One of the central subjects addressed within the Symbolic World community is the symbolism of garments of skin, layers of death, protective veils, and trampling down death by death. The gist is this: the outside world is full of things that harm or kill us, but by putting on smaller layers of these same things, we can protect ourselves.
For example, walking in snow barefoot will freeze our feet – the cold represents death approaching us (i.e., extreme cold can kill us) – but by wearing thick leather boots we can keep our feet warm – the leather represents a layer of death (dead animal skin) holding back the cold. The highest form of this symbolic structure is, of course, Christ trampling down death by death.
The Bible story shows us that Christ died for us on the cross so that we could live. His death protects us from our death – our fallen state. The following hymn lays out the structure in one sentence: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 1
What I’ve come to realize is that we can find this same structure at all ontological levels of reality. The two previous examples about boots and Christ actually cover it all as they scale from the personal level to the universal, but there are more places and ways this structure occurs. An important aspect of this symbolic structure is the flip that occurs when we want to transmute what I will call ‘devouring death’ into ‘protective death’. ‘Death by death’ always holds two sides, the ‘bad’ death and the ‘good’ death. Through a series of examples, I will show how ‘devouring death’ becomes ‘protective death’, scaling up through the ontological levels of reality.
Thorns and Crown of Thorns
The first example is that of thorns and the Crown of Thorns. Thorns often represent our passions and sins, which sting and choke us. A passage from the The Parable of the Sower lets us know how thorns can harm us: “Other seeds fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them.” 2 Thorns therefore represent ‘devouring death’.
An allusion to the Crown of Thorns can be found in the book of Sirach: “As you fence in your property with thorns….” 3 In this way, thorns can be used as a protective layer around one’s property in order to protect it from the outside world – thieves and animals. A fence of thorns forms a circle around one’s property, like a crown, so that harm is stopped from all sides. A fence of thorns represents ‘protective death’. Even today, we have thorny fences around our properties, like barbed wire and electric fences.
Another example of the Crown of Thorns can be found at the moment the soldiers mock Christ at His crucifixion: “And then twisted together a Crown of Thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’” 4 Christ lifts up the thorns and puts them on his head, so that we are saved by his suffering. His voluntary acceptance of humiliation is our salvation, so to speak. In this way, the thorns that represent our sins become the thorns that protect us from those sins.
Flood and Rainbow
The following example shows how the flood can be transmuted into the rainbow. In his book The Language of Creation, Matthieu Pageau states: “There exists a higher reality, a meta-space, in which a certain degree of ‘lower evil’ can be transmuted into a ‘higher good’ for the knowledge of God.” 5 In this example, the flood can be seen as the ‘lower evil’, which encapsulates the land and kills its inhabitants. In the story of Noah and the Ark, the flood is shown as a great force of destruction: “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.” 6 The flood covers the entire earth and kills all that live on it, so it represents ‘devouring death’.
The rainbow, on the flip side, represents the following promise God made with every living creature: “I establish my covenant (which is the rainbow) with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 7 In this manner, the flood is transmuted into a ‘higher good’. The rainbow also covers the entire earth because it is a covenant made with every living creature and represents ‘protective death’. Rainbows occur everywhere on earth, usually right after a rainstorm when the sun begins to shine again, showing how ‘water that kills us’ becomes ‘water that protects us.’ They’re also a bridge between heaven and earth.
Monsters and Gargoyle/Cherubim
We all know what monsters are – or rather, we know what they can do to us. Gargoyles are monsters that protect us from other monsters. Gargoyles are grim creatures placed on the outer corners and walls of churches and other buildings. They are placed there to scare away intruders and evil-doers. Monsters are ‘devouring death’ that is trying to break in from the outside. Gargoyles are ‘protective death’ because they have, as it were, turned their face towards the outside. Moreover, sometimes gargoyles were modeled after creatures worshiped by pagan tribes, so they are not actually part of Christianity and could never enter the Church. They are placed all around the church and are therefore a kind of ornamentation or crown. A layer of death or protective veil separating the outside of the church from the inside.
