A few years ago I went to an Alpha meeting. These meetings introduce newcomers to the basic ideas of mainstream Evangelical Christianity. You might say it was more professional curiosity than anything else. It was billed as a ‘discussion:’ it turned out to be more like an interrogation. Our questioner asked what the Cross meant to us. I knew what he was after: he wanted a platform from which to say that the Cross is the symbol of Divine forgiveness for our sins; that it is ‘I’ crossed out; that it shows the sacrificial love of the Lord Jesus.
All these interpretations have some validity, and I don’t argue with them. But they certainly don’t reflect my spirituality, and, as I was in mischievous mood, I answered in very different vein. For the Cross has many meanings, some of which long predate Christianity. And, especially when you combine it with a circle in the Celtic Cross, its symbolism is rich indeed. This was where my meditation led me the other day.
Carl Jung reminds us how crosses and trees have long been intermingled. He points us to a Medieval fresco of Christ crucified on the Tree of Knowledge, while George Herbert sings, The cross taught all wood to resound his name. And it was my understanding of Celtic spirituality that taught me that the Cross is the horizontal of the world pierced and vivified by the vertical of Otherworld, the other world wherein we find gods and goddesses, God the Father and Dea the Mother, and where, at last, beyond all these, we may catch a glimpse of the One.
But it was especially the Celtic Cross that I was thinking upon the other day: how the cross blends with the circle. The cross is angular, finite – though its arms may stretch to infinity – and very much male: a yang symbol. In contrast, the circle has no beginning, no end. It is smooth, enfolding. It is feminine, a yin symbol. So in the one Cross there are both male and female – a true synthesis of God and Goddess.
And with that synthesis comes a reunification of earth and heaven. Jung recounts how ‘up to Carolingian times [the ninth or tenth centuries c.e.] the equilateral or Greek cross was the usual form… But in the course of time the centre moved upward until the cross took on the Latin form…’ He continues, ‘it symbolised the tendency to remove the centre of man and his faith from the earth and to “elevate” it into the spiritual sphere.’ This removal, I believe, has had disastrous effects on our spirituality, constituting a divorce between spirit and matter, heaven and earth. With the triumph of scientific materialism has come, not the new vibrancy that science should have breathed into spirituality, but too often a dismissive scepticism that rejects anything that cannot be ‘scientifically proven.’
As if the impoverishment of our spirituality wasn’t enough, this separation has caused something just as bad on the material plane. We no longer see ourselves as a part of nature. ‘Nature’ is something to do with the birds and the bees, not with us. (I speak in generalities – there are many glorious exceptions!) So when the birds and the bees are threatened, along with the flowers and the trees, we act as if it doesn’t matter. We have ceased to realise that our life-thread is inextricably entangled with theirs.
In contrast, to bring together again male and female, God and Goddess, is to remarry heaven and earth. Once more yin and yang are in balance. Sky Father holds hands with Earth Mother. We are Nature and nature’s death is our death. Where Christianity persists in seeing God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ (and even Spirit is usually given masculine pronouns), and Wicca honours the Goddess (with the God as a subsidiary adjunct), the Celtic Cross brings together again male and female, God and Goddess, heaven and earth. You can call it the alchemical marriage if you like. It is the healing our dying world desperately needs.
But I couldn’t say all that in an Alpha meeting.
Andrew Rivett is a writer and priest. The second edition of The Seaborne, the first book of A G Rivett’s The Seaborne Trilogy, is due for release in August 2022, and Book II, The Priest’s Wife, is hoped for by the end of the year.
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