The Cross or Crucifix is readily associated with Christianity in terms of Christ’s sacrifice. Anyone who has watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” would have graphic images of the torment of the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life along with his crucifixion. The cross has become the central symbol of Christianity for these reasons and from 390 CE it has become its central symbol.
The cross is also a familiar symbol in other traditions as well. The cross has symbolised life, immortality, union of heaven and earth, and union of spirit and matter. It also represents the centre. The arms can be mapped to the four directions, a motif common in pre-Colombian civilizations like the Aztec and Maya in the Americas.
In essence, the cross represents the intersection of two lines. The vertical axis is the divine, the horizontal the human, and the meeting point between them represents the unity of heaven and earth, human and divine. It is like meeting the divine in the human heart.
In order to explore the meaning of the cross, we need to turn to an earlier understanding of the tree because the Christian cross is rooted in mythic account of two trees. Trees have a long fascination in human consciousness as symbols of mystery, life, and the center. The tree in its structure buries its roots in the earth, symbolic of a deep connection with the earth. It lives on the earth, yet its branches reach up to the heavens. So the tree embodies a connection of earth and heaven, of spiritual and physical realms.
Familiar trees in Abrahamic traditions are the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life present in the Garden of Eden myth along with the Qabbalistic off-shot of the Tree of Life (see Kabbalah). We also have the Christian Tree of the Cross on which Christ was sacrificed.
We find spiritual transformation as an important aspect of trees in many traditional accounts. The Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi tree (“Tree of Enlightenment”), which signifies that like the tree’s renewal through new foliage, the Buddha was spiritually reborn that day. It involves a death of the ego for a new life like shedding old leaves for new.
Odin the chief god of Norse mythology, gained his wisdom hanging from a huge ash tree, the Yggdrasil. He spent nine nights hanging from that tree in order to find the runes, an alphabet used to write Germanic languages. Odin’s sacrifice on the tree symbolically parallels the crucifixion of Christ.
This myth also reflects the idea of an axis mundi (“world axis”), which is the centre of the world that connects heaven and earth. In this case, the motif is of a world tree. Symbolically the cross also perfectly represents this axis of earthly and divine.
Parallels of holy trees can be found in myths of the Kumbun tree in Tibet and the Ashwattha or Hindu Tree of Life mentioned in the Bhagvad Gita, which grows upside down from heaven. The branches below represent the sensory world, while the roots above represent the spiritual world. So again, a nexus of heaven and earth is present.
The tree is a symbol of the unity of heaven and earth, however the Biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life disrupt this unity through the Fall of Adam and Eve, and their descendants. Before the Fall, the world was non-dual with light and dark, good and evil, male and female, and knowledge and mystery united. After the partaking of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, duality emerged as each opposite separated into a polarized half. The tree in this myth no longer unites heaven and earth but instead it represents separation from the Tree of Life, nature and the divine.
So given the Fall, the Christian tradition asks for spiritual redemption. The tree of the Christian cross on which Christ dies as the new Adam symbolically reconnects earth and heaven. The link between the Cross and Tree of Life becomes clear in the Christian tradition that maintains the wood used in the Cross came from the same Tree in the Garden of Eden.
Francisco de Zurbaran’s drawing
“Father forgive them, they do not know what they do.”
Interestingly, Christianity is one tradition that disrupts the original unity of humanity to spiritual life, nature, god and the self. Then its offers a soteriology of the cross to mend that break.
The tree represents the intersection of the divine and human realms. With the Fall of Adam and Eve this unity is disrupted, according to Christian perspective. So the crucifixion of Christ becomes necessary to restore this unity through his self-sacrifice in order to atone for Adam and Eve’s partaking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In traditions, where this disruption through a Fall doesn’t occur, the need for a sacrifice is meaningless.
The cross takes much of the symbolic value of the tree. Both of them represent the meeting place for divine and human, heaven and earth, and they affirm a renewal of spiritual life.