Similar to gargoyles are the Cherubim. They operate on a higher ontological level of reality and are the keepers of the Garden of Eden after the fall. They guard the gates of Paradise, as explained in Genesis: “So God drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” 8 Cherubim each have four faces of different creatures and therefore represent an ambiguous creature, like many monsters do – think of dragons, frogs, or snakes. Cherubim are placed at the gates of Paradise and are carved on the doors and walls of the Temple, as explained in Ezekiel: “And there were made on them, on the doors of the temple, cherubims and palm trees, like as were made upon the walls; and there were thick planks upon the face of the porch without.” 9 They are therefore also like encapsulating ornaments, protecting the inside of holy places on a higher ontological level.
What is being Devoured or Protected?
I have described a number of different ways in which this symbolic structure presents itself. I haven’t explicitly mentioned what is contained within these layers of death, although, you might have picked up on it already because it’s quite straightforward. Each time, ‘devouring death’ wants to swallow that which represents life. And ‘protective death’ wants to hold or encapsulate this life.
In the example of the leather boots, one’s feet are protected; in the example of Christ’s crucifixion, humanity is saved; in the example of the Crown of Thorns, a property (piece of land) is protected or Christ protects humanity from sin; in the example of the rainbow, the earth (really big piece of land) is kept dry; and in the example of the gargoyles and Cherubim, a number of holy places are protected.
As said by Pageau: “[Cherubim] are just another example of the corporeal ‘darkness’ needed in the process of knowledge to express and support the implicit ‘light’ of God’s word.” 10 The idea is that death/darkness is needed to express and support life/light. But we can only get death/darkness to protect us if we ‘get to know’ it partially or completely. For example, in order to use leather (dead animal skin) to express and support our feet (living body), we need to know its properties and how to craft it: we need to know that it is sturdy enough to support our bodies on rough ground, yet flexible enough to express the will of our feet. In doing so, we have created what Pageau calls the Meta-Space, which is: “…the completion of ‘space’ by ‘time’.” 11 In this context, ‘space’ is analogous to light/life and ‘time’ is analogous to death/darkness.
If we then go one step further and ‘get to know’ the mysteries of time/death/darkness completely, while also making sure we ‘get to know’ the already familiar space/life/light completely, we are able to put on Time as a Crown around Meta-Space. The following quotation from Pageau will hopefully put some context behind this abstract claim: “…the Cherubim (who are analogous to Time) support the highest spiritual principle (which is analogous to Meta-Space) when their mysteries are fully answered (which is the process of ‘getting to know’ these mysteries completely).” 12
Crowning Space and Meta-Space
The difference between crowning Space and crowning Meta-Space is, I think, as follows. The crowning of Space only requires partial knowledge of Time and Space, while the crowning of Meta-Space requires complete and voluntary knowledge of Time and Space. By doing this, we are also able to climb levels of ontological reality. See also Chapter 82 of The Language of Creation, which covers this in detail as well 13.
In the previous example of the thorns, we see that thorns are recognized as dangerous and then used as a fence to protect a property. The thorns (Time) crown the property (Space). But Christ takes it a step further and lifts the thorns to His head and voluntarily suffers from all of their stings. He experiences the suffering of all our sins – He ‘gets to know’ them completely – and uses it to protect humanity. The actual Crown of Thorns (Time) crowns Christ’s head (Meta-Space).
And in the example of the gargoyle and Cherubim, we see that gargoyles are also recognized as dangerous, then used as guardians of churches. The gargoyles (Time) crown the church (Space). As mentioned before, the gargoyles are unknown creatures in the Christian tradition and are not part of the Bible. Still, they are successfully used as protectors. But the Cherubim are part of the Christian tradition and play a role in the Bible as guardians of holy places. Cherubim sometimes even enter these places: “He placed the cherubim inside the innermost room of the temple….” 14 The Cherubim are ambiguous creatures with four faces, yet completely known by and embedded in the holy places they protect. The Cherubim (Time) crown the holy places (Meta-Space).
