Friday, October 1, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 2, 2021 - The Vertical and the Horizontal

I’ve always been fascinated by symbolism. It’s my observation, backed up with some considerable evidence, that symbols evolve over time. The shapes change a little, their meanings adapt to the needs of the times in which they are used. 

These symbols find their ways into other cultures and become other things. What was once solely a symbol of well-being in the ancient east gained a dubious fame in the 20th century as the Nazi swastika. Clearly not all symbols mean the same things to all people. 

One of the things I like about the Jewish Star of David, for instance, is that it’s an overlay of two triangles. One pointing above and one pointing below. Superimposed upon one another to signify that they both exist in the same time and space. That symbol is far older than Judaism, however. It is an ancient symbol of protection.

And then we look at the Christian cross. Though it has many variations, the predominant version we see today is that of a T with a vertical protrusion. Known as the Crux Immissa, this version of the cross is generally accepted as the instrument upon which Jesus was crucified. 

But again, the cross symbol is much older than Christianity. It was a pagan one prior to the 4th century. And there were several other configurations of wood upon which people were crucified during Jesus’s time. Some were crucified on a simple vertical pole, some were impaled with them rather than nailed. Some were placed upon an X rather than a T. 

Why did Christians, specifically Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, choose the Crux Immissa version as the symbol for Christianity, when Jesus might have met his end upon any number of different shapes? It might’ve been upon the X of St. Andrews cross. Or the vertical pole, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Or another shape altogether. No one actually knows. A choice was made among the various options. Why that one?

Part of what I find fascinating about that symbol, at least in its Christian context, is the fact that it is the symbol of someone’s torture and death. I acknowledge it is also a symbol of sacrifice, and I don’t mean to disrespect its use. But it makes me wonder if the symbol isn’t also pointing to something far more intrinsic to humanity. Especially since the intersection of two directions is the thing which all of the previously mentioned symbols have in common. All of them represent two different realities converging. 

Legend has it that Emperor Constantine saw a cross shape in the sky and that’s how we arrive at the use of it as a symbol. But that we have a legend at all is part of the story itself, as well. We tell stories because we like them. We repeat them to others because they resonate with the human experience in some way. So why did we spread the legend of the Crux Immissa version instead of the others, when there’s plenty of evidence it could have in reality been another shape entirely?

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I have a theory.

I think it’s the shape we use because we have gravitated toward it. I think there’s something intrinsically human in the intersection of two different planes. That much is evident by how often that characteristic is featured in religious symbolism. And I think the reason Christianity gravitated toward it is because it also resembles the figure of a human. 

Some could conclude that the symbol was forced upon us by power structures; but remember, we are the ones who ultimately choose, over time, the symbols of our faith. We demonstrate preferences, to which church leadership responds over generations in their efforts to attract us. 

I think the shape of the cross, the star of David, the swastika (at least in its older eastern meaning), and others each give us a hint at the overall picture of our human experience—if well lived. They draw our attention to life practices and exist as symbolic mission statements unto themselves.

The symbols are a description of spiritual beings having a human experience. They are the intersection of the vertical and horizontal. Moreover, these symbols encourage us with the promise of well-being and protection if we choose to abide by their advice.

The symbols reveal that deep down inside of ourselves we have a message, as if in a bottle. A note-to-self that says, “Don’t ignore that you are both spirit and biology. Lean into it. Don’t resist it. Be at ease with your humanity and learn from it. It is a great strength to be both spirit and body. There is a treasure trove of wisdom within you that will keep you safe and well on this remarkable journey. Look to it.” 

Sounds like great advice to me. 

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