The Tree Heals the Tree

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 permeated by 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 statement, “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.

25 comments:

  1. I love this way of thinking. Especially where you say “In God nothing is wasted.” For a long time one of my favourite lines in Scripture has been “I will restore to you the years which the locust has eaten” (Joel 2.25).
    Thank you Father Stephen!

  2. It has long occurred to me that Christ gave us many ways to recognize Him when He came through the many symbols in the Old Testament. I am also convinced that after the Damascus Road experience, Saint Paul saw the connections. As I learn, study and listen in Liturgy I am constantly mad aware of even more symbols and connections between the Old Testament and its fulfillment. I also must emphatically agree with you statement that God does not waste anything. That one statement alone gives deep hope. Thank you again Father.

  3. To paraphrase Joseph (Gen 50.20):
    Don’t be afraid. Your disasters and failures are used by God to provide life to many!

    Overcoming this fear — of failure, of embarrassment, of someone getting the better of me, of not having control — is becoming central to my own personal theology, so to speak. Nearly everything I hear in homilies and read is filtered through this right now.
    Simply put I am tying to live Psalm 27 (LXX).

  4. Well shoot, that should say Psalm 26.
    See even posting about it provides an opportunity to face my fear of embarrassment!

  5. Thank you, Father Stephen. for a fine expression of John 6.12 regarding the feeding of the 5,000:
    “So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost”…from the Tree of Life’s Gifts.

  6. All of the tragedies and disasters of my life (manybof them self-inflicted) have ultimately served to bring me back to God, which means that they can only be good. The quote from Joel 2:25 shared by Jane above has also become one of my favorites, “I will restore to you the years which the locusts have eaten.” How could anything possibly be wasted if it leads to my salvation?

  7. Father Stephen,
    “The Tree Heals the Tree”. Thank you for speaking once again about the use of allegory in interpreting scripture. It has been a most welcome challenge from a strictly literal interpretation. I am beginning to see that allegory is a means to present the true relationship between God and His creation..a true communion. By your recommendation I purchased The Festal Menaion. How the Church understands scripture, it is all right there…it is so very helpful. The two verses that struck me (I mean, they are all good, but these in particular…) was ‘the the tree heals the tree’ and the one about the axe head…a most obscure little story. It always left me wondering why that seemingly insignificant event is mentioned. I see now it is a picture of baptism and redemption. It helps to go and reread the verses in the OT.

    Like the tree that heals, the recovered axe head, and our many failures, *nothing in God is wasted*. Thank you for these much needed words, Father. Glory to God, He is good!

  8. For me seeing the tree that heals in the midst of my own personal failures and losses is easier than seeing it in the betrayals and embezzelments by people I love or the deep shame and rejection imposed on me by these same people particularly when I have to see them everyday.

    Any suggestions Father?

  9. Paula,
    Fundamentalists often say how they interpret scripture literally, that is, until it interferes with their highly rationalistic manner of interpretation.
    Some of my pentecostal relatives fall into this way of thinking. Jesus could not have really meant what he said in John about eating his body and blood. Baptism really doesn’t mean dying to sin and being raised to life… it cannot save. Children really should not be baptized…Jesus didn’t mean what he said about humbling ourselves as little children, that the kingdom belongs to them. It only belongs to those who can rationally think through what they are doing. If I took the time, there are other examples of where Jesus is not taken at his word. And I am not saying that he never used hyperbole. Of course he did. Yet I must go with the patristic teaching and what our tradition has delivered to us. How rich and beautiful is our hymnography and its allegorical treasures. I don’t have to figure it out. I can trust all who have gone before and given us these rich spiritual understandings.

  10. Dean,
    You’re correct. No one who uses the label “literalist” is actually a literalist. It’s a label used to defend another interpretation that itself is rooted in a tradition – only that “tradition” is very young, very modern and refuses to be informed by the deposit of the faith. In short, it’s false and indefensible.

  11. Father, Dean… Well said. Yes I absolutely understand! Scripture is read according to what best fits their particular denomination. I too must go with our ancient faith.
    There is a beauty in Orthodoxy…everything you encounter, the Holy Trinity, the liturgy, the hymns, the icons, the Fathers teachings and their methods…on and on…there is beauty in Her truth, there is a pureness…you said it well Dean, rich and with treasures. These words spoken after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ are revealing …”We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshiping the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.”

