Chapter 32: The Crucifixion as Symbol

Down the Rabbit HoleAs recorded in the Gospels, Jesus performed over thirty miracles. I will not discuss the significance of each and every one of these here; however, suffice it to say that they all contain metaphorical significance revolving around one theme: the awakening of the spirit of life in the human being. Jesus healed the lepers, fed the hungry, raised the dead, and healed the deaf and the dumb and the blind and the paralytic. He walked on water, quieted storms and cast out demons. When interpreted metaphorically, these miracles point to the redemption of a withered human spirit, to the birth of a new person, to new vision, new hearing, new speech and new living. The constant accent and insistence in the Gospels on the factual occurrence of these miracles serve to highlight the utter importance of the wisdom and insight gained in one who is, in Biblical terms, born of the spirit. In other words, this great awakening is represented symbolically through grand physical feats, such as calming storms and walking on water, because their psychological and existential significance and impact on our lives are more pressing, real and ever-present than the conceptual world that we have created and occupy. If we perceive these miracles as nothing else than supernatural physical events, then certain moral and ethical issues arise. What is the point of healing the physical body, for example, if that body will eventually perish? At what point should Jesus not bother with healing an old man? When the old man is 70, 80, 90? Didn't Jesus have a moral obligation to seek out and help all the sick and dying? In John 3:5 Jesus says: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." The term 'born of the Spirit' signifies a new perception that is different from the five physical senses, which cannot comprehend or grasp this new perception. It comes about only through a shift or a crisis in consciousness, a tipping point, that yields a profound experience. The "Spirit" here should not be taken for some divine, otherworldly ghostly being or authoritative power; rather, it is the multi-dimensional spirit of life itself and the ability to see the ordinary world for what it is, miraculous.

The Crucifixion, which arguably has equal amount of suffering as the Resurrection has glory, is a symbol of that crisis that is constantly taking place within us. Once again I remind the reader of my assertion that the story of Jesus is a psychological reality. The Crucifixion represents the painful letting go of our rigid image of life as a secure and unchanging thing to maneuver and restrain. All of our psychological suffering comes from our effort to control and maintain things and relationships according to our vision or desire. But nature and the Universe are in constant flux and cannot be tamed or curtailed. They are always shattering our construct of reality. The conflict between reality as it is and reality as we think it should be leads to our suffering. Indeed, this conflict in part defines us. The Crucifixion then is a symbol of a painful crisis in consciousness that has its resolution in the yielding to the dynamic nature of life. This transformation, in one form or another, is constantly playing out on personal as well as collective or social levels. Many rites of passage in different cultures invoke this change. Army recruits go through a certain process of transformation that tears them down as ordinary citizens and builds them up as soldiers of war, according to the archetype of the fighter that a particular nation has adopted. For those who refuse to open up and yield, this breakdown is a bitter pill to swallow and only results in further frustration and confinement. For others, the crucifixion of their old consciousness yields to a world that is no longer a mundane cup of water to be swallowed but a goblet of wine to be savored. In the early portions of the three of the four Gospels, namely in Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Jesus here prefigures our own personal suffering. He was telling his disciples that, while there is no escape from suffering, they can open up to the world as it is and embrace it. Doing so would awaken them to pass through their suffering and be 'reborn of the Spirit.'

Recall some of the last words uttered by Jesus on the cross, in Mark 15:33: "And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?' which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" These words are spoken from a feeling of absolute abandonment, in desolation. This is precisely the way in which many mystics describe their Dark Night. That is to say, many mystics reach a stage in their psychological development where they feel completely abandoned by their idea of God and stripped of all of their faculties or powers of contemplation after numerous, glorious illuminations and painful dissolution and suffering. Like strings stretched too tightly on a violin, the mystics’ psychic strings snap and their music falls silent. At this stage, there is "darkness over the whole land." The mystics lose their insight and their mystic faculties and even the ability to shed tears over their loss. They even lose the very desire for illumination. They are left crippled, naked, abandoned, and lifeless, rejected and utterly alone like a dry and dying leaf on the forest floor. They are in an existential crisis that leaves them with nothing to use as a crutch. All concepts and images of God fail them, but this opens the door to what actually is. In other words, the mystics’ conceptualization of God breaks down and they are forced to let go of a false image that they have built in their minds. In The Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross describes this experience as the last but essential stepping-stone to a full realization and unification with God (or the Transcendent). The experience tears away any last shreds of self-absorption and any remnants of grasping on to concepts as substitutes for reality. Anything that has previously given the sage or mystic a false sense of security is taken away. Although the mystic is not aware of its purpose at the time, the Dark Night wipes clean the slate of consciousness and elevates it beyond the world of dualities, beyond the "I" and "You", beyond subject and object. In other words, all dualities come to be recognized fundamentally as a unity. The Dark Night metaphorically crucifies the mystic and ultimately leads him to his Resurrection. Out of poverty comes wealth. Out of death comes pure life. Out of nothing comes the miraculous. Out of sheer darkness comes brilliant and everlasting light. Carl Jung recognized this psychological process when he said: "It is, moreover, only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures."11 Here then, the sage or mystic is enacting in his own life the psychological drama of Jesus on the cross before his death and ascension into heaven, his entrance into the Kingdom of the Father.

