Our Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus the Divine Child. The Divine Child is an archetypal figure in myth and psychology, for good reason. If we tend to him properly, he can help integrate our psyches and enhance our spirituality. The Christmas holiday prompts us to do so. There is no better Christmas gift to ourselves.
From the mythological, psychological, and spiritual perspectives, the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus together with his suffering and resurrection can be understood as representing the integration of our total psyche (the “Self”, capitalized), specifically the integration of the unconscious part of our psyche with the conscious part (the “self,” not capitalized) (Jung 1969a, pp. 36-71). Carl Jung called this integration process “individuation,” which results in a person reaching a higher level of consciousness and self-awareness, and being more advanced spiritually. As a symbol of the Self, Christ represents both the dynamic process of individuation as well as the result, the more integrated Self. This endeavor can be considered “religious” in nature because at the deepest level of our collective (transpersonal) unconscious lies an archetype of unity and totality that Jung calls the “God-image,” which is the deepest source of our numinous experiences of “divinity,” and the integration process draws upon it (see Edinger 1996a). Numinous experiences have a lasting emotional impact on us and drive much of our thinking and behavior, including in the individuation process. This happens in everyone, atheists included, and it is the realm that mystics from various religious and non-religious traditions access during their sacred experiences, including in some forms of meditation.
The Holy Spirit and the Incarnation
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Christmas story begins when Mary becomes pregnant, known as the incarnation. In these Gospels, Jesus was both human and divine at his creation in the womb. In both accounts, this happened through the action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in order to understand the incarnation (and so too the Christmas event) from a mytho-psychological perspective, we first must understand the Holy Spirit from that perspective.
The Holy Spirit is a creative divine force or energy that acts as a mediating agent between God and the cosmos, especially humans. In the New Testament, Jesus is both conceived and baptized through the Holy Spirit. He performs his miracles through it (e.g., Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20; Acts 10:38), and confers it upon his disciples when commissioning them to preach and perform healings (Mt 10:1, 20; 28:16-20; Lk 9:1-2). It descends upon the disciples at Pentecost, which enables them to proclaim the gospel, including in many foreign tongues (Acts 2:1-13). St. Paul spread the gospel through it, and he said that it dwells within Christians, who can then live as Christs (e.g., Rom 8:9-11). The Spirit was intended to have a continuing effect and provide ongoing guidance, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-17, 26) (Jung 1969a, pp. 88-89). The Spirit has a deifying effect, which is noticeable to others. This was exemplified when Paul and Barnabas, who carried the Spirit, were mistaken for gods (Zeus and Hermes). Those who saw them remarked, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).
In psychological terms, the Holy Spirit is the psychic energy (libido) that brings “divine” archetypal unconscious content into consciousness. Technically it is not the substantive unconscious content itself, but is the carrier of varied contents from various archetypes; yet the contents and the psychic energy hit consciousness together, so the two are inseparable and “operationally they are synonymous” (Corbett 1996, p. 15). It is literally felt somatically, in the body, indeed an incarnation. The result is an overwhelming numinous emotional experience. When this content and spirit incarnate, they take on a personally meaningful quality that psychologists call “soul.” Soul has a lasting effect on ego consciousness and also grows over time as new content is integrated, which is why the Christian myth can speak of the Paraclete. On the other hand, to the extent a person fails to integrate archetypal unconscious content, he or she is said to suffer a loss (or lack) of soul. This is characterized by a lack of energy and motivation, listlessness, and often some degree of depression, because one’s ego consciousness has no inspiration or inner guide.
More technically, these archetypal contents and spirit form the core of complexes that structure our personality (Corbett 1996, p. 60). This means that what we know as the “divine” forms the structure of our minds, and hence also the character of what we think of as the external world. In particular, when an archetype is felt strongly, to ego consciousness it feels like something “other,” as if it is from the external world, when actually it is external only to ego consciousness. Hence the appearance of external divine beings, including the God-man. When we perceive the “Holy Spirit” as something external affecting someone else, we are projecting this psychic energy onto heroic figures (Jesus, Paul), often using solar imagery. Idealized people are seen as the carriers (or even the source) of spirit, and of divinity itself (Corbett 1996, pp. 150-51). This gets us to the Divine Child figure, to be considered shortly below.
