GIFTS FROM A TREE

The oldest and most universal of all religious symbols is that of a tree. The ancient Scandinavians imagined Yggdrasil, the mighty ash tree that binds heaven, hell, and earth together, with the three Fates busy beneath its branches, spinning together the fortunes of our lives.

The worshipers of Astarte honored their goddess within the sacred groves of the Asherah; the Druids enacted dark magic under the brooding protection of massive oak trees; the devotees of Dionysian and Mithraic and countless lesser forms of pagan worship put trees at the heart of their creeds and their pantheons, and made trees their temples. There are the enchanted singing trees of the Arabian Nights; there is the blessed Bo-tree, under which Gautama Buddha bade his great farewell to the illusions of the world.

And we know how trees permeated our Lord’s own Hebrew religion; how the Book of Beginnings locates the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the heart of Paradise; how Wisdom, the very Logos, is identified as that Tree of Life; how Abraham planted the tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there called on the name of the Lord.

Why is this? Why do we find the tree at the heart of the religious imagination?

The beginning of an answer is that human conceptions of God and the spiritual world are limited by our human consciousness and human values and, most of all, by our human language. In the scale of being, we cannot give voice to anything other than what our language allows, or give form to any image higher than ourselves. This is the conditioning boundary of all religious insight and expression, whether brutish or sublime. “Let us make God in our own image” is not only a precept of paganism; it is a constraint of our human condition.

But it is not a hopeless situation. God, who made us, is perfectly aware of who and what we are. In sympathetic condescension to our confined understanding, God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. We are humans who worship a human God. That license is the greatest proof of God’s love for us.

And the tree is another. The tree – like Christ himself, only in symbol – bridges humanity and the divine. Erect and strongly rooted and sheltering, standing in imaginative solidarity with the best of Man, the tree stretches out branches like arms and responds to the wind and the seasons in a silent imitation of music, that purest of human languages. And yet, at the same time, all of poetry and myth speak to the uncanny apprehension of friendly life in the company of trees, a life that seems risen and connected with our own from the unfathomable depths of being, a life unthinkably old and mysteriously wiser than we ourselves. A walk through a deep wood is never lonely, and never without education.

And that is the secret of the religious awareness and symbolism of trees. They symbolize both men and the divine, or rather, the mutual indwelling of both, and that intuition fills our Scriptures. The saint, in the first Psalm, is like a tree planted by the river; “as the days of a tree,” says Isaiah, “are the days of my people.” “Then shall the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord,” says another Psalm. The mighty of the earth are always the tall cedars of Lebanon. Our very Lord knows the soul of a man by his fruit, and did not the blind man, in a moment of wondrous mystical vision, like the tender moment of awakening when true reality is suddenly, but oh so fleetingly, perfect and clear…did not he perhaps say it best of all: “I see men as trees walking”?

And as we bring the Christmas tree into our homes and surround it with gifts, we see what has gathered up all these intuitions in human religion from the beginning, and sealed them with God’s signet, and sanctified them with God’s sanction. For what is the gift that is life and death, that is good and evil, that is worship itself, that is man’s sanctuary and also man, that is somehow even God, in silent majesty; that grows on earth and yet has its arms in heaven? Here it is: “Him they slew, and hanged him on a tree.”

The Cross of our Lord. That is the true source and meaning of all the tree-thoughts that figure in the aspirational religious thinking of humankind. This is the tree which the trees of all the divines ever born went forth, from the beginning, to anoint king over them, and which says to all of them: “If indeed you anoint me your king, them come and put your trust in my shadow.”

In that tree, we see the true Yggdrasil; the tree both of knowledge and of life; the temple Ark of acacia wood and the great floating Ark of salvation; the menorah studded with almonds, the sweetening wood of Mara; the staff of Moses and of Elisha; the branch of Jessie and the root of David; the mustard tree and the true vine that are the Church, and the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

And of that Tree of Life, we are not forbidden to eat. On the contrary, the true Adam and Eve, who are all of humankind, are invited to stand in the shade of that tree, and eat of its fruit, that they may not die. It is a tree laden, for us, with all manner of gifts, including the greatest of all, Who died for us in its arms.