Recall also that Jesus, in his last moments in the garden of Gethsemane endured moments of human weakness. In Mark 14:33 we read: "And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, 'My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.' And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, 'Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.' And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'" Here, we see Jesus' humanity and Dark Night playing out before his final annihilation in his old form and impending resurrection to eternal life, reflected in physical terms. Evelyn Underhill in her book, Mysticism, summarizes these ideas by saying: "Further, these mystics see in the historic life of Christ an epitome  - or if you will, an exhibition – of the essentials of all spiritual life. There they see dramatized not only the cosmic process of the Divine Wisdom, but also the inward experience of every soul on her way to union with that Absolute 'to which the whole Creation moves.' This is why the expressions that they use to describe the evolution of the mystical consciousness from the birth of the divine in the spark of the soul to its final unification with the Absolute Life are so constantly chosen from the Drama of Faith. In this drama they see described under the veils the necessary adventures of the spirit. Its obscure and humble birth, its education in poverty, its temptation, mortification and solitude, its 'illuminated life' of service and contemplation, the desolation of that 'dark night of the soul' in which it seems abandoned by the Divine: the painful death of the self, its resurrection to the glorified existence of the Unitive Way, its final reabsorption in its Source – all these, they say, were lived once in a supreme degree in the flesh. Moreover, the degree of closeness with which the individual experience adheres to this Pattern is always taken by them as a standard of the healthiness, ardour, and success of its transcendental activities."12 It is plausible to conclude that the mystic often takes the religious images of his tradition and deeply internalizes and interprets them in relation to his own life. These images sink into his subconscious and at times result in mystical visions. These visions perhaps complete something in his experience that his consciousness desires but was lacking. Clearly then we can see that many of the greatest Christian mystics or saints, who were beatified and elevated to such greatness by the Catholic Church, were in fact trampling on the Church’s orthodox doctrine and were doing so through the symbols and the language of the Church itself. Many of these mystics may not have even realized this themselves but certainly, they were acting out of an inner experience, not the Church's theology. They were following their inner impulse for the spirit of life rather than Church authority or doctrine. They come to identify with the story of Jesus intimately and its significance is much greater than the historical account set in a remote part of the historic Roman Empire. They reach this point, as mentioned at the outset of this paper, not through orthodox belief but through authentic faith. In the face of possible heresy, absurdity and desolate reality, they stand with their head held high, armored in courage and holding in their quivering hands a tiny, flickering candle of love for the truth. They make a leap of faith to accept wherever the truth may lead them, even to the edge of the abyss.

The message of Jesus encourages us to manifest this “Drama of Faith”, or the Drama of the Bodhisattva, within us or at least to recognize the paradigm within our lives. Think again of Beethoven who, at the end of his career, had almost entirely lost his sense of hearing. In the physical world, the musical notes were cut off from him and were never to fully pierce his eardrums again. But what he composed in his silence and solitude was echoed in concert halls and is still heard by millions all over the world. Like the mystic who is stripped of his faculties, Beethoven was stripped of his hearing, the most crucial element in a composer. He was left in a great Silence and yet, out of that Silence, his deathless music was born. It is quite reasonable to think that the experience of going deaf intensified his music and heightened it to a greater glory. In this respect, Beethoven no longer relied on the world and his physical senses but could truly “hear” the music, touch it and feel it within him. The drama of the music was no longer on the page but now was being played out in his life, in himself. In other words, he, his life and his plight, became the music; he became the Drama. His life became mythologized. Similarly, it is this intimate experience and unity, this “gnosis” of Christ that the sage realizes. It is not a separate knowledge that is taught or kept on a piece of paper or in a passage of Scripture. He is that knowledge or perception.

After Jesus dies on the cross, his side is pierced. Out of it blood and water flow, as described in John 19:34. The spear enters his body at his side, which is at the level of his heart. The heart is representative of the source of compassion as specifically illustrated in Eastern mythologies. The sacred texts tell us that the Buddha was born from his mother's side, at the level of the heart. That is to say, Buddha (or Christ) consciousness accompanies compassion. This flow of fluid then is a symbolic representation of a bursting of life out of Jesus' heart. The blood represents the world, the visceral nature of life, and the water represents the power of the subconscious mind and, in this context, birth and eternal life. The act of piercing not only evokes a sense of pain but also the ability to go beyond that which is in front of us, to reach and grasp something that is not readily available, attained only through suffering. Recall John 7:37: "On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" These passages affirm the idea that out of suffering, out of pain, out of death comes new life.

Another important symbol in the Crucifixion shows itself in the form of the two criminals crucified with Jesus in Luke 23:39. Here we see Jesus crucified between a duality. There is one criminal on his left and one on his right. One of them believes in Jesus while the other does not. Jesus is crucified in the middle. That is to say, Jesus here is all three men, a symbol of the sage who, through his psychological development, is constantly being bounced between dualities – the heights of ecstasy and confidence and the depths of hell, doubt and suffering – until he exhausts himself and finally surrenders. And in surrendering, he goes by way of the middle, past the dualities. He recognizes the unity in the dualities. There is no up without down, no mountains without valleys and so forth. He is one who goes past believing and not believing, past heaven and hell, past right and wrong, and forgives or forgoes the world that has formed this illusion of duality. He says in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He no longer sees his judges and persecutors as people to be fought and opposed but as part of the fabric and unity of Life. They are all part of the Drama and have equally earned their part on the great Stage of life.

11 Psychotherapists or the Clergy - Carl Gustav Jung - CW_ 11: 525

12 Evelyn Underhill - Mysticism - pg. 121

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