The following two examples will again show how Space and Meta-Space can be crowned by Time. The final example will show, I think, how Meta-Space can be crowned by Time on the highest level of ontological reality there seems to be.
Garments and Glory
Like leather boots, garments and clothes protect us from cold, heat, shame, dirt, and so on. Clothes are usually made of wool, linen, leather, or synthetic materials. All of these materials can be considered dead or lifeless. Our clothes (Time) represent layers of death protecting our bodies (Space) from ‘devouring death’. These garments, however, are considered to be a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve. Prior to the fall, we were considered to be clothed in glory. St. Ephrem the Syrian speaks about what happened next in his book Hymns on Paradise:
“Having spoken of the punishment which the tempter and those tempted received, Scripture describes how the Lord made garments of skin for Adam and Eve, and clothed them…. However, although Adam and Eve became aware of both these things from eating the fruit, prior to the fruit they were in practice only aware of the good, hearing about evil by report, but after eating it there was a change, so that they only heard by report of the good, whereas they tasted evil in practice. For the glory in which they had been wrapped left them, and the pains which had previously been kept away from them now dominated them.” 15
This passage seems to explain how the garments of glory can be seen as another example of Meta-Space crowned by Time. Adam and Eve before the fall represent Meta-Space and only experienced the good. They were able to do that because they were clothed in glory (Time), for the glory kept away evil. In short, after the fall, Adam and Eve (Space) experienced evil and had to be protected from it by wearing garments of skin (Time). Before the fall, Adam and Eve (Meta-Space) experienced only the good because the glory in which they were clothed (Time) kept the evil away. And because they had not yet sinned, they were still worthy of all-encapsulating glory.
Eve and Mary
As mentioned by Pageau: “…there is an analogy with space and time, where the male imposes language on nature, and the female imposes death, renewal, and rebirth on civilization.” 16 In this case, the masculine represents life/light/space and the feminine represents death/darkness/time. In order to explain how this symbolic structure lays itself out in relation to Eve and then Mary, I will use several quotations from a passage by St. Epiphanius of Salamis:
“…one notices that Eve is the one from whom the entire human race took its origin on this earth.” Eve therefore gave birth to humanity in our fallen state. Eve is also the first to eat the forbidden fruit, as explained by St. Epiphanius: “…nakedness was discovered because of her,” he goes on to say, though (notice the flip): “so to her was given the task of reclothing the sensible body against visible nakedness.” As can be seen, Eve discovered our nakedness, she therefore represents ‘devouring death’. But she also received the task of reclothing us, and therefore also represents ‘protective death’. In answer to the question “Who gave woman wisdom and skill in embroidery?” 17, St. Epiphanius explains that Eve skillfully wove the visible garments of Adam. Eve (Time) crowns Adam or humanity (Space) with garments that protect us.
St. Epiphanius says about Mary that, “…on the contrary, [she] truly introduced life itself into the world by giving birth to the Living One, so that Mary has become the Mother of the living.’ Where Eve is the mother of our fallen state, Mary is the mother of life itself. He goes on to say that “…God entrusted the task of giving birth, for our sakes, to him who is the lamb and the sheep; from his glory, as from a veil, by the power of his immortality, a garment is skillfully woven for us.” This shows us how Mary is the mother of Christ who is able to cover us with his glory, like a protective garment. Here, Mary (Time) crowns us (Meta-Space) with the protective glory of Christ.
