Cross as Tree of Life

Again, I wish you all a happy Feast of the Triumph of the Cross!

This beautiful image is a detail of a photograph by Lawrence OP.  I highly recommend that you click over there and view the entire thing and take in all the beautiful and delightful details of this Tree of Life mosaic!  It is a thing of tremendous beauty and wonder!  I dearly  wish that more of our contemporary Christian art, and particularly art within our churches, possessed such beauty and wonder… I think it would do wonders for revitalizing the faith in our world.  (But I digress.)

I am always captivated by the image of the cross as the Tree of Life.  It captures so well the meaning of the cross as an instrument of life, love, and salvation. As I mentioned yesterday, there are many people who find the cross, and particularly the Crucifix, to be highly disturbing.  I think the basic reason is that their vision of it stops short: they see it as death, but not as sacrifice; they see Christ as a man who was brutally killed on the cross, whether justly or unjustly, but they do not see Chirst as God who chose to become man and chose to suffer and die so brutally.  A sacrifice isn’t just death… it is death chosen by oneself out of love for another, and usually for the sake of another’s life.

Society tends to find the very notion of sacrifice to be jarring and perhaps insane.  I don’t just say this about our own society, you notice, because it’s not only our society.  After all, St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-25)

It takes certain divine graces of faith and understanding to apprehend the true meaning of Cross and Crucifix.

As I’ve mentioned before, it also helps that our Christian culture is rich with art and literature created by our forebears who did receive such divine graces and the talents to express them.  The Byzantine mosaic artists who created the image above are one example.  Another example comes to us from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Christian poet who gave us the glorious Dream of the Rood. Here is an excerpt from a modern English translation by Dr. Jonathan Glenn, in which the “most wondrous tree” itself speaks:

“It was long since–I yet remember it–
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem. Strong fiends seized me there,
worked me for spectacle; cursèd ones lifted me.
On shoulders men bore me there, then fixed me on hill;
fiends enough fastened me. Then saw I mankind’s Lord
come with great courage when he would mount on me.
Then dared I not against the Lord’s word
bend or break, when I saw earth’s
fields shake. All fiends
I could have felled, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped h
imself–he, God Almighty–
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows,
bold before many, when he would loose mankind.
I shook when that Man clasped me. I dared, still, not bow to earth,
fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast.
Rood was I reared. I lifted a mighty King,
Lord of the heavens, dared not to bend.
With dark nails they drove me through: on me those sores are seen,
open malice-wounds. I dared not scathe anyone.
They mocked us both, we two together. All wet with blood I was,
poured out from that Man’s side, after ghost he gave up.
Much have I born on that hill
of fierce fate. I saw the God of hosts
harshly stretched out. Darknesses had
wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder,
bright radiance; a shadow went forth,
dark under heaven. All creation wept,
King’s fall lamented. Christ was on rood.
But there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one. I beheld all that.
Sore was I with sorrows distressed, yet I bent to men’s hands,
with great zeal willing. They took there Almighty God,
lifted him from that grim torment. Those warriors abandoned me
standing all blood-drenched, all wounded with arrows.
They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body’s head;
beheld they there heaven’s Lord, and he himself rested there,
worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,
men in the slayer’s sight carved it from bright stone,
set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
sad in the eventide, when they would go again
with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
But we there lamenting a good while
stood in our places after the warrior’s cry
went up. Corpse grew cold,
fair life-dwelling. Then someone felled us
all to the earth. That was a dreadful fate!
Deep in a pit one delved us. Yet there Lord’s thanes,
friends, learned of me,
adorned me with silver and gold.
Now you may know, loved man of mine,
what I, work of baleful ones, have endured
of sore sorrows. Now has the time come
when they will honor me far and wide,
men over earth, and all this great creation,
will pray for themselves to this beacon. On me God’s son
suffered awhile. Therefore I, glorious now,
rise under heaven, and I may heal
any of those who will reverence me.

Despite the horror of the Crucifixion, even the cross, once a living tree, sacrificed itself so that Christ could save mankind and all creation.  Therefore, the cross itself is worthy of our veneration.  In fact, we might go so far as to say that in becoming the Lord’s cross, that tree became the first non-human creature to receive Christ’s redemption, perhaps a foreshadow of all creation’s redemption at the end of time.  Let us indeed reverence it!

The Dream of the Rood is a wonderful piece of writing to meditate upon!