The Third Sunday of Great Lent is given to meditation on the Holy Wood of the Cross. I offer this mediation.
Readers of the New Testament are familiar with St. Paul’s description of Christ as the “Second Adam.” It is an example of the frequent Apostolic use of an allegoric reading of the Old Testament (I am using “allegory” in its broadest sense – including typology and other forms). Christ Himself had stated that He was the meaning of the Old Testament (John 5:39). Within the Gospels Christ identifies His own death and resurrection with the Prophet Jonah’s journey in the belly of the fish. He likens His crucifixion to the serpent raised on a staff by which Moses healed the people of Israel. Without the allegorical use of the Old Testament – much of the material in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament would be unintelligible.
Orthodox Christians are very accustomed to this manner of handling Scripture – the hymnography (largely written during the Patristic period) of the Church’s liturgical life is utterly dominated with such a use of allegory. The connections between New Testament and Old – between dogma and the allegory of Scriptural imagery is found in almost every verse offered within a service. Those who are not familiar with the Eastern liturgical life are unaware of this rich Christian heritage and of its deep doctrinal piety and significance.
In the feast of the Holy Cross, the hymnography at one point makes the statment, “The Tree heals the Tree.” It is one of the marvelous commentaries on the life of grace and its relationship to the human predicament. It refers to the relationship between the Cross of Christ and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter was the source of the fruit that Adam and Eve consumed that was the source of their fall from grace. The “Tree that heals” is none other than the Cross of Christ.
I am struck particularly by this treatment of Biblical imagery. The meditation does not say that the Cross destroys the tree whose fruit, along with our disobedience, brought the human tragedy. The Tree heals the Tree. In the same manner, the Kingdom of God does not destroy creation – it makes it whole.
There is a tendency within our lives to view failure and disasters (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) as deep tragedies that derail our lives and the world around us. Our heart becomes confused when the thought of “if only” takes up residence. But the Tree heals the Tree. In God, nothing is wasted.
It is the spiritual habit of the Church’s liturgical life to see the story of Christ in everything. Every story involving wood or a tree seems to find its way into the hymnography of the Cross. The same is true for many other images. I believe this way of reading Scripture is also a key to the Christian life. Our hearts are such that they generally do not see the Kingdom of God – we see only the tree and our disobedience. But Christ Himself became sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He took our life upon Himself that He might bestow His own life upon us. Thus Christ has entered all things that He might make all things new. Nothing is wasted.
Glory to Thy Cross, O Christ!
Thank you once more Father, for your words
Just this week I have spent much time pondering a similar theme, that God’s primary disposition towards his creatures is that of pity, mercy which springs from His Love. To see the Cross in such terms is transformative in so many ways.
Forgive me if I err here, this is such a ‘new’ way of understanding the Cross for one who has for many years seen the Cross purely in terms of wrath and judgement, of focussing on ‘disobedience’, that my eyes are still adjusting to the light.
Father, this comes at a time in my life, just a few moments before I head to church —
“There is a tendency within our lives to view failure and disasters (whether self-inflicted or otherwise) as deep tragedies that derail our lives and the world around us. Our heart becomes confused when the thought of “if only” takes up residence. But the Tree heals the Tree. In God, nothing is wasted.”
As one who tends to dwell on my failures and disasters, especially the self-inflicted ones, these words are especially helpful this morning.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for your words, Father. EPG’s words pretty much sum up what I wanted to say.
Another mind blowing revelation for me of things Christian that my former way of protestant life missed. The tree heals the tree! Nothing is wasted! My own miserable human failings in marriage, fatherhood, business, and other relationships somehow, by the Cross, are recovered and made beautifull.
Hallelujah and Praise the Lord!
I also resonate with your words, Fr. Stephen. They certainly can help us stay hopeful despite our weaknesses. Even our sins are not “wasted”.
I would find it helpful if you could say a bit more about how you are using the word “allegory” (or direct me if you have explained this elsewhere). I’m not disagreeing with your use, by any means, but would like to understand “the broadest sense”. Thanks.
I had never realized until your homily on the Holy Cross last Sunday, Father, that the Throne of God is the Cross. That was a tremendous revelation to me! “And I beheld and, lo, in the midst of the throne and the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain…” (Revelation 5: 6) of course the Revelation of St. John is Jesus Christ reigning from the midst of the Cross! But I never saw it before! Thank you Father
Thank you for this beautiful post, Fr. Stephen, and thanks to all who have commented also! Such blessings!
Such wonderful words that values the Holy Cross in greater depths. Rather as being seen as a symbol of sufferings and agony, it should be seen as the greatest symbol of salvation for it is where Jesus chose to be martyred to death because of His love for us.
Hi Father Stephen,
Just wanted to share the story of the picture of the tree posted on this page. This tree grows on the island of Anzer, off of Solovki island in the White Sea. Anzer is considered one of the holiest places in Russia. The monasteries on Solovki and Anzer were transformed by the Communists into some of the worst prison camps in the Soviet regime. A good deal of The Gulag Archipeligo is devoted to describing it. Countless atrocities were performed on this island where the Theotokos herself appeared to saints of the island multiple times (to this day, blue flowers grow where she spoke to them). This tree grows on the hill leading up to Golgotha skete, named by the Theotokos because she told the saint who founded it that there would be much suffering there.
A few hundred years later, Christians imprisoned for their faith were martyred on the island and buried in a mass grave. Others tried to place a marker on the grave, but the Communists knocked it down each time. Finally, this tree sprang up in the shape of the Cross, and no one dared to touch it. Tree branches naturally grow at a 60 degree angle, so to have two growing at 45 degrees opposite each other naturally is extremely unlikely. God, in His mercy, gave us this spot to honor His martyrs.