Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Contemplation on Crosses

[An earlier version of the following was first posted in a course called Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Life, which I took from Hamilton College through Edx.  The professor was S. Brent Plate, author of A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses]

When I was assigned the task of seeking out crosses for a class project, I chose to avoid taking a photo of a cross with obvious religious connotations.  So, I took a walk around my yard where I found a number of examples.  The one I like best was the fence post pictured below. The fence is built of a mixture of old lumber and tree branches to give it a sort of rustic look. The post is a tree branch, juxtaposed against the weathered two by fours of the fence itself. Along the fence grows a grape vine that we planted a couple of years ago.

In South America, there are a number of "pecked" cross petroglyphs situated in an apparently deliberate pattern. These are called "pecked" because they have been hand-pecked or carved into stone. The crosses themselves are of equal length lines that cross in the middle. The axis of each cross points toward important centers of the pre-conquest Mesoamerican culture of the area. The crosses represent the quadripartite (quartered) division of the universe of the Mayan people. According to Anthony F. Aveni and Horst Hartung in their paper "The Cross Petroglyph: An Ancient Mesoamerican Astronomical and Calendrical Symbol,"  these crosses served both religious and scientific purposes. Most of these crosses are carved into rock outside, with very few inside buildings or on floors. Many of the crosses are sort of superimposed over circles, thought to represent the cosmos, with the lines possibly being directional. More information on these artifacts can be found in the M. Nicholas Caretta and Achim Lelgemann paper entitled "Cross Circles: A Case of Northern Mexico."

My fence and the Mayan pecked crosses could not be more different. Mine is temporary in the scheme of things, while the pecked crosses have been around for a very long time. My fence will be decomposed and the grape vines long gone before the Mayan crosses disappear.

The pecked crosses served the high purpose of understanding the universe, through both science and religious ceremony. The Mayan people, like most tribal peoples, did not have a separate idea of these things; rather, all of existence was inextricably woven together. We built our fence to keep our Pomeranians in the yard, though it has since become the grape trellis.

When we decided to use the combination of old wood and tree branches, we were thinking about aesthetics. We like the old "farmhouse" look on our little quarter acre of desert oasis. So, I think of the fence and the grape vine as something lovely that makes me happy. Yet, here it is: a cross upon which grapes will grow. I find an interesting symbolism in this. Jesus described himself as the vine. Wine represents communion with him and with others who follow him. The new green leaves of the grape vine and the tiny flowers that adorn it (though they can't be seen on the picture) represent new life, as does the story of his resurrection after dying upon a cross.

Why the cross as a sacred symbol? Not because Jesus died on one - so did many thousands of others.  In Christianity, it is not the cross itself that give believers hope; rather it is the emptiness of that cross that gives hope. The sacredness of the cross is not unique to Christianity. Crosses have been sacred to religions across the ages including ancient Egyptian, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Norse traditions.

I have a theory about the universal archetype of the cross. It's pretty simple and possibly crazy, but here goes:

A cross is a horizontal line crossed by a perpendicular line. The horizontal line represents our lives here on earth - let us say, our path. The perpendicular line is the axis mundi that Mircea Eliade wrote about in his classic text The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion - the center of the sacred and the path to higher consciousness/heaven/God/Goddess/whatever. We go along our path until something happens to us that awakens us to the possibility of a higher state of being. It calls us to sacrifice something. It could be painful, devastating loss, even death, or it could simply be something challenging; whatever it is, we must give something up in order to grow. That's the point at which sacrifice occurs, if we so choose.

If we choose the way of sacrifice, we may go on in our lives, walking the horizontal path, but our lives will never be the same. We will be compelled to continue to seek the sacred, the high path, the center of our world. This cannot be taken literally. This cannot be grasped and held on to. It is a deep, usually subconscious awareness. We seek directions to the divine (or higher consciousness, higher knowledge - it can be called many things). The cross is, perhaps, the simplest map to finding it.

(c) April 2015

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