  12. Michael,

    I think most of us share this sense that the“tree that heals in the midst of our own personal failures and losses is easier to see than the seeing of it in the betrayals and embezzlements by people we love”.

    I guess that we both can’t help but instantly think of the three crosses on Golgotha here: The easiest one to conceive for fallen man is (unfortunately) that of the thief on the left who accuses others (and above all God) in his suffering. It’s the number one complaint…
    The cross of the good thief is the one that “heals in the midst of our own personal failures and losses”, – a grateful acceptance of God’s providence in, and despite suffering. But the Cross in the middle, the Cross of Christ, is the hardest one to conceive and to bear, it’s (recognizably) of a piece with the bearing of “the betrayals and embezzlements by people we love” in hope of their salvation.

    God grants all who are open to Him -like the good thief- the grace of the tree of life. But I think that the great grace of sufferings for the salvation of all, following the Lamb wherever he goes and acquiring the mind of Christ, including, “rejoicing in what we are suffering for others, filling up in our flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, the church” (Colossians 1:24) is clearly a still higher, much higher, calling.
    Our appreciation of the Lamb’s crucifixion for our sake is one thing, it’s what comes to us first; our ontological communion with the Lamb-slain-from-the-beginning-of-time can only ensue later however, and in proportion to our union with Christ. The salvation of all will always be His work, even if we are honoured (even if we are aflame like Paul in his union with the God of Love) to participate in the sufferings for it.

    God, in Christ, the Lamb crucified from the foundation of the world, knew that His creature’s freedom, in every Adam, would be used for his own perdition and has already taken care to save this freedom before he created it. The Tree of Life planted in Paradise (Genesis 2: 9), was the Cross -from the start. He planted it in the centre of Paradise (Genesis 2: 9), because before Christ, Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified, was considered the centre of the world. “He has worked salvation in the midst of the Earth.” Ps. 73/74:12).

    The Tree of Life planted “symbolically” at the centre of Paradise (Genesis 2: 9) was the very beginning of numerous crucificial ‘types’ which abound throughout the OT.
    On a side note, some are very well known, like Moses’ “serpent”, and others less so: for instance, when Cain killed Abel, he was imperilled, and God, in order to protect him, marked him on the forehead. (Genesis 4:15). According to the corresponding Jewish text, this mark was of the Cross (T). Imagine the relatives of Abel going to Cain to kill him and not to being able to – being impeded by the invisible power of the Cross.

    Another, lesser known, type is that of the way the Israelites travelled to their homeland, where Christ would be eventually crucified; they were in a certain order (3 tribes eastward, 3 westward, 3 southerly, 3 northerly), forming a cross. The same happened when they were stationed. For forty years they had seen this cross-like setting, including the cloud in the day, which showed them the road and at the same time covered them from the scorching sun.
    These images are so rich!

    The mystery of the Cross always reminds us that there can be no Paradise without love and that no love is love without the Cross. And Christ and Cross are inseparable. The reconciliation of man with God –this mystery of love that does not seek its own– was active in various degrees in the Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and all saints subsequent to the incarnation, they all participated in the Mystery of the Cross and therefore became friends of God and (as Archimandrite Zacharias echoes) were granted the gift of that particular ‘boldness’ to argue and dispute with the Almighty for the sake of the salvation of others, but this is done in participation with the Cross of Christ, the Cross at the centre of Golgotha.

  13. Michael and Dino,
    Thank you both for the questions and the beautiful answer…

    I would like to share with you one of the most profound reflection I have ever heard on bearing our personal crosses offered by Matthew Gallatin several years ago. He addresses our “bearing of unjust cross from those we love” in a way that remained with me ever since I heard it for the first time years ago…
    (I wish the transcript was available, but then listening to Matthew’s voice makes you feel like you are in a presence of a loving and comforting friend, advising you and placing you in the arms of Christ Himself….)

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/pilgrims/bearing_a_cross

  14. Also for those who have never heard of it, google images on “Grabarka Poland”. It’s a holy site in Poland where people bring their “personal crosses”. Some of the images you will see are of pilgrims walking on their knees around the church, carrying their crosses which they later leave on the holy mountain….
    My Mom grew up in the area and she told me that when she was a young girl, her knees started to hurt (she worked very hard all of her childhood in the fields of their family farm). She went to Grabarka, walked around the church on her knees and never had knee pain since…

  15. Fr. Stephen
    Thank-you again for a timely reminder.
    I think I remember reading or hearing somewhere (O.K. at 70, I don’t remember the source) that wood is often used as a symbol or allegorically for Man or humanity. Have you ever heard of it so used? Further, gold is deity and then wood overlaid with gold, the dual nature of the Lord.

