bread and wine are replaced by that deva with the actual life-force of the Christ. Therefore, by taking communion, people incorporate that Christ-life within themselves, raising their consciousness, for as long as they can retain it, to a higher spiritual level. Eventually, of course, the thoughts and emotions of the communicants reassert themselves, although not, Leadbeater claims, entirely to what they were before. Thus it is that the Eucharist is a force, even though extremely gradual and very gentle, for spiritual evolution. The Angel of the Presence withdraws after the act of consecration, His work being done. At the end of the Eucharistic ceremony, the Angel of the Eucharist is dismissed, just prior to the final Benediction, with the Latin words “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is finished,” or, as Leadbeater translates, “Go, it is the dismissal”), although He — or It, since such beings are genderless — remains associated with a particular church and reappears to assist in the ceremonial work whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.

For some ritualists, the metaphors in a liturgy are of equal importance to its unseen effects, opening their consciousness to an understanding — or at least a vague awareness — of deeper aspects of reality. That is certainly true of the liturgies of many Native Americans and of ceremonies of the world’s religions and even Masonic traditions. Leadbeater, and his associate James I. WEDGWOOD, when writing the liturgy of the Liberal Catholic Church, were keenly aware of the importance of language in evoking appropriate invisible forces (emotional, mental, and spiritual). That is why they sought to incorporate only uplifting ideas, avoiding mention of one’s “sinful” nature, a prominent feature of other catholic forms of worship. Language, in fact, invariably is used metaphorically when one deals with abstractions, as the linguists Lakoff and Johnson have pointed out in their book Metaphors We Live By (1980). Certainly, the spiritual realm is abstract when contrasted with the physical. Psychologist Carl G. JUNG also discusses this aspect of the Eucharist in his paper entitled “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass” (in Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 11, 2nd ed.; Princeton University Press, 1969; pp. 201-296). The French Jesuit priest and theologian-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin poetically dramatizes it, termed “mystical” by some writers, in his La Messe sur le Monde (1961) translated as “The Mass on the World” and included in the collection Hymn of the Universe (1965).

Catholic infant Baptism, Leadbeater says, “is especially designed . . . so that all the germs of good qualities in the unformed astral and mental bodies of the child may thereby receive a strong stimulus, while at the same time the germs of evil may be isolated and deadened.” Of course, this is no guarantee that the child will reinforce those good qualities, while allowing past less desirable qualities brought over from previous incarnations to die of attrition. The child’s parents, environment, education, and circle of associates also influence his or her development. As Leadbeater also says, “A Sacrament is not a magical nostrum. It cannot alter the disposition of a man, but it can help to make his vehicles easier to manage.” So proper baptism is a decided aid in human evolution. Leadbeater also states that a kind of angelic thought form is given to the child during the ceremony, the child’s crown, brow, throat, heart, and solar plexus chakras are stimulated, and a little cross, visible in the child’s etheric double, remains in the aura when the child’s forehead is anointed with holy oil. Some of these effects are also present in adult Baptism, though they are not as effective as when performed for an infant or young child.

During the Sacrament of Confirmation, as well as during the higher Holy Orders (Deacon, Priest, Bishop), there occurs “a wonderful outpouring of the Holy Spirit” or “Third Aspect of the Deity” which not only vivifies the lower bodies of the recipient but also strengthens their connection with the higher vehicles of consciousness, termed in Sanskrit atma, buddhi, and manas. The Service of Vespers creates a kind of spiritual vortex which pours down power from inner planes upon participants and, like the Eucharist, radiates that power “over a wide area of the surrounding country.” Solemn Benediction blesses the congregation with the power of the Christ. Leadbeater says that “it is literally as though the Christ Himself stood there and blessed His people.”

So, from a theosophical point of view, valid sacraments, especially those performed by a properly ordained celebrant or officiant, have a definite unseen or spiritual effect. Although Leadbeater has only described in detail the ones which form the basis of the Catholic form of worship, one assumes that similar ceremonies in other religions must have analogous effects. The esoteric significance of Christian ritual, as of all valid ritual, lies therefore in both its effect on the consciousness of the participants as they contemplate the metaphors involved in the ceremony and in the unseen or spiritual forces evoked by the ceremony. It is the latter which one might call “theosophical,” although one cannot minimize the importance of the former as well.


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