Following the symbolic structure of ‘trampling down death by death’, we can quite straightforwardly see how this is a prime example. As St. Epiphanius says, “Whence death had its origin, thence came forth life, so that life would succeed death. If death came from woman, then death was shut out by him who, by means of the woman, became our life.” 18
Darkness and Divine Darkness
As mentioned before, darkness/death/time is needed to express and support light/life/space. Darkness represents the extreme of ‘devouring death’ and is associated with ignorance, unawareness, death, and sin. Someone who finds themselves in complete darkness is usually the farthest away from God. But darkness can, I think, also be flipped and represent ‘protective death’. Gregory of Nyssa explains in his book The Life of Moses what Divine Darkness is and what it means that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it. Entering the darkness is:
“…the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John the sublime, who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says, ‘No one has ever seen God’, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.” 19 To my understanding, Divine Darkness is therefore that which is beyond comprehension – unknown and unseen.
Though, as said by Vladimir Lossky in the book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church: God Himself is Light – or rather Divine Light. 20 We obviously don’t know what that means exactly, but in the context of this article it can at least help us understand the symbolic structure that we’re discussing, this time at the highest ontological level of reality. As explained by St. Gregory, God seems to hide Himself in the darkness:
“When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says, ‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was. What God? He who made darkness his hiding place’, as David says, who also was initiated into the mysteries in the same inner sanctuary.” 21 Here, it shows that God is encapsulated by the darkness, that is to say that God is beyond comprehension – beyond our knowledge – but also beyond the incomprehensible – even beyond that which is unseen and unknown.
The way this is explained in the quoted texts leave me with the idea that God seems to use the ‘dark cloud’ or the ‘Divine Darkness’ as a protective veil against any being intellectually contemplating Him. For Lossky says that: “Our ultimate destiny is not merely the intellectual contemplation of God….” 22 This idea also leaves me with the following conclusion about our last example of the symbolic structure of ‘trampling down death by death’: Although ultimately God is beyond categories, there is perhaps a sense in which God is Divine Light (Meta-Space) crowned by Divine Darkness (Time).
Christ, Crown, and Cross
Lastly, I will revisit my bold statement from the beginning: ‘The highest form of this symbolism is Christ trampling down death by death,’ as I haven’t specified what role Christ plays exactly. Christ actually plays both roles completely and voluntarily – Meta-Space and Time. He probably plays both roles numerous times throughout the Bible, but we’ve actually discussed two examples here already. In the example of the thorns, Christ plays the role of Meta-Space because He lifts up the Crown of Thorns (Time or ‘protective death’) and puts it on His head (Meta-Space).
And in the example of His crucifixion, He plays the role of Time because He is the one who voluntarily accepts death, meaning He embodies ‘protective death’. His death protects us from our death – our fallen state. In this scenario, Christ is then lifted up and hung on the cross, which represents Meta-Space. The cross represents space because it is made of wood, it reaches in four directions (south, east, north, west), and it is like a pillar, among other reasons. Here we see that Christ (Time) crowns the cross (Meta-Space).
Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect is not that Christ embodies both Meta-Space and Time, but that He does so simultaneously when He is hung on the cross while wearing a Crown of Thorns.
- Selected Liturgical Hymns. The Orthodox Church in America.
- Bible. Matthew 13:7.
- Sira, Ben. Sirach. Sirach 28:24. 200 to 175 BCE.
- Bible. Matthew 27:29.
- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, at 316. Amazon, May, 2018.
- Bible. Genesis 7:22.
- Bible. Genesis 9:11.
- Bible. Genesis 3:24.
- Bible. Ezekiel 41:25.
- Pageau, at 102.
- Pageau, at 329.
- Pageau, at 331.
- Pageau, at 327 – 332.
- Bible. 1 Kings 6:27.
- St. Ephrem the Syrian. Hymns on Paradise, at 222 – 223. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, December, 1990.
- Pageau, at 283.
- Bible. Job 38:36.
- St. Epiphanius of Salamis. Death from Eve, Life from Mary. The Marian Times.
- Gregory of Nyssa. Life of Moses, at 95. Paulist Press, January, 1978.
- Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, at 218. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, March, 1997.
- St. Gregory, at 95.
- Lossky, at 224.