Thursday, April 5, 2007
The Tree of Life and the Cross
(From 'Stations of the Cross' by Carl Zimmerman)
(14th century fresco, 'Allegory of the Cross', Santa Croce, Firenze)
As we approach Good Friday, the day when the Crucifixion of Christ is remembered and often in fact re-enacted in Passion dramas, it occurs to me that there are elements in the modern tale that have resulted from misinterpretations of the original event.
It is true that the Romans used crucifixion as a form of execution for criminals and did not ordinarily crucify nobles. On the other hand, the more ancient use for crucifixion was religious and it was the God himself who first had performed the mystery. To hang upon the Tree, therefore is the noblest of destinies.
Osiris floated in his coffin to Byblos where his coffin became one with an evergreen tree. Attis castrated himself beneath a pine and his followers emulated his sacrifice by hanging themselves on evergreen trees. Dionysus was crucified on the 'vine' or evergreen.
The Tree of Life and Death featured in mythologies as ancient as those of Sumer and it is to be found in the old Christian Bible as well in the Garden of Eden. In Sumerian lore, the original tenants of the Tree were Lilith and a Serpent. The Great Queen Inanna wished to obtain sole possession of the Tree and looked for a champion. Gilgamesh responded and drove the serpent and Lilith 'into the wilderness', then created the Sacred Throne and Sacred Bed for Inanna from the wood of the Tree. When asked to share that bed with her, however, he refused, declaring that he knew full well that with that great honour came death. All her 'spouses' were sacrificed and sent in her place to the Underworld...
The Tree therefore as a 'ladder to Heaven' predated the Roman use of the cross for crucifixion of felons. The Tree is not a degrading instrument of death. It is the ultimate symbol of Life and Rebirth. Christ did not make it so; he simply followed the ancient mysteries and made his own ultimate Sacrifice.
Although he preached humility, the Cross is not part of a rite of degradation. It is the Tree that has its roots in the Underworld, its branches on Earth and its top pierces Heaven itself.
An ancient Christian hymn declares that:
abor una nobilis;
nulla talem silver profert,
flore, fronde, germine.
Dulce lignum, dulci clavo,
dulce pondus sustinens!
Flecte ramos, arbor alta,
tensa laxa viscera,
et rigor lentescat ille,
quem dedit nativitas,
ut superni membra Regis
miti tendas stipite.
Sola digna tu fuisti
ferre saeculi pretium,
atque portum praeparare
nauta mundo naufrago,
quem sacer cruor perunxit,
fusus Agni corpore.'
Above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy equals be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee!
Lofty tree, bend down thy branches
To embrace thy sacred load;
Oh, relax the natural tension
Of that all too rigid wood;
Gently, gently bear the members
Of thy dying King and God.
Tree, the only one found worthy
The world's Sacrifice to sustain.
Harbour from the raging tempest!
Ark that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
Of the Lamb who for us was slain.'
I confess that I love the ancient Latin rites and could not resist including some of the verses of 'Pange Lingua' here. It is clear, however, that the Cross was destined to be the instrument of Christ's sacrifice not because the Romans used it as a means of execution, but because it was at the centre of the ancient mystery religions.
The Church of England has a more beautiful rendition of the English form of this Passion poem:
'O faithful Cross, thou peerless tree,
No forest yields the like of thee,
Leaf, flower and bud;
Sweet is the wood and sweet the weight,
And sweet the nails that penetrate
Thee, thou sweet wood.'
It is interesting to note that this hymn includes a reference to the Ark. The Tree as Ship that bears the king or god over the waters is part of the ancient mysteries as well. Osiris is borne in his coffin as ship across the waters. Dionysus is carried over the waters. Annual processions to the sea were part of the old rites of Isis and Osiris, inherited later by the Blessed Virgin. Even now in Venice, I believe there is a ritual wherein a ring is cast into the sea to be retrieved thrice, now dedicated to Mary, formerly to the Great Queen Isis.
The dying plants of Adonis are carried to the sea or river to be tossed into the waters. In contemporary Iran, that ritual still prevails when the sabzeh is thrown into running water at the end of Nawroz. In parts of Eastern Europe, the same ritual can be seen each Spring.
The great hero and god Odhinn hanged himself on the World Tree for nine nights and days, 'myself a Sacrifice to My Self'. In the same way as Christ's side was pierced by a spear, Odhinn pierced his own side with the spear Gungnir as part of the ancient ritual.
The reward of Odhinn was the gift of the Runes, a system of magic that contains all the mysteries of life, death and rebirth. The death of Christ brought eternal life to the world.
The Sacrificed God or King by embracing the Tree becomes one with the Tree. In the rites of Attis, worshippers would slash themselves with sharp knives and splatter the Tree with their blood in order to bring rebirth to the god.
The Tree is central to the Mystery. It is no coincidence that Christ was crucified. It is part of a rite that is ancient and universal.
In many parts of the world, from Northern Europe to Japan, trees themselves were considered to be sacred, to house divine or magical spirits. For the pagans of old Europe, a glade in a forest would constitute the most sacred 'Church' or 'Temple'. Charlemagne destroyed forests in his efforts to force Christianity upon the Germanic tribes.
In ancient Canaan and its environs, the Asherah pole was a symbol of the Great Goddess. This was a perfect tree that was felled, stripped of its branches, then 'replanted' in the temple of the Goddess. In the Christian Old Testament, there are tales of Hebrews who worshipped the Asherah pole, as well as those who worshipped and adored the 'Golden Calf'. (The Golden Calf will be discussed later as a symbol of the Apis Bull.) Many examples of magic and divine healing are recounted there as well, involving a tree with a serpent at its top. The 'Tree of Life and Rebirth' can be found in the Asherah, the Staff, the May Pole and the Cross.
In Northern Europe, every shaman would choose a tree in the forest, fell it, strip it of its branches, then place it once more in the ground. The shaman then would construct a platform at the top of the pole and mount the tree to sit on the platform. Here he or she would be able to travel to other realms, to Hell and back if necessary or to Heaven.
The Tree or Cross is the ancient ladder to Heaven. It, like the King or God, must be 'slain' and then replanted in the earth in order to bring forth the miracle of eternal life.
Roman Catholics wear the Crucifix as a symbol of their devotion to Christ, but many Protestants wear nothing more than the symbol of a Cross. It is the Tree of Life and Rebirth and the ultimate act of power and magic is the sacrifice of the King or God upon it. It is no accident that Christ chose to embrace the Cross. In doing so, he validated one of the most ancient mysteries known to humanity.
When we decorate a Christmas tree, we show honour, love and reverence to the Tree of Life and Rebirth. On Good Friday, when the Tree is slain and taken in procession through the streets with the bleeding Lord of All, it is not only the Lord but the Tree as well to which homage should be given. When the Cross is replanted in the Earth and the God embraces it, his blood revitalises it. Together they symbolise the mystery of Life Immortal.
As declared in the Mystery of Faith in the Mass: 'Dying you destroyed our death, Rising you restored our life.'
The mysteries of Spring include the symbol of the Egg, in which life is reborn, but the Tree and its fruit cannot be ignored, even by those who are not Christians. For Christians, the death of Christ on the Cross is the very centre of religious faith. For others, however, the crucifixion of Christ should be recognised as a sacrifice made in order to sustain the cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth. It is one of the ancient universal mysteries of this season.