The Readings for the Elevation of the Holy Cross
Ut in nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur caelestium, terrestrium, et infernorum, et omnis lingua confiteatur, quia Dominus Jesus Christus in gloria est Dei Patris.
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Almost every Bible says this as some form of “in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”. The Greek and the Latin have us looking at classes of beings, things that dwell Caelestium or ἐπουρανίων epouranion “in ouranos – in the heavens” things that dwell terrestrium or ἐπιγείων epigeion “on Gaia – on earth”, and things that dwell Infernorum or καταχθονίων katachthonion “under the ground”. This is where we get our word, “Chthonic” and even Cthulhu! These things hitting their knees at the Holy Name are interesting. R’lyeh interesting.
Things Ouranian, Gaian, and Chthonian are very specific classes in Greco-Roman mystery religions. Paul is making not just a bold claim: he’s making a strident, triumphalistic claim that may get lost in all the humility of the hymn about the Humility of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Ouranian things are not just what Modern Christians think of in heaven – usually Angels and Saints. For the Greeks, Demons live in the heavens as well; and Daemons, that odd class of middle beings that are neither good nor evil, but still kinda scary. And yes, Angels, and the Trinity as well, although the Trinity does not so much dwell in the heavens as vice versa. The stars and planets live here, the Sun and the moon. Also, since the universe is only one huge pattern, the things “in the air” are not divided from the things “in the heavens”. The spirits of the wind and weather live here. Zeus – even though living “on” Olympus – was Ouranian. The powers of the heavens have power over us. Think astrology.
Gaian things are animals and plants, but also spirits that dwell here – of the trees and waterways – but not of the oceans. Think Dionysius and the Dryads in C.S. Lewis. Think bear gods and hunter goddesses, hearth spirits, and fire. Humans are Gaian, in this worldview, but Christians came along and said something else. Paul is saying it in this hymn. We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Chthonic things are not things “in hell” though. We’re not talking about demons as Dante would understand them. And remember, the “powers of spiritual darkness” are Ouranian. Chthonic is something else entirely. In the ancient Greek world, Oracles were Chthonic – something dark out of a pre-human past that seemed to control us, and yet could be propitiated. Hades was chthonic, of course, but that wasn’t “hell” – it was just under the earth. Posiden, under the sea, was also chthonic. In Irish folklore, the Faeries that take you away for one night… and bring you back 400 years later… these are chthonic. The Maenads, the Furies, and the legend of the Maiden Kore – all Chthonic.
More importantly every cultus and mystery religion in the Roman Empire was easily classed as one of these three categories. The official 12 deities were worshipped in an Ouraniana manner, but every spring, every breeze carried either a Gaian or Chthonian genus locus or local spirit. Mithras was Chthonic, as was the Magna Mater with her baptism in the blood of bulls.
Paul is saying Jesus is better than all these things and, more importantly, he’s saying this being – so much more important than literally every religious idea of the Romans and the Greeks – was slain as a criminal.
On a Cross. Like a common prisoner.
Now, talk about your mysteries? There is a mystery for you: that’s what this hymn is saying. And Paul is inviting us to partake in this mystery. This is what the Cross makes possible for us: to transverse as mere mortal humans, the Chthonic, Gaian, and Ouranian worlds, and to enter – with and through Christ – into the Glory of God the Father.
The cross is the heavenly bridge, the master key that opens up the way to heaven, having first carried Christ himself there; we can now go as well, having this mind in us which was also in Christ. And while being humble before one another and before God – we now participate in one who is victorious over every evil named or invoked by our neighbors. There is nothing to be feared: for all of these things from the “evil eye” to the many tentacles of doom. All of these not only worship Jesus – but you only have to say his name and they all fall down. We are not only Gaian now – and we’re never condemned to be Chthonic. We bridge all the worlds like our glorious head for where he is so are we.
Christians do not need initiation into any of the “secret pathways” of the mystery cults: for we have our Jesus who was lifted high on the Cross and draws all men to himself now.