And so we return to the Christmas Tree.

Very likely our Christmas Tree, blazing with lights and offering gifts, is a survival of ancient pagan celebrations, but what of it? For Christ is born at Christmas, and has purged the old pagan religious instincts of their harm and unloveliness, and shown us their deep spirit, true and heavenly. All beautiful old traditions show their meaning, when brought into the true Light.

And so where the diminished and secular world might see in this gaudy tree with its ornaments and gifts only a frivolous and fantastic social custom, we of the one true and complete faith, seeing much deeper than they can even imagine, bear witness to a holy and sweet idea, the most ancient, the most lovely, and the most life-giving of all ideas revealed by God to our human comprehension:

Gifts from a Tree.

TRAINING

Imagine as a cultivated Westerner being invited to attend your first traditional Noh program. As the hours of the long performance go by, you are presented with an extremely colorful progression of masked actors engaged in rigidly traditional portrayals of standardized characters, with dancers in gorgeous dress skillfully engaged in completely regimented movement, with singers vocalizing ancient Japanese poetry to the accompaniment of the single uncanny flute and the three driving drums.

What might you get from the performance?

Provided you are open to it, a certain sort of personal entertainment is quite possible from your time spent watching this extraordinary and uniquely Japanese art form. At the least, you might enjoy the experience of an aesthetic addition to what you normally derive from Western theater. You might appreciate the disciplined athleticism of the dancers. You might marvel at the spare stagecraft, and think of how it must have influenced Samuel Beckett. “Reminds me of ‘Waiting For Godot,’” you might whisper to your neighbor in the audience, also a Westerner.

But if you are honest, you would surely confess a shallowness to your experience, a sense that you were only responding to a few of the program’s most superficial elements – to the color, the movement, the extraordinary physical training involved – while missing out on almost all of what the performance has to offer to the native Japanese in the audience, or at least to those who are sophisticated in the meaning and history of their Noh. Not to mention its language!

The point is pretty straightforward. Our appreciation of an experience depends as much – or rather far more – on what we bring to it than on what the experience itself offers.

I’m often struck by how a painter – of the realistic type – can produce a perfect painting of, say, a bird. The skill is wonderful, of course, but what is prior to the skill is the painter’s eye, which has seen and recorded all the details of the bird that serve, when translated into paint, to yield the perfect image. The painter and I have seen the same bird in the wild – or the same house, or tree, or mountain, or cloud – but the painter’s glimpse is so much richer and fuller than my own. It’s humbling to realize how relatively blind most of us are to the world around us, compared to those who through training have opened their eyes to what the world puts on view.

Without adherence to Christ’s tutelage, heaven for most of us will be like a Noh play, or like the everyday robins that hop about the grass, looking for worms.

Christianity is not a set of beliefs. It is training. Training to appreciate heaven.

CREATION

What we call creation was God’s first act of self-sacrifice: it was the sacrifice of God’s solitude. If we think of it at all, we tend to think of creation as God’s gaining something: call it companionship. But thinking of it that way posits a lack in God, or a desire for something outside of God’s own perfection, and surely that is a mistake. What we are left to think is that the nature of God simply is sacrificial. Call that nature ‘love.’ And there being nothing other than God, love sacrificed itself.

God’s second act of self-sacrifice was the Cross.

A NEW CREATION

Without Jesus, God does not understand suffering, sorrow, or death. That is one side of the coin. The other is that God, without Jesus, does not understand joy or relief or friendship.

We tend to think of the work of Jesus only in terms of the accomplishment of something – Redemption? Atonement? Reconciliation? Salvation? But these are just words. – on earth. But his accomplishment was rather to incorporate earth into heaven, to enlarge and deepen heaven, to meld the eternal and the non-eternal into something new.

The God-man didn’t endure suffering and thereby remove it from us. He incorporated suffering into divinity, and thereby gave it eternal substance, gave it eternal importance. And so also of death and disappointment and all that side of the human coin; but we must also add the other side, the side of laughter and delight and birth.

