This time of year millions around the globe decorate trees and homes in celebration of the birth of their savior, a savior whose death on a wooden cross will also be memorialized come spring. Baby Jesus will be tucked into his crib under Christmas trees sparkling with ornaments. How interesting that both his birth and death are remembered with such similar structures, a tree for his birth, a cross for his death — which he promised was not really death but eternal life.
While his birth into earth life is celebrated with glitter and gold, today his birth into spiritual life is mourned and symbolized by the cross or crucifix. Early Christian crosses were decorated with flowers and wreaths like our modern Christmas trees, to commemorate the joys of eternal life. And it was not a human form that was first depicted on the cross, but that of a sheep; possibly a representation of Aries the ram, as the Arian age was just passing over to the Piscean. Not till hundreds of years later was Jesus, the lamb of God., portrayed on a wooden cross.
There are innumerable meanings and interpretations of the symbol of the cross: some say it's to remind us about a savior, some say it's a story about the death and rebirth of the sun, while others say it describes the coming to birth of the cosmos and consciousness. One thing is certain, the symbol of the cross was everywhere in antiquity. Present in ancient cultures of Asia, Europe, North Africa, as well as the Americas, the crux ansata, or cross of life (the ankh), was carried in the hands of Egyptian pharaohs for centuries, and statues in the British Museum show Assyrian kings wearing jewelry with a cross on it. The Buddhist wheel of life is composed of two crosses superimposed and its eight points are still preserved in the cross of the Christian Knights Templar. The swastika (a kind of circling cross) has been discovered in early Asian and Native American cultures. There are easily more than 50 versions of the cross, as it was a key image inspiring reverence for almost all peoples.
In the beginning of H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, she tells of the coming to birth of the cosmos as a cross story. First she depicts a circle of divine unity, a ground of infinite being and she calls it Be-ness. Periodically this becomes active, which she illustrates as a circle with a central point. The minuscule dot is the potential for manifesting the entire universe of duality; it is the nucleus, the umbilicus issuing from the source of life. The ensuing birth of the universe through the center point is described as happening in stages, as the horizontal diameter or Mother Nature dynamized by the vertical diameter, spirit, forms a cross within the circle of Be-ness. The appearance of these two may be seen as the metaphysical equivalent of the current "big bang" myth, and echoes the trajectory of an avatar, a word which means literally crossing over down. Spirit unites with matter at the center point, and the limbs of the cross symbolize their differentiation and separation, creating a symbol both of unity and diversity. In this way of thinking deity is not identified with spirit, but with something much larger than spirit, something so all-encompassing it can have no opposite, and may be what Pascal had in mind when he wrote that Divinity was like a circle with its center everywhere, its circumference nowhere. Thus, the cross within the circle symbolizes the story of the periodic birth of the universe, periodic because it eventually will be indrawn into the dot, then breathed back out to be born again.
On the human level, the crucifix may represent spirit falling into matter in the shape of humanity, as descent into form is a kind of death to spirit. Form restricts spirit (as well as focuses its action) as spirit enlivens form. Each of us is a breathing example of this mystery as our bodies form the shape of a cross, our hearts being the central dot. Like the point in the circle, the center of any cross is its heart, the place where deity lives. And just as the dot in the cross is a portal through which spirit and matter are born, our heart acts as a kind of doorway, a threshold into more subtle dimensions. In a sense, our inner divinity is crucified when we are born into the earth planes, as our material dimensions limit infinite expression — to be freed again when we cross over into the spiritual planes. In the Christmas story, we are told that the wise men brought myrrh to the baby Jesus. In those times myrrh was used to embalm the dead — an odd gift unless read symbolically, that the birth of the human baby was a death to the inner spirit of Jesus, a form of death to divinity. Some say this was the real crucifixion.
Besides cosmological and human interpretations, there is an astronomical story that tells of the great sidereal cross which fixes the four cardinal points of the equinoxes and solstices — points completely invisible except to the mind's eye, yet commemorated by humanity for thousands of years. An equinox is the point of intersection between the plane of the ecliptic (the sun's path in the sky) and the celestial equator (the earth's equator projected in space), and occurs once in spring and once in the fall. The solstices occur each year when the sun is at its southernmost point (December 22 this year) and again when it is at its northernmost (approximately June 21).
The ancient Egyptians had the notion that the autumn sun needed to be propped up because of its declining light. They celebrated September 10 as the nativity of the supports of the sun. The shorter days proved the sun was getting weaker as it traveled down into the underworld. To them, the autumnal sun was the dying savior, and so they fashioned stakes to support it called stauros (in the shape of the tau). These were crosses not of death, but of sustenance, people were grateful for the light and warmth of the sun, and sought to uphold and buttress it. At the vernal equinox the stauros was changed to become a support for mankind, perhaps as part of the life-giving ankh.
Traditionally, the days prior to the winter solstice, as the sun seems to turn southward and downward, were said to be the time when all the powers of darkness, symbolized by Herod in the Jesus story and Kansa in the Krishna story, try to kill the lightbringer. At the winter solstice the sun seems to pause for about three days, before beginning its northward ascent. Anciently this was seen as a time for great rejoicing: a December birth story was celebrated in Rome hundreds of years before Jesus, because the S-U-N was reborn. Some say that each of us is like a sun and must travel a similar journey.
The cross is also a wonderful visual symbol of dualistic existence — we have great difficulties with twoness, with opposites, perhaps because in our self-centeredness we usually experience them as conflicting rather than complementing. Part of Jesus' job was to deal with the problems of twoness, and there are many paintings showing crucified Jesus as the mediator between two thieves (one repentant, one not), between the sun and moon, between heaven and earth. The Bible seems to concur that his role was to be a bridge, an intermediary between God and humanity.
The cross hides a mystery: its essence seems to point to the crossing from one realm to another, from mortality to immortality, from earth realms to spirit worlds, and back again. If we consider that during our lives we cross many thresholds as we mature, the pattern of crossings preserves a story of progressive awakenings and changes of consciousness.
Modernly the cross is associated with suffering and dying but, like the Christmas tree and the stauros, it is also about sustenance and being reborn and says something about how to live our lives each moment. It asks us to constantly help midwife the birth of the new, which of course means allowing the old to cross over and out — and the way we know it's time is when we're suffering. Suffering is telling us that our crucified spirit needs resurrecting, not just once, not by just one person, but by all of us all of the time.
The cross is a universal symbol, and the Winter Solstice is a timely moment to stop and reflect on it. As we prepare to decorate our Christmas trees we might remember those two trees in Eden, one of knowledge (of good and evil, of twoness) one of eternal life. The unity represented by the tree of life is still waiting for us to discover. The tree we decorate and the cross we bear still root us in duality, but they suggest to us that the way to eternal life is through sacrificing or crucifying twoness to oneness. Our Christmas tree can also remind us of the world tree whose center, like the axis of the earth, extends upwards to the pole star and, like the cross, can be a ladder or pillar pointing towards the heavens leading us home.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1995/January 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press)