|Piers, John and Rob at Trinity on Monday night.|
Trinity is preparing to confer the Illustrious Order of the Red Cross in June, so Piers’ chosen topic worked perfectly.
“In the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ Indiana has to select the Holy Grail from a table covered with goblets. Finally, eschewing the gold, silver and bejeweled chalices, he reaches for a simple little pottery cup at the back of the table,” Piers began. “From among the sea of ‘empty vessels’ he has selected the simplest, the least impressive of those on offer, and he has chosen the most important treasure of all: the Holy Grail. In a similar vein, we often search for meaning among the better known degrees of our beloved Craft, yet sometimes the greatest treasure lies in a place we least expect. The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross is often seen as a curiosity, a mildly interesting piece of whimsy which we put on before the ‘important’ degrees of Malta and Temple. This quaint little play in three acts about a man being sent to the court of a king, crossing a bridge only to be arrested, and then restored to his former estate seems to teach us little. And the strange debate within the degree, about wine, kings and women seems almost out of place in a Masonic ceremony.
“Yet this little degree is one of the oldest of all Masonic degrees, and so venerated that it occurs in the Allied Masonic Degrees in England under the title Red Cross of Babylon, is strongly alluded to in the Royal Order of Scotland, and even features in the Order of Knight Masons, the ne plus ultra of Irish Freemasonry. Further afield, in continental Masonry it is the 16° of many Scottish Rite systems, and is the only degree surviving intact from the mysterious rite of the Elect Cohens of the Universe of Martinez de Pasqually.
“Why would such an apparently innocuous degree be thought worthy of such preservation, especially in such exalted bodies as the Royal Order of Scotland and the Knight Masons of Ireland? Even stranger, why would it be considered a pivotal degree in early magical systems, this degree which talks of a journey and an apparently frivolous debate?”
Piers went on to give the scriptural and legendary basis of the Order. The Knights know it already, and others can read an apt summary here. But what is it trying to teach us, Piers asked.
“The Order is usually split into three Acts,” he said. “In Act I, the Sanhedrin lament the fact that their efforts to rebuild the City and Temple at Jerusalem are constantly thwarted, either by aggressive enemies or by indifferent edicts. They elect to send an ambassador to the Court of Darius to plead their case. Zerubbabel offers to go, as he is known to the King at Babylon. In Act II, Zerubbabel attempts to cross a river by means of a bridge, but is arrested by guards and imprisoned. In Act III he is brought before the King, and his commitment to Truth and to his vows result in his being released and exalted, and, following the famous debate, he is allowed to return to his native land bearing gifts, with the promise of a free pass for him and his fellows.
“Although the journey is sandwiched between what appear to be two more impressive sections, do not let this distract you. The journey is in fact the most important part of all!”
|This artifact is a fragment of a Babylonian stele, and is on display in the Museum at the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It dates to approximately 500 BCE, and tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple by Cyrus, the Persian king, on the 12th day of the fourth year of his reign.|
“Now, many Masonic degrees explicitly talk of a journey:
• the Second Degree
• the Third Degree
• the Most Excellent Master Degree
• Mark Degree
• Most Excellent Master Degree
• Holy Royal Arch
• Royal Master Degree
• Select Master
• Super-Excellent Master.
“They all contain journeys, and if one accepts that all circumambulations are a symbolic journey, then all Masonic degrees contain such a journey,” Piers continued. “We find the symbolic use of a journey in many important books, not least Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ Of all the Masonic systems of degrees, the journey undertaken by Zerubbabel in the Illustrious Order of the Red Cross is perhaps the most strange of all.
“In the Holy Royal Arch we learn that the name Zerubbabel signifies ‘Truth.’ Zerubbabel, like the ‘Pilgrim’ of Bunyan, is therefore the embodiment of this quality. It is ‘Truth,’ therefore, which undertakes this extraordinary journey, traveling, it might be noted, from West – or Jerusalem – to East – or Babylon – in a surprising reversal of the usual journeying which leads to the Holy City. In this case enlightenment is sought not in the Holy Land but beyond its shores. What is most important about this particular journey is that it is two-way. The immense significance of this will become apparent when we consider the fact that the journey involves crossing a bridge.
