For the love of a tree

Close up, silhouetting the cross at Llanddwyn Isle (Angelsey, Wales).
Close up, silhouetting the cross at Llanddwyn Isle (Angelsey, Wales).

We gather in silence. It is dim and the sanctuary bare. We wear no colorful vestments and no banners fly. It is simple and stark.

We read from the prophet Isaiah and the gospel of John. Difficult and strong images wash over our ears. We may wish to cover our children’s ears. Torture, bleeding, death. We quietly reflect on these things. Then we pray for everything under the sun.

And then the same troubling image we heard about comes into the room. A large cross, usually of rough wood, is carried into the space and laid down. In silence or with simple singing, the people slowly come forward to express devotion. Some kneel or bow, others put their foreheads to the wood or even kiss it. It is bodily and profound.

Why all this affection and devotion for an image that troubles so deeply? Gordon Lathrop helps explain, “The exaltation of the cross is a paradox and at the same time the sign of foretaste of the eschatological reversal God promises — the sorrowful shall rejoice, the barren shall bear, the poor shall reign, the hungry shall feast and the dead shall live.”

In reverencing the cross, we do not revere or celebrate suffering and death. Rather, we remember that much of the world is on a cross, also suffering and dying. The meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that the powers that kill and oppress are overthrown. God’s redeemed future has begun. In adoring the cross, we anticipate and celebrate that future when all oppression ends.

The cross as the Tree of Life is a helpful image for me in undoing the dominance of atonement theology in Christian circles. As the Tree of Life, the cross is our way into God’s work of liberation and reconciliation on Earth. God, in human form, suffered violent death at the hands of religious authorities but took up no sword. We are grafted into God’s non-violent way when we find our source of life in the cross of Jesus.

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Rob Fairbanks

Lovely. Thanks for your thoughts Liv.

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