According to the story, Jesus was crucified on a wooden cross on a hill called Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull” [where Adam’s head is supposed to have been buried, so Jesus is the Second Adam, “Fruit of the Tree”]. Legend tells that the wood of this cross had a strange history…
It is said that after Adam and Eve had been expelled from the Garden of Eden, one of the sons of Adam, named Seth, had managed to obtain a cutting from the fatal Tree of Knowledge whose fruit had opened his parents’ hearts to evil. Some versions of the legend say, however, that the branch was from the Tree of Life, which also stood in the Garden. From this branch a staff was made, a staff handed down from generation to generation among the ancient Hebrew patriarchs. This was the staff which Moses turned into a serpent before the Egyptian king, the staff with which he opened the passage in the Red Sea, and struck the rock in the wilderness so that it gave forth water. And when the Hebrews, escaped from Egypt, were plagued by snakes in the desert, this was the staff on which Moses hung a serpent of bronze that all who gazed upon it should be healed of the plague. This, too was the staff of the shepherd Jesse, the father of David, which miraculously blossomed as a sign that his son should be king. After many adventures, the staff came at last into the hands of Joseph, husband of Mary. By his son, James, it was given to Judas Iscariot, and by him to those who used it to fashion the Cross of Christ. “The tree,” wrote St. Augustine, “which had brought about the fall and the loss of Paradise, shall be the instrument of redemption.”
Such is the legend of the Holy Rood, or Rod, of the Tree which bears both the fruit of death and the fruit of life and around which has been formed one of the most fascinating collections of Christian symbolism. Associated with the Tree are two serpents, the serpent of poison and the serpent of healing. The one is Lucifer, the Devil, who tempted Eve to eat the fruit of Knowledge. The other is Moses’ serpent of bronze which healed the plague, and which Christ used as a symbol of himself. To this day, the bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Church carry a pastoral staff shaped not, as in the Western Church, like a shepherd’s crook, but like the Caduceus, the rod entwined with two serpents–emblem, also, of the art of healing.
During the Christian rites of Holy Week leading up to Easter, hymns to the Tree of Life are sung by choirs on Good Friday in which the ancient myths [such as the pine of Attis and the tamarisk of Osiris] find their fulfillment:
“Faithful Cross, above all other
One and only noble Tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be.”
“O Tree of beauty, Tree of light,
O Tree with royal purple dight,
Elect on whose triumphed breast
Those holy limbs should find their rest”
During the Easter Sunday rites, before lighting the Paschal Candle, the deacon sings of the mystery of the light which comes out of darkness:
“Now is come the night whereof David said: Behold the night is as clear as the day: then shall my night be turned into day…” [and later he calls upon God to “be present at these Mysteries…”]
–words that take us back to the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis [the “Mysteries” were the ancient equivalent of churches], where the night upon which the initiation was completed was called “the holy night, clearer than the light of the sun.” So, too, the initiate of the Mysteries of Osiris said, “About midnight I saw the sun brightly shine.”
…It is the descent of the Spiritual Sun into the Material Waters for the creation of the universe.
The various rites of Tammuz, Adonis, Kore, Dionysus, and many others [existing hundreds of years before Christianity], had as many basic elements in common as their respective myths. Some of them were celebrated at the Spring Equinox… but their universal theme–the drama of death and resurrection–make them the first “Easter services.” Many of the Christian customs and ceremonies resemble these former rites.
Obviously the rites of Easter have some connection with mankind’s perennial joy in the renewal of the earth’s life at springtime. But this is a very dim and partial glimpse of the truth behind the symbols. … Easter–by whatever name it may be known–is a theme common to almost every religion and every people. … It is the theme that through death men can enter an eternal life. Sometimes the “death” in question is a physical death. But at other times it is, and has long been, understood as a “psychic death”–that is, as self-denial, self-sacrifice, or self-forgetting, while in the midst of life. … It is nearly always a story rather than a doctrine or idea.
Two points stand out clearly in the story:
One is that the new life which the risen Savior brings to man is not just ordinary, biological life alone. This is true whether the Savior be Christ or Osiris. The gift of Easter is not mortal life, but eternal life, spiritual life. [Now, not after you physically die.]
The second point is that the bestowal of this gift is the fruit of death. Die and come to life–this is the essence of the story. It is like learning to float on water. So long as you tense your muscles and try to hold your body upon the surface, you sink. But as soon as you try to sink, you relax and float. It sounds crazy, but it works. In the famous language of the Gospel: “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it, but he that loses [we might say, looses] his soul shall find it.” “Die and come to life.” “The first shall be last, and the last first.” “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” “Except a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit.”
This is what Easter is saying: the source of life–not ordinary life alone, but eternal life–is death itself. The source of supreme joy is something which, at first sight, seems to be utter despair.
Easter is the celebration of a triumph. For the passage from Good Friday to Easter Day is the passage from the full acceptance of death to the dawn of real life. This is no mere expectancy, but a vision enjoyed here and now, a vision which accounts for the self-denying charity of the saint and the fearless joy of the martyr. … The condition of eternal life is that incessant “dying to oneself” which is called love.”
If there is one symbol in which the whole meaning and mystery of Easter may be summed up, it is water. From the spring rains to the Baptismal Font, from the waters of chaos in which the world began to the water of eternal life flowing from the throne of God, this symbol lies uppermost in the pagan [pre-Christian] and Christian Easters alike. It takes precedence over the egg, the lily, the lamb, the peacock-phoenix, and even the hallowed fire.
Resisting it, one sinks; giving in to it, one floats. Like the Lamb of God led to the slaughter, it resists neither nails nor blows, yet they have no power to harm it.
It is said that Odin, the Norse supreme God-All-Father, learned the secrets of divination by spearing himself to the tree at the center of the world in a sort of crucifixion.
“I know that I hung
On a wind-rocked tree
Nine whole nights
With a spear wounded,
And to Odin offered
Myself to myself;
On that tree
Of which no one knows
From what root it springs.”
* A comment by Robert A. Johnson on the image above (“The Tree of Life and Death” by Berthold Furtmeyer, 1481):
“The psyche keeps its equilibrium as accurately as the body balances its temperature, its acid-alkaline ratio, and the many other fine polarities. We take these physical balances for granted but rarely do we recognize their psychological parallels.”
“A medieval illuminated manuscript [pictured] gives us this information in vivid form. Here a stylized tree of knowledge, with its golden fruit, rises up from Adam’s naval. Adam is looking a little sleepy as if he does not entirely comprehend what he has produced. Two women stand beside the tree. The Virgin Mary is on the left, clothed as a nun, picking fruit from the tree and handing it out to a long line of penitents for their salvation. Eve, naked, stands on the right, picking fruit from the same tree, handing it out to a long line of people for their damnation. Here is vivid commentary on a single tree giving out a dual product. What a strange tree! Whenever we pluck the fruit of creativity from the golden tree our other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. Our resistance to this insight is very high! We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible. … The balance… the center point, is the whole (holy) place.”