Good Friday – 2019
In Italy they have saying when they plant an olive tree: “I’m planting this tree for my grandchildren.” You see, while olive trees may start producing fruit after only three to five years of growth, they grow very slowly and can live many hundreds of years if well maintained and as time goes on, they produce more and more fruit. Consider though the thought behind the adage, “I’m planting for my grandchildren.” The planting signifies life – the life of the tree and the life of family; it signifies hope – that life will continue; and it signifies sacrifice – doing a task now that one may never benefit from personally, out of love and commitment for the sake of others.
There’s a song that we traditionally sing here in the United States during the Good Friday Service, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” One of the lines of the hymn may seem a bit curious if one considers it, “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” We know that Christ was not nailed to a tree, but to a Cross, a Cross that he and then Simon the Cyrene had to carry on the way to Golgotha. It seems, then, at first glance, that the words of the hymn calling the cross a ‘tree” may be just poetic license …. At first glance … but … there is actually more than just poetic license here.
The metaphor of the Cross as a tree is rooted in the very early theology of the Church in coming to understand why Christ had to die on the Cross. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes, that “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.” He is pointing to the Old Testament injunction against hanging anyone and sees Christ’s death on the Cross as ransoming us from what he calls the curse of the Old Testament law. Later in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul calls Jesus the new Adam, created not of dust, but of heaven. And Paul is not alone in drawing this allusion to the Cross as a “tree.” At least three times in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter in his preaching about Jesus says that they put him to death by “hanging him on a tree.” Not a cross, but a tree.
Later theological reflection follows over the time of the early church fathers. The first, Adam was ejected from Paradise because of his disobedience in eating the fruit of the tree. Jesus came down from Paradise to the dwelling place of the first Adam (this world) to save us all from Adam’s original sin. Just as Adam’s disobedience to God allowed sin and damnation to enter the world, the obedience of Jesus, the new Adam, allowed salvation to enter the world. Just as Adam threw away his sinless status through disobedience, Jesus kept his sinless status through obedience by dying on a tree.
This understating of the cross as the tree of life bears much fruit in our life as a Church. St. Theodore in preaching in the ninth century wrote:
“How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light not darkness; Paradise not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but thereby healed our wounds. A tree destroyed us, a tree now brought us life.”
It is clear that St. Theodore is drawing a parallel between the tree of knowledge of good and evil of which Adam ate the fruit in the book of Genesis and the “tree” of the Cross.
So some may look at the Cross and see a monument to death. They may see no meaning in the Cross other than perhaps the death of a man who was condemned to the slave’s death because he dared to challenge the status quo of both the religious authorities and the Roman authorities of his time. But for those of us who believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we do not see the cross as the wood of execution but as the tree of life “on which was hung our salvation.” It was on the Cross that Christ’s side was pierced, and blood and water flowed out, the waters of our rebirth in baptism, the waters of the new garden of paradise, the Church. In the book of Revelation, St. John has a final vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in which an angel shows him “the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” and on “either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit” and leaves that “serve as medicine for the nations.” In that place, “Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”
When you enter any Catholic Church throughout the world, you will find a cross. It’s presence reminds us of the centrality of Christ’s death. It is not a sign of shame. It is the icon of God’s salvific love for us. It is the new tree of life from which God’s grace flows from the Church. It is our salvation.
An olive tree may be planted in the ground for ones grandchildren as gesture of life, hope, and sacrifice out of love. The Cross, the tree of life, was planted in the ground not just for a few, “but for the many” and not just as a gesture of life, hope, and sacrifice but as true enactment of life and hope and sacrificial love for all of us whom Christ calls his brothers and sisters. “O come, let us adore.”