  16. Agata,
    I heard the talk, and the point of Christ’s cross being something ‘imposed upon the bearer by those whom he loves’ is made beautifully. On that particular point, (as there’s obviously –always- much more to it) there is typically a key disparity between everyone’s similar-to-this-type-of-cross and Christ’s, however…: Whenever we bear this (i.e.: that cross Michael hints at –of the suffering coming from those whom we love, especially when it’s inflicted upon us through their betrayals of Christ), we also have the constant doubts and uncertainty of whether what we are doing at every moment (towards those who crucify us through their actions) is the ‘right thing’ or not. This is somewhat solved through our tradition of confession and living a ‘referenced’ life –referenced to a spiritual Father, (asking about what the right thing, the right attitude, the right behavior is in our specific predicaments)– as far as possible. Obedience however, although it can bestow this much-cherished certitude, might often make us realize that a far greater self-denial is required of us than we assume. This can take various forms, but the asking-oh-priest is invaluable. This “asking” however, is what can eventually teach us the discernment needed to be doing the’ right thing’ when faced with these complex dilemmas while being ‘crucified’ by our beloved ones, and what can make us have that ‘much-cherished certitude’ (when “asking” is not an availability)…

  17. Dino,
    Thank you for your comment, and especially for taking the time to listen to the podcast.
    I just remembered the main two lessons from it from a few years ago: don’t ask for a different cross than the one you have already been given, AND that some crosses put on us from our family may require us to choose between them and God… The quality of the cross ‘imposed upon the bearer by those whom he loves’ was given the new meaning in my life only recently, so hearing Matthew’s reflection was a renewed blessing – that reminder that some problems don’t have a solution, but when we bring them to Christ, He comforts us and keeps the tears we cry in His Arms in a special bottle…

    How true that, even when we try to do the best we can, there is always that “doubt and uncertainty”… And that this is often only *somewhat* solved by bringing it to confession and staying “referenced” to a Spiritual Father. There were many times in my life I was told by my confessors: “I don’t have an answer for you” or “You cannot figure it out, pray that God reveals the answer to you”. Which of course is a perfect answer, even if hard to accept when we need more direct advice. I have come to believe that just our bringing of questions to confession and in a way “bearing a little shame” related it can help and heal….

    And as for an advice from a Spiritual Father, you maybe the only person who actually has one, one who knows and loves you, and who himself was nurtured by a true teacher in Christ of his own. I am most grateful that you share so much of what you learned from him with us. Please accept my most sincere gratitude for that one more time! 🙂

    Agata

  18. Agata

    You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book. (Psalm 56:8)

    Thank YOU for reminding me of this!

  19. Regarding the “asking of a spiritual guide” (as what leads to discernment in one’s later years: needed to discern God’s will when we are unable to find a guide and are ‘crucified’ by the apostasy of those we love) and the rarity of such priests, I think one key point (that is not up to the guide/confessor but ourselves) is that we ought to be sure of confessing to the confessor of all our negative reactions to their word the moment they happen, (or later, if that’s when we actually become conscious of the reaction). Utter openness like this, (which is a clear demonstration of our wholehearted desire to follow Christ in freedom, fully voluntarily ) is what brings about the cherished bond (of Spiritual Father and son/daughter) that eliminates ‘psychological’ reaction and ‘psychological’ counsel in favour of true Spirit-moved guidance and trustful, voluntary Spirit-moved obedience. We are called to freedom. Our obedience can only be a demonstration of that. Christ’s Cross is the ultimate demonstration of freedom…
    Regarding confession again, the details of “where we are” concerning our relation with our confessor, how free or not our soul feels to obey or not, are certainly “confessable”… I often think that, this is an important part of how enviable father-son relations are built. Especially since there’s always cases of famously wonderful confessors who still have mistrustful children and average confessors who end up becoming God’s channels due to the genuineness of their children in matters like this.
    Modern people also need a far greater amount of sound rational argumentation in their mind’s arsenal, for later on, for other times, in order to follow through with counsels that are ‘from another world’ during the time of confession. But it’s up to us to ask for these because of our weakness and sincerity.

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