While in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels Christ’s incarnation was literalized as a one-time historical event, mythologically and psychologically the implication is that incarnation can occur in any and all of us. St. Paul’s teachings come close to this. Further, we see other versions of such incarnation in various mythic and religious traditions, which suggests that the process of incarnation of the “divine” is an archetypal psychic process. Thus, in ancient Egypt the king was the god Horus born to a mortal woman, and in India Vishnu incarnated at times of need, while a Bodhisattva incarnates in order to liberate humanity (Corbett 1996, p. 128). The archetypal nature of the Christ story is also evidenced by Christianity’s spread and acceptance in the many cultures of the Mediterranean. As Jung put it, “Christ would never have made the impression he did on his followers if he had not expressed something that was alive and at work in their unconscious. Christianity itself would never have spread through the pagan world with such astonishing rapidity had its ideas not found an analogous psychic readiness to receive them” (Jung 1969b, p. 441). As a result, Christians were able to live more spiritually integrated lives.
More specifically from the mythological standpoint, the incarnation of Jesus was considered a kind of second creation. The first creation marked the emergence of ego consciousness, through which we are able to see opposites, as seen by Adam and Eve gaining the “knowledge of good and evil” in the Eden myth. Jesus was seen as the second Adam (Rom 5:12-14; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45). Jesus as the second Adam works mythologically because he represents a yet higher, more integrated consciousness, and therefore also a more developed and differentiated God-image. His birth through incarnation of the divine marks the dawn of this higher consciousness, quite literally a spiritual birth; he is thus available as a symbol of the Self. With that understanding, we can now consider the meaning of Jesus exemplifying the Divine Child.
The Birth of Jesus and the Divine Child Motif
The archetypal figure of the “Divine Child” has great importance in myth and psychology. The child archetype is an emanation from the collective unconscious (Jung 1959b), meaning that “divine” child figures arise from it, in miraculous births (Jung 1959b, p. 161 n. 21). A child represents the “potential future” (Jung 1959b, p. 164). Within us, the Divine Child represents “the preconscious, childhood aspect of the collective psyche” (Jung 1959b, p. 161), meaning content of the collective unconscious that is not yet integrated with ego consciousness. The Divine Child is a “symbol of unity” to be born from the tension of opposites (Jung 1969a, p. 31), thus giving hope of change for the better. Hence he is a savior figure who promises to provoke integration and redeem us.
But the Divine Child does more than represent potential: His coming actually initiates the individuation process because of the incarnation. The Divine Child is a numinous symbol resulting from this moment, representing the wholeness that can achieved from it. Since in this moment humans feel the divine, it is only natural that it will be mythologized, historicized, and celebrated through a sacred holiday.
When unconscious content rises up, it needs to be recognized and accepted by ego consciousness in order to be integrated and embodied as soul. Thus, when the Divine Child appears he must be recognized, accepted, and adored. In the Christmas story, we see this process at work in the accounts of the adorations of the magi and the shepherds, as well as the chorus of angels (Corbett 1996, p. 149). This also appears to be happening when the fetus John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb just as the pregnant Mary appears before John’s mother Elizabeth (Lk 1:41).
When confronted with such powerful unconscious material, ego consciousness will suffer. When the Divine Child appears, inevitably he will clash with “the establishment” of our ego consciousness – the Pharisees, scribes, priesthood, and Romans of our self – which will oppose and reject him in order to preserve the status quo (i.e., the ego’s dominant position). This is why in the “birth of the hero” mythological motif the special child is abandoned back to nature (i.e., back to the unconscious), often to be brought up by animals or otherwise in primitive conditions. This same process is reflected in the story of Herod and the massacre of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Herod, the reigning King of the Jews, fears Jesus as a threat to his kingship; he and the Romans are ego consciousness running rampant. Such is the precariousness of individuation. But the nature of culture heroes is to overcome this opposition in order to bring benefits to humankind, including higher consciousness. Accordingly, the child-hero inevitably breaks free and evolves toward independence, and so in the “birth of the hero” motif he is often described as gaining in wisdom and accomplishing extraordinary deeds at a young age, like Jesus.
