Symbols, Emblems and Allegories of the Third Degree
In your experience with the ritual you have learned that each phrase, event, and other detail in the ceremonies of initiation is full of meaning. No item is merely for effect or as an ornament. In the Third Degree you will find the deeper secrets and more profound teachings of our Fraternity. You passed through the Degree in a few hours; to understand it will require many additional hours; and though you may study it for years, you will never exhaust its lessons. I can give you only a few hints of its meaning in the hope that they may inspire you to study the degree for yourself.
The symbolism of the First and Second Degree centers around the art of architecture; their purpose is to teach you, in the First, to be a builder of yourself; in the Second, a builder of society. In the Third Degree the symbolism takes another form. Although its background continues to be architecture, and its action takes place in and about the Temple, it is a spiritual symbolism of life and death. Its principle teaching relates to immortality.
Though a man should permit himself to be buried under the rubbish of sin and his passions, it is possible, if he has learned the secret of the spiritual life, with the help of God to rise again into a new life either here or hereafter. This gives us the key to the degree, and in this light all its symbols, emblems, and allegories must be understood.
This theme is presented in the Scripture reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes
which pictures a man, once flushed with health and filled with strength, brought tottering by old age to the brink of the grave. This last breakdown is one of the bitterest of all the experiences man is called upon to bear; but as the passage from Ecclesiastes tells us, even this will become a light burden to one who has learned to trust God. God is the God of old age and of the soul after death as much as He is the God of youth and strength.
The working tools of the degree are all the implements of Masonry, but more especially the Trowel
by which we are taught to spread the cement of Brotherly Love. But Brotherly Love itself has its source and foundation in the soul. To love a man notwithstanding his sins, to cherish him in spite of his faults, to forgive him in all sincerity, to bear him and forbear is possible only as we live the spiritual life and have our souls purged of selfishness.
The Tragedy of Hiram Abif is the climax of the degree; it is, indeed, the climax of all the ceremonies of Freemasonry of whatever degree. But we must look further to understand the symbolic significance of the legend, and our search will carry us back to the very beginning of spiritual thought among men.
Remember always that the Legend of Hiram is allegorical. There is a Hiram in the Biblical story of the building of Solomon's Temple. He is probably the same Hiram. But of the legend of his death as we have it, there is no trace in history, either sacred or profane. To pass through the second section of the Third Degree with the thought that you are portraying an historical event is to miss the basic meaning of the degree.
The first step in understanding the story of Hiram Abif is to see, and never afterwards to forget, that the whole of the degree is symbolic- using that word in its widest sense. Some few facts borrowed from history are used in it, but not many, and in each case not for the sake of history. Ritual cares for neither time or place, takes its materials where it finds them, works them over to suit its own purpose; it moves in a timeless, spaceless region, makes its appeal to the mind through the imagination, and has as its sole purpose making effective, in the experience of man, certain realities of the moral and spiritual life. If, therefore, no such record is found in the Book of Kings and Chronicles as the story of Hiram, or if it is found that the historical facts given in it are at variance with the Sacred Writings, or if they appear to contradict those outright, the fact need cause no uneasiness. The history, such as there is of it, is fluid, freely reshaped for ritualistic purposes, just as Shakespeare reshaped the chronicles of the English kings in his historical dramas, or a Milton worked over with a free hand the materials from the Book of Genesis in his Paradise Lost.
The Idea that lies behind the Hiramic legend is as old as is religious thinking among men. The same elements existed in the story of Osiris which was celebrated by the Egyptians in their ancient temples. The ancient Persians told it concerning Mithras, their hero god. In Greece the Dionysian Mysteries had the very same elements in the story of Dionysus; for the Romans, Bacchus was the god who died and lived again. There is also the still older Syrian story of Tammus, older than any of these. These are collectively referred to as the ancient mysteries. They were celebrated by secret societies, much like ours, with allegorical ceremonies, during which initiates were advanced from one degree to another. Read these old stories for yourself and marvel that men in all ages have taught the same great truth in the same effective way.
Next in importance and in many ways equal in interest, is the allegorical Search For That Which Was Lost. This has a historical background. To the early Jewish people a name was something peculiarly identified with a person, and held in reverence. Sometimes it was secret, and a substitute name was used in daily life. The name of God was held in extreme reverence. This holy name was never pronounced above a whisper; after a while only priests were permitted to use it; finally only the High Priest and then only when he was alone in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Tradition tells us that during a national calamity, perhaps at the time of the Babylonian captivity, the High Priest was killed before he had an opportunity to pass it on to his successor, and in that way the Name was lost.
The Name might have been preserved in the sacred writings of the Jews except that their written language had this peculiarity- the vowels were understood, not written, just as in our own language pronunciation is understood. The consonants of the Divine Name were known, J H V H , but not the vowels, and therefore not the name. All this appears in our ritual in the form of an allegory. The Word was possessed; the Word was lost.
Like all symbols this means many things. One of the deeper meanings is that a man who has lost the ideals and standards of his youth, his moral or spiritual character, his faith in truth and goodness, or the secret of what it is to be a man
, must go in search of that which he has lost, and continue searching until he finds it if he is to live the true Masonic life.
You may wonder why the ritual does not explain fully and clearly the meaning of this symbolism, why it leaves the candidate to find the meaning for himself. It is assumed that we are dealing with grown men, intelligent men, not children, and that each Mason does his own thinking. Also, the purpose of the ritual is to bring us into the presence of the greater truths of life so that their mere presence will have a deep influence over us.
The Emblems of the Third Degree are set before us, one after another, apparently in no special order, and each with only a hint of what it signifies. Yet each of them stands for some great idea or ideal necessary throughout our lives; and the purpose is to plant them in our consciences, to keep them always before us. It is left to each individual to develop them for himself according to his need.
Each of them is a master truth. In the Three Pillars we have the three great ideas of wisdom, strength, or power, and beauty. The three steps remind us how youth, manhood and old age is each a unity in itself, each having its duties and problems, each employing its own philosophy. The Pot of Incense teaches that, of all methods of worship, to be pure and blameless in our inner lives is the most acceptable to God. The Book of Constitutions is an emblem of law, teaching that our moral and spiritual character is grounded in law and order as much as in government or nature. The Sword Pointing to a Naked Heart means that one of the most rigorous of these laws is justice, and that if a man be unjust in his heart, the inevitable results of this injustice will find him out. The All-Seeing Eye shows that we live and move and have our being in God; that we are constantly in His Presence; wherever we are or whatever we do. The Anchor and the Ark stand for that sense of security and stability one has if his life is grounded in truth and faith. Without that sense there can be no happiness. The Forty-seventh Problem of Euclid is an emblem of the arts and sciences; by it we are reminded that, next to sinfulness, the most dangerous enemy of mankind is ignorance. In the Hour Glass we have the emblem of the transitoy nature of life; no man lives forever in this world; there is a set time for the work he has to do. The Scythe reminds us that passing time will bring an end to our lives as well as to our work; and if ever we are to become what we ought to be, we must not delay. Unhappy is the man who reaches middle years having missed these undeniable and all-important truths.
Yet there is hope for him. The central teaching of the Third Degree, expressed in the Tragedy of Hiram is a way for him to recover possession of his life. He can be raised to a new manhood. He may be called back from a condition that is more terrible than the dissolution of the body. By repudiating and dying to his old life, by gaining again his faith in God, by the power of brotherhood, he finds the path of recovery.
(lecture from the "Lodge System of Masonic Education")