Wood of the Cross Legend

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The Wood of the Cross Legend, which is reported in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (Acta Pilati) in the context of Christ's journey to hell and which is then also handed down in the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Varagine (c. 1230-1298), and which Rudolf Steiner later referred to simply as the "Golden Legend", was very significant for Christian esotericism. Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve after Cain and Abel, plays an important role in it.

„III (XIX). Now when John [→ John the Baptist] thus instructed the dead in the underworld, the first-created, the forefather Adam, also heard it, and he said to his son Seth: 'My son, I wish you to tell the forefathers of the human race and the prophets where I sent you when I fell into a fatal illness.' Then said Seth: Prophets and patriarchs hear! My father Adam, the first created, sent me, when he fell sick unto death, near the gate of Paradise. I was to ask God to let an angel lead me to the tree of mercy so that I could take oil and anoint my father with it and so that he would get up from his illness. And so I did. And after my prayer an angel of the Lord came and asked me: 'What do you wish, Seth? Because of your father's illness, do you wish for the oil that heals the sick or the tree from which such oil flows? You cannot get either now. Go, therefore, and tell your father that after the lapse of 5500 years from the creation of the world, the only begotten Son of God will descend into the Earth. He will anoint him with such oil. And he will rise again and baptise him and his descendants with water and the Holy Spirit. And then he will be healed of every disease. But now this is impossible. When the patriarchs and prophets heard this, they rejoiced greatly.“

Gospel of Nicodemus

In the Legenda aurea we read:

„When Adam was sick, his son Seth went to the gate of the earthly paradise and desired oil from the tree of compassion, that he might anoint the body of his father Adam with it and make him well. Then the archangel Michael appeared to him and said: 'Do not seek to obtain the oil from the tree of compassion, and do not weep for it, for it may not come to you before five thousand and five hundred years have passed'. But it is believed that no more than five thousand one hundred and ninety-nine years elapsed from Adam to Christ's passion. We also read that the angel gave Seth a little branch and commanded him to plant it on Mount Lebanon. In a Greek story, which is apocryphal, we find that the angel gave Seth some of the wood on which Adam had sinned and said: 'When this branch bears fruit, your father will be healed. And when Seth was come home, his father was dead, and he planted the branch upon his grave, and the branch grew, and became a great tree, and continued unto the days of Solomon. But whether this be true or not, we leave to the reader's judgment, for in no approved history or chronicle do we find it written. When Solomon saw how beautiful the tree was, he had it cut down and gave it to build the forest house. But the wood did not fit into any place of the house, as Johannes Beleth writes, because it was always too long or too short; for if it had been shortened according to the right measure for a place, it was then so short that it never fitted into it. Therefore the builders were enraged, and rejected the timber, and laid it over a lake, that it might be a bridge for them that would cross over. But when the queen of Sheba had heard of Solomon's wisdom, and wished to go to him over the lake, she saw in her spirit that the Redeemer of the world should one day hang upon this wood: therefore she would not go over the wood, but kneeled down and worshipped it. In the Historia Scholastica it is said that the queen of Sheba saw the wood in the forest house, and when she returned to her country, she told Solomon that one would hang on that wood, that by the death of the Jews the kingdom would be destroyed. Therefore Solomon took the wood and buried it deep in the bowels of the earth. After a long time the pool of sheep was made over the same place, in which the Nathineans washed the sacrificial animals; and so the movement of the water and the healing of the sick took place not only by the coming of the angel, but also by the power of the wood. Now when the passion of Christ was at hand, the wood floated up; and when the Jews saw it, they took it, and prepared therefrom the cross of the Lord.“ (Lit.: Legenda aurea, p. 349f)

Based on the Legenda aurea, the legend of the wood of the cross was depicted by the Italian early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca in the twelve-part fresco cycle "The Legend of the True Cross" in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. The fresco cycle begins with the death of Adam and ends with the triumphal procession of Heraclius, with which the cross is brought to Jerusalem on 21 March 628.

Rudolf Steiner explains the content and occult meaning of the Golden Legend thus:

„There we are told that Seth was able to wander towards Paradise, that he was let past by the cherub with the whirling sword and entered Paradise. There he experienced an apparition that the two trees - the tree of life and the tree of knowledge - had grown together with their crowns. From this tree that had grown together, Seth took a seed, and this he put into the mouth of his father Adam when he died; from it grew a tree that had three trunks, and the three trunks provided the wood for various things. But most importantly, Seth could see a kind of flame writing forming in the branches; there were the words, "Ejeh, Asher, Ejeh," meaning, "I am, who was, who is, who will be." The wood of this tree was then used for the staff with which Moses performed his miracles, the wood was used for the construction of Solomon's temple, then for a bridge over the Pool of Bethesda, over which the Christ Jesus crossed, and finally the wood for the cross was also made from it. What do the two symbols, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, mean? What does their intertwining mean? What is the meaning of the tree from which even the cross is made?

That Seth was able to enter Paradise means nothing other than that he was made an initiate, that he was able to penetrate the secrets that were closed to others. And now we ask ourselves: What do the trees mean that he saw? - This is what is found in every human nature, what is present in every individual.

Through what has man become a recogniser? This is connected with the inhalation of air through the lungs, where the used blue blood is transformed into red blood. This enabled him to take in the breath of God. That is his becoming an I: under the influx of the breath of God, through which man became a discerning soul. A real tree is incorporated in the human being, which you can still see today if you explore the human being: the blood tree, which you can see in the main artery and which branches out over the whole human being. No being in the world can become a cognizant being if it cannot absorb from the air, as man does, the oxygen that is necessary to form red blood, so that man can absorb the tree of cognition into himself through the red blood. The other tree of the blue blood veins is snatched from man in regard to the exercise of dominion. It contains the spent blue blood, which is a death substance. Before man descended from the womb of the Godhead, this was the tree of life. By becoming an earthly being, man divided himself into two parts, the red and the blue vascular system. The blue blood flows up to the heart and must combine with what the plants give. Man breathes out carbonic acid; the plants breathe in carbonic acid and breathe out oxygen. Thus human breathing, which expresses itself in its very I-ness, is an engulfing of the red and blue blood-tree. But this is only possible if man has a tool, and that is the plant, without which man could not live; that is what enables us to devour the blue with the red blood tree.