“Where or what is this mysterious river over which Zerubbabel must cross? An indication of the answer, surprisingly, lies in the preface to the Red Cross of Babylon Degree, published in England, which is worth quoting at length:
In the great religions of the world – for example Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Shintoism – there is a tradition that the soul has to cross the river of death, usually over a bridge, but sometimes by ferry as in Greek mythology, or by dividing the waters as Elijah did before his translation… In all the Rites, crossing the bridge is a symbolical representation of death, while the subsequent experience of the candidate is emblematical of the judgment of the soul.
“In this sense the bridge is also like Jacob’s ladder in the First Degree; it is a means of crossing a divide or chasm which separates two places. Much is made in the Book of Ezra about being ‘over the river,’ or ‘this side of the river’ and ‘beyond the river,’ so using the idea of the river as a key delimiter between two lands or empires. So what is the nature of these two worlds, this river and this bridge?
“The river has often been used as a symbol for the veil of forgetfulness or death, and its waters wash both cares and remembrances from the transitioning soul,” our teacher continued. “The two lands represent the conscious and subconscious worlds.... There is a veil which separates these two worlds, and this can only be pierced by means of traversing a path or bridge. Truth, then, crosses the bridge between the earthly world and the celestial plane, there to be detected as an intruder (naturally, for he is both conscious and living); yet he was chosen for this task because in the legend from the Red Cross of Babylon ‘Zerubbabel was formerly well-known to the King, and now offers his services to undertake the hazardous enterprise of traversing the Persian dominions, and seeking admission to the presence of our Sovereign.’ So it appears that Truth was accustomed to crossing this bridge in the past in order to communicate with this mysterious ‘King,’ but may have forgotten how to do it, which is why he is stopped, recognized as not belonging to that second world, and apprehended.”
“However, on receiving an audience with the mysterious ‘King’ he is recognized and a final test is put to him,” Vaughan added. “This test is one of determining that he understands the importance of silence or secrecy. Truth demonstrates his understanding of the importance of keep silent on secret matters, and the ‘King’ now welcomes him as a friend. The mortal is accepted in the land of the dead, or the subconscious world. But has his mysterious bridge been ‘burned,’ and will he be allowed to return to the material plane with the gifts he will learn on this journey?
“Now we come to the most perplexing part of the story – the Immemorial Discussion, in which three arbiters argue the supremacy of wine, the power of the king, women, and truth. At first glance this debate seems almost out of place in the scheme of things. Why would this be a central part of the ritual? If accepted at face value, it has little to teach us, but we have learned by now that the debate itself is a symbol of something else, something higher.
“The topic, not surprisingly, is about strength. Can the goals of Zerubbabel be achieved through physical, material or temporal objects, such as wine, women or kingly power (and remember that Christ himself was tempted with bread and kingly power)? Even though Zerubbabel is given the task of arguing the strength of women, he comes to realize that only Truth can set him free. That is to say, that the strength which he seeks to build his personal Temple lies within himself. Well pleased with this result, the ‘King’ asks him what he needs, and he replies the ability to return as needed, in order to learn more. This is granted (in the symbolism of passports). And this is no casual gift, for Truth now has the ability to pass between the two planes of existence without further let or hindrance. Furthermore, he is lavished with more gifts and talents to take back with him to the material plane.
“And finally, in a supreme gesture, the king gives him words of power and a sigil to enable him to make the transition in future. In knowing that the power to transform and to build the Temple within lies inside himself, he now has the power to move between life and death itself. Death no longer holds any terrors for our hero.”
Piers’ entire paper, replete with explanation of more esoterica and symbolism, can be read here.