From Northern Antiquities, an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847. Painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the midst of metaphysical questions in which all cultures find their motivating force stands a symbol of the connection between the world of humans and those above and below: the center, or axis, of the world, the axis mundi. It represents the relationship between heaven and earth, eternity and time, Creator and creation. It expressly embodies the connection and communication between God and His human children.
As an idea of multiple and substantial notions, the axis mundi can be perceived in various places at the same time without contradiction. Being the link between concrete and abstract, time and timelessness, place and omnipresence, means that it is not limited to the restrictions of time and place we cannot escape.
In the Bible, we can see the axis mundi in the trees of knowledge and eternal life in Eden, in the pillar of fire, in Jacob’s ladder. In Judaism, it is principally seen at Mount Sinai and on the Temple Mount. In Christianity, it is the Cross at Calvary. It is also the Mount of Olives from which Jesus descended on his way to Jerusalem, at the base of which lies the Garden of Gethsemane, and from the top of which he ascended into heaven.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. (John 8:1-2)
One important description of the axis mundi is that, wherever it may be, it is the center of the world. In the words of the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” The axis mundi stands in the midst, and all things around it. It pierces the earth at the midpoint between life and death, existence and non-existence, light and darkness. Because it is the middle of things and the link to the God of life, it is often described as the omphalos, the navel of the world. The image of the umbilical cord then enters and we often find a woman at the axis mundi.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the midst. (John 8:3)
In Eden, at the Tree of Knowledge, it is Eve to whom the serpent speaks. It is Eve who decides to do the reverse of God’s will, and it is Eve who is addressed by Him. Before the angelic axis mundi of the annunciation, it is Mary who reverses Eve’s decision. At the Cross, it is the women who stand in witness as God reverses the consequences of Eden.
They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. (John 8:4-6)
We like to wonder, “Where is the man caught in adultery with her?” If this is indeed an event at the axis mundi, then perhaps he may be busy being fitted with a fig leaf. The accusation is being made by scribes and pharisees. Yet, who is it who is most famous for putting Jesus to the test from the beginning to the end of his ministry? Since Eden, where he portrayed himself as an insider, an advisor, and a friend, the serpent has been humanity’s accuser, its Satan, trying to force God to destroy his children for the sinfulness he himself tricked them into.
Then we like to wonder at what it was Jesus wrote on the ground. But this same gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word,” and it continues “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God, who walked in Eden with Adam and Eve, has returned to his garden and, at this place of contact between heaven and earth has signed his Creation again, and validated his deed. Jesus is ignoring Satan; Satan cannot ignore the Word.
We are certainly witnessing an event at the center of the world.
But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. (John 8:7-9)
What is happening here? Is it really just the description of an event during which we are taught about human hypocrisy and the forgiveness of God? It is that. In the midst of this solemn and serious activity, we find a moment of humor, as we imagine these hypocritical men consider Jesus’ offer and then, one by one, drop their stones and wander off. Of course, nothing tells us that they had actually picked up stones in the first place, but our imaginations will have their way. But, if we consider this to be an event at the axis mundi, then the humor of it blossoms.
Satan makes his accusation about this fallen child of God, then, as he repeatedly does to this day. At first, Jesus ignores it. After all, considering that this fallen angel has made his one-time, irrevocable decision against God, what really does Jesus have to say to him? But the accuser persists and Jesus gives him his answer. This answer amounts to Jesus reminding Satan that, since he led all humanity into sin, there is no sinless human to cast the first, or any, stone. Satan, the fallen angel of light, being a dim candle at best, in his attempt to destroy humanity, has made possible humanity’s redemption. The surprise is, in the end, that the crowd departs one by one without an infernal howl.
So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:9-11)
This is not a lesson about personal repentance and the sacrament. The woman has not asked for forgiveness, she hasn’t expressed regret. She says only three words in response to Jesus’ question, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The truth is that, at the navel of the world and above, those below have no light, have no power, have no existence. They are ignorable. Had the serpent been ignored, there would be no sin. When Satan is ignored, we sin no more.
All of God’s children are the woman caught in adultery, standing at the axis mundi to hear the Word from above that informs us of the world below. From here, from this place, we walk to that other and stand with Mary and the women at the Cross where the Word directs our eyes upward to himself and heaven.