“Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” – D&C 38:27
My first encounter with the symbols of “unity” came in a presentation given by an institute teacher in 1999. He gave a slideshow about temple symbols. I don’t remember much, but I remember two slides.
The first was this closeup of the “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here is a great visual representation of the temple, he said. The place where man and God come together.
The temple is a place where heaven and earth meet together. We go to be elevated, and we invite God to come down to teach, heal, and empower us.
The second symbol that I recall from the presentation was the star of David.
The Star of David
The hexagram, or Star of David is created by the intersection of an upward pointing triangle and a downward pointing triangle. The earth reaching upwards and the heavens reaching down. This, too, might be used to represent the temple. This symbol has been used in many cultures for thousands of years as a sign of unity and power. It has been called the Seal of Solomon, who built the first permanent temple in Israel. Legend says that Solomon had this symbol on his ring and it gave him power to command demons.
It has represented the union of male and female, and the concept of perfection. In the Hindu religion, this symbol has represented the combination of fire and water, male and female, and the heart chakra. At various times and in various other beliefs it is seen as the combination of expansiveness and restrictiveness, of giving and receiving, intellect and emotion, and of compassion and discipline.
The hexagram represents the power to create new life, and to balance opposing forces. Those who could balance these forces were said to have great power. Additionally, this balance was seen as the center of the “tree of life” in ancient Israelite symbolic mysticism.
The hexagram serves as a powerful and simple introduction to a symbolic lesson. All ancient belief structures agree on one thing: finding balance in conflicting forces is the source of power and, especially, creation.
Square and Compass
A more obvious modern temple symbol is found in the square and compass. These symbols have also been in use for millenia as symbols of unity. The square (shape), created by the square (tool), has been used as a symbol for the earth. (Remember having heard of the “four corners” of the earth? That’s why.) While the circle, created by the compass, is a symbol for eternity or heaven. You’ll notice that the arrangement of the two tools together form the six points of a hexagram like the Star of David. Like the hexagram, this is also symbolic of male and female, the male represented by the compass, the female by the square.
So, again: female = square = earth = physical. Male = circle / compass = heavens = spiritual. The symbol is complete only when these aspects are united.
These tools represent the power of measurement and creation, and indicates the master of this symbol has the power in both the heavens and the earth, or over the material and spiritual.
You’ve probably noticed the combination of square and circle in the past. Take, for example, the famous “Vitruvian Man” as depicted on the right. The origin of this famous drawing comes from a roman architect named Vitruvius. Vitruvius believed that the limbs of a perfectly proportioned man fit into both the circle (representing the spiritual) and the square (representing the material). To him this was proof that man was the perfect marriage of both matter and spirit.
In ancient China, the square and compass made an appearance in the hands of the couple who would re-populate the human race – Nuwa and FuXi. The male, FuXi is depicted holding the “female” square, and the female Nuwa is depicted holding the “male” compass. (Interesting!) They are often depicted wearing robes, ceremonial headpieces, with their arms to the square, and on a background of sun, moon, and stars. In the image here, they appear to be wearing an apron as well.
You notice that they seem to be intertwined snakes. While later believers taught that this meant Nuwa and Fuxi were literally serpent people, this is another symbol that goes back for thousands of years.
The intertwined serpents represent healing powers, or unification of two. For example, the intertwined serpents in ancient Sumeria and Babylon represented the union of sun and moon or male and female. In ancient Israel, their single God was often represented as a pair of intertwined serpents representing the combination of male and female. (A concept that Mormons ought to feel is totally appropriate!)
The feathered serpent of the ancient mesoamerican religions also represented the unity of heaven and earth. Like the compass and square, feathers represented the divine nature, or the sky, and the snake represented the earthly nature, or the ground.
The serpents, sometimes depicted as one, sometimes as two, are a frequent symbol of healing. In the Sumerian caduceus, adopted by the greeks for Hermes, the snake on rod symbol was said to return life to the dead if they were touched by it. Likewise, the single serpent rod, Asclepius, carried by Apollo, was a symbol of healing reminiscent of the brazen rod lifted by Moses in the wilderness which could heal those dying Israelites simply by their looking upon it. Jesus made the symbolism of the serpent as a source of healing and life clear when he said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The serpent represents unity, healing, and the power to overcome even death.
(As a side note, if the serpent is indeed the symbol of Christ, consider what it means about Satan that he is depicted as a snake in the Garden of Eden! Remember, his motive is to supplant Christ, to imitate and counterfeit.)
Face to Face
The last symbol is one that I feel I’m only beginning to understand, and could be misunderstanding. This is the symbol of being face to face representing the power of healing, empowering, and a return to life.