It is the Divine Child figure in particular who can accomplish this because in a young child the ego is only budding, not yet dominant, and so is still more integrated with the unconscious; the opposites are not yet sharply contrasted. Being in such a state, a child appropriately represents not merely the potential for wholeness of the Self, but also the way to achieve this. He is well-suited for the task because he is carried by powerful numinous spirit (psychic energy) yet is less threatening that much other archetypal content.
Accordingly, Jesus uses child imagery in his teachings. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 18:4 that “unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (likewise Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17; Gospel of Thomas 22, 46.2). Mark’s Gospel provides a larger narrative context for this metaphor of integration. The enacted “parable of the child amongst” in Mark 9:33-37 can be read according to this psychological framework. In verse 34 the disciples’ egos are driving their behavior, so they are seeking greatness and preeminence, which hinders their spiritual growth. So Jesus teaches them that if anyone would be first, he first must be last and be a humble servant. (In the ancient household, where this scene takes place, a child has the lowest status.) So as Jesus the God-man physically embraces a child in a house, he teaches that a person first must identify oneself with a child and in an important sense become mentally like one, with the ego having no pretensions to greatness. Psychologically, the story shows the need to tame ego consciousness by becoming like a child so that self-aware individuation can occur. This can establish a new pattern for human relationships that will leave no occasion for strife, which is what at the beginning of this story had been occurring among the disciples.
The goal of the individuation process in New Testament terms is the Kingdom of God. Psychologically speaking, this is the point where the Self has become integrated. This is why, for example, Jesus can say that there is no marriage in the Kingdom of God; instead people will exist there like angels in heaven (Mk 12:25). The opposites, in this marriage example the masculine and feminine principles, will have been resolved and integrated. The idea is similar in religions worldwide. In Hinduism, for example, the Divine Child Ganesha is born from the spirit of his father Shiva and part of the body (earth) of his mother Parvati. He is a unity not only of male and female, but also of spirit and matter, and of heaven and earth. As such, he represents the integration of opposites in the psyche and the path toward spiritual enlightenment (see generally Lilla 2016).
In summary, the conception and birth of the Divine Child represent the incarnation of the divine within ourselves. This birth is a spiritual birth, both his and potentially ours. This Child symbolizes potential for our future. Recognizing and accepting him, as the magi did, results in integration. Christians concretized this in terms of the future realization of the Kingdom of God, or salvation by going to heaven. Psychologically, however, this is an internal affair. Jesus himself spoke in such terms, telling the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, he taught:
- “When you give rise to that which is in you, what you have will save you” (Saying 70).
- “The kingdom is within you. . . . When you know yourselves, . . . you will know that you are the sons of the living Father” (Saying 3).
Observing Christmas offers us the chance to focus on our own incarnation by celebrating the Divine Child. He is born not in a far-off place, but within ourselves. We each can have our individual way of “putting Christ back into Christmas.”
Sources and Bibliography
Corbett, Lionel. The Religious Function of the Psyche. Routledge: New York (1996).
Edinger, Edward. The Christian Archetype: A Jungian Commentary on the Life of Christ. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books (1987).
———. The New God-Image: A Study of Jung’s Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996a).
———. The Aion Lectures: Exploring the Self in C.G. Jung’s Aion. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books (1996) (cited as Edinger 1996b).
Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).
Jung, Carl. “Concerning Rebirth,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1, pp. 111-47 (cited as Jung 1959a).
———. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1959). CW, vol. 9.1, pp.149-81 (cited as Jung 1959b).
———. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1969). CW, vol. 9.2 (cited as Jung 1969a).
———. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East (1969). CW, vol. 11, pp. 355-470 (cited as Jung 1969b).
Lilla, Jenna. “Baby Ganesha: divine child as image of enlightenment” (2016). Blog post at https://jenniferlilla.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/baby-ganesha-divine-child-as-image-of-enlightenment/
Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).