That is the alchemy of man's nature, that in the future man can accomplish within his own consciousness what today the plant does for him. What is outside man today will devour itself within his physical body when he has absorbed the whole plant world, when he has extended his consciousness over the whole plant world. That is the future state of humanity. Then something quite different will also exist externally in the nature that surrounds us.

Our whole cosmos changes with us. Previous states return in a higher level. There was a time when Earth and Sun were united. There man was within the solar nature, but it was the state of the Martian nature that man left by entering the physical body, but which he will reach again. At that time the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were intertwined; at that time man needed no external instrument. But that will be the case again in the future. What mankind will then have attained is always indicated by drawing the Sun and then indicating the more highly developed Earth with the more highly developed human nature, and that which brings man there is the union of his red and blue bloodstream through the expanded consciousness. This is indicated by two metal pillars - these are the two streams of blood - and the sun is what will be when the . . . [Gap in the postscript.] Then the blue blood tree will no longer be a tree of death. This state the seer must see in the astral signs.

When the apocalyptic describes this state, he must indicate it figuratively: "And I saw another strong angel coming down from heaven, clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow upon his head, and his face as the Sun, and his feet as pillars of fire." (Rev 10:1)“ (Lit.:GA 104a, p. 55ff)

„So you see that this legend is about something that is connected with the origin and development of the human race. Adam's son Seth is said to have taken that shoot from the tree of life, which then sprouted three shoots. These three shoots symbolise the three principles, the three eternal powers of nature, Atma, Buddhi, Manas, which have grown together and form that trinity which is the basis of all becoming and all development. It is very characteristic that Seth, that son of Adam who took the place of Abel, who was killed by Cain, should plant this shoot in the earth.

You know that we are dealing on the one hand with the Cain current and on the other hand with the current of the Abel-Seth descendants. The sons of Cain, who work the outer world, cultivate the sciences and the arts. They are the ones who bring the building blocks for the temple from the outer world. It was through their art that the temple was to be built. The descendants of the lineage of Abel-Seth are the so-called Sons of God, who cultivate the actual spiritual aspects of human nature. These two currents have always been in a kind of opposition. On the one hand we have the worldly activities of man, the shaping of those sciences that serve human comfort or outer life in general; on the other hand we have the Sons of God, who are concerned with the shaping of the higher attributes of man.

We must make it clear to ourselves that the view from which the legend of the Holy Cross emerged makes a strict distinction between that which is merely the outer construction of the world temple through science and technology, and that which acts as a religious impregnation, as a religious influence for the sanctification of the whole temple of humanity. Only when this temple of humanity receives a higher task, when, so to speak, the outer building, which only serves a mere usefulness, is shaped into the expression of the house of God, does the outer building become an envelope for the spiritual interior, in which the higher tasks of humanity are cultivated. Only through the fact that the strength to strive becomes divine virtue, that the outer form becomes beauty, that the word, which serves the outer intercourse of men, is placed in the service of divine wisdom, that is, only through the fact that the worldly is transformed into the divine, does it attain its perfection. When the three virtues of wisdom, beauty and strength are the shells of the divine, then the temple of humanity will be complete. This is how the view, which works in the sense of this legend, imagined the matter.“ (Lit.:GA 93, p. 155f)

„The first attempt made to lead up the lower nature of man to the higher was, as we have seen, the Temple of Solomon. The pentagon was to be seen as the great symbol at the entrance, for to the fifth principle man was to aspire, that is, human nature was to develop upwards from the lower principles to the higher, was to ennoble its individual members.“ (S. 162)

The symbolism of the cross

The sign of the cross symbolises the sum of the forces that have a formative effect in the kingdoms of nature. Man is in fact in a certain sense the inverted plant; the plant is shaped by the forces that work from above downwards, with man it is the other way round. The forces that shape the animal, on the other hand, work in the horizontal direction, and man also absorbs these forces. In the process, he ascends on his path of development from sleep consciousness via animal dream consciousness finally to bright day consciousness, but at the price that his lower, animal desire nature is from now on interwoven with the once chaste plant nature. What the plant carries within itself in natural, desire-free innocence, man must first win for himself by conquering the animal in himself.

„Man is the inverted plant; it has its sexual instruments turned towards the Sun, its head downwards. With man it is exactly the reverse: he carries his head upwards, turned towards the higher worlds, in order to receive the spirit; he has the sexual organs downwards. The animal stands in the middle, between plant and human. It has only made the half turn and thus forms, as it were, a crossbar to the line of direction of plant and human. It carries its backbone in a horizontal direction, thus intersecting the line formed by plant and human in the form of a cross. Think of the plant kingdom growing downwards, the human kingdom growing upwards and the animal kingdom growing horizontally, then you have formed the cross from the plant, animal and human kingdoms.

Symbolo of the Cross; drawing from GA 93, p. 164

That is the symbol of the cross.“ (Lit.:GA 93, p. 164)

Literature

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References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: verlag@steinerverlag.com URL: www.steinerverlag.com.
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - books, lectures and articles by Rudolf Steiner online (Jim Stewart).
Steiner Online Library - Spiritual Science for Human Evolution (Karin & Christopher Wietrzykowski)
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold
steinerbooks.org - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.