Elijah the prophet stayed with a widow and her son during a terrible famine. You remember the barrel of flour and the jar of oil that never ran out? Same story. What you may have forgotten was this part: At one point, the widow’s son gets sick and dies. Elijah takes the boy up to his room and prays for him. Then this:
“And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” – 1 Kings 17:21-22
Where it says “he stretched himself upon the child” it means he laid down on top of the child. This would seem to be an anomalous method of healing, except that the same thing happens to Elisha:
“And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.” – 2 Kings 4:34-35
This is pretty descriptive. This healing is also a type of symbolism. Imagine seeing this happen from the perspective of heaven, looking down. Where there was a dead body, a living, breathing prophet is lying. He symbolically puts himself in the place of the dead child – face to face, eye to eye, mouth to mouth. He puts his hands on the hands of the child and even goes so far as to move the body around, mimicking life. Then he walks around the room, and then returns to bed again. From a symbolic sense, the person is saying “look! There is life here! I’m seeing. I’m breathing. I’m moving and walking. I’m a prophet and I’m bringing life back to this child!” And in these cases, the combination of priesthood power and death equals a return to life. This wasn’t an Old Testament only thing, either. Paul did the same when he preached in Troas. A young man fell asleep on the third story and fell to his death. When he heard about it, Paul “went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.” Again, the symbolic unification of life and death with the touch of the divine brings new life.
These scriptural account also serves as an endorsement of the message of the hexagram and other symbols: When heaven touches earth we get life, healing, miracles, and real power.
You see this in the account of Moses as well. At one point, Moses returns from speaking with God, yes, face to face, and it has transformed him! His face is so luminous that the people can’t stand to be around him. He is forced to wear a veil over his face when he speaks to the people. Thus Moses becomes himself yet another rendition of this symbol, speaking to the people face to face, from behind a veil, just as God speaks to us from behind a veil.
Face to face conversation with God naturally brings up interesting thoughts about mirrors and eternity. Our temples are full of instances of mirrors, what might be mirror images, and face to face conversations. (yet notably, no temple rite is performed while an individual faces their own reflection in a mirror.) We know these instances often represent receiving the power of God, or of eternal increase.
For example, it is meaningful that our sealing rooms typically contain facing mirrors, creating an impression of eternity which is best seen when kneeling at an altar, participating in marriage – the union of male and female. This symbol teaches us that eternity is accessible through the unity of marriage.
Understanding some of these symbols can enhance our scripture study, our cultures, and temple worship. For example, in many modern weddings in many religions and cultures, the woman is covered with a veil. When we understand that anciently the female symbol often represented the worldly, or the physical, we can understand that one way of seeing this ancient custom may be that the wedding is a time when the spiritual should be ascendant, and the physical subdued, rather than a message of gender inequality.
Indeed, in the temple we are symbolically taught over and over and over again: Be one.
In all these symbols, and temple interactions, we find a message that points to one thing, over and over again: The doctrine of Christ. Mercy’s answer to Justice. Christ *is* the unification of heaven and earth. He is man and God. He holds the power of life and death. He is our perfect example of being one with God.
Literally meaning “at-one-ment,” or reunification, the atonement is the ultimate act of unity and oneness. In his atonement the Savior not only paid a price, but experienced our pains and imperfections. (See Alma 7:11) He stood in our place, and suffered the penalty for our sins. He is already fully “one” with each of us. He waits for us to come to him and become one with him. Through the atonement, we experience the cleansing, healing, transformation and resurrection promised symbolically throughout time.
“I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world, even as many as will believe on my name, that they may become the sons of God, even one in me as I am one in the Father, as the Father is one in me, that we may be one.” – D&C 35:2
What does it take on our part? As Bruce C. Hafen said in his amazing talk, “The Atonement: All for All,” “Is it enough to merely believe in Christ? The man who found the pearl of great price gave “all that he had” for it. [In another example of symbolic parity], if we desire “all that the father hath,” God asks for all that we have. To qualify for such exquisite treasure, in whatever way is ours, we must give the way Christ gave—every drop He had: “How exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.” Paul said,“If so be that we suffer with him,” we are “joint-heirs with Christ.” All of His heart, all of our hearts.
“What possible pearl could be worth such a price—for Him and for us? This earth is not our home. We are away at school, trying to master the lessons of “the great plan of happiness” so we can return home and know what it means to be there. Over and over the Lord tells us why the plan is worth our sacrifice—and His. Eve called it “the joy of our redemption.” (Moses 5:11) Jacob called it “that happiness which is prepared for the saints.” (2 Ne 9:43) Of necessity, the plan is full of thorns and tears—His and ours. But because He and we are so totally in this together, our being “at one” with Him in overcoming all opposition will itself bring us “incomprehensible joy.””(Alma 28:8)