If we are careful to remember that these are also just words, we may say that Christ sanctified life, and mean that he made it saintly, made it heavenly. He gave and gives life meaning.

But we must not forget that, in so doing, he made heaven earthly and accessible. That’s why we can pray. That’s why we can endure God’s presence.

God’s accomplishment, in Christ, was self-sacrificial, the way a marriage is sacrificial of independence. And in the same sense, it was and remains exploratory and daring and unpredictable.

GOD’S PROBLEM

We speak glibly of God’s omnipotence. We say with some Scriptural authority that God can do anything, although in a pedantic mood we might concede that what we mean is that God can do anything that can be done, thereby constraining God under the laws of logic while still allowing free rein under the laws of physics.

But there are many things Jesus could not do. He could not heal those who lacked faith in him (Matthew 6: 5); he could not save Jerusalem from the consequences of its folly, although he longed to do so (Mathew 23: 7); he could not instill faith in his followers (Matthew 8: 26); he could not persuade the scribes and Pharisees of the errors of their ways (Matthew 23: 13 et passim). The Gospels are as rich with things Jesus could not do as with the things he could.

Was this because Jesus was a man as well as God? No. It was the man-God revealing God. Was it because he could have done them, if he had chosen? No, he never has the choice.

God can only do what love can do, and love – we learn from Jesus – can only offer: it cannot compel. It can indicate, but not bind. It can sacrifice the self, but not the other.

To put this another way, God cannot act contrary to God’s own nature. God cannot think, imagine, hope or desire contrary to God’s own nature. And therefore, God cannot choose contrary to that nature. In this regard, any human child is more powerful than God.

That is God’s problem.

TRANSPARENT JOY

There are small things – small but universal – that spring from a deeper level than words, and therefore from a deeper level than understanding. Spontaneous smiling is an example. We all smile at the antics of babies, at hummingbirds, at memories shared with old friends. These things reach down, down inside us and engage something there, some transparent joy at the foundation of our nature, where wordy self-consciousness hasn’t yet usurped the place of God.

The Fall is not the death of that joy, but rather its desertion.

MY WORDS ARE LIFE

 

The meaning of waves is the ocean. That sounds like a poetic way of speaking, but it really isn’t. The concept of meaning is itself undefined, and there is no literal use of it to contrast with any other sort of use. We can inquire of the meaning of birds, or of a symphony, or of creation, or of an historical event with just as much legitimacy as we inquire after the meaning of a word.

The ocean births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs its waves. Everything in the ocean is part of every one of its waves. Everything of all oceans past and future is part of every present wave. The meaning of waves is the ocean.

The meaning of what you say is your life. Your words are the waves of your life. This is not a poetic way of speaking, unless all language is poetry. Your life in all its complexity and contrariety births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs your words.

We do not ‘understand’ the meaning of Christ’s words by acquiring their definition, nor even by fitting them into some community of other words, some body of doctrine. The meaning of Christ’s words is the life of Christ, which is life itself.

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO MOURN

We’re allowed to experience sorrow because it removes our shallowness, it deepens us to where we can begin to feel spiritual sympathy.

Sorrowing and suffering are not the same. They’re not even words from the same reality. Suffering is of the flesh, sorrow of the spirit.

Sorrow is a spiritual adjustment to the loss of a source of love and joy. Those who have never been loved cannot experience sorrow.

Blessed are they who mourn.

THE ATONEMENT

Sin is such an old fashioned word, a ‘churchy’ word, if you will. I’ve tried not to use it very much, and instead spoken of causing harm to others, or more adequately of willful behavior that runs contrary to the various alternative ways that God – who is love – would have prescribed in the situation. But that’s a very long-winded way of speaking, and to unpack its various elements is a task for another occasion. So for the sake of understanding Christ’s atonement, we’ll speak in terms of good, old-fashioned sin.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins according to the riches of His grace…

During His earthly ministry, Jesus forgave people their sins, and as we have seen, that means he accepted the harm those sins caused God. And that must mean that through the work of His ministry and His death and resurrection – by means of divine decree that we cannot possibly hope to understand this side of heaven, if even there – He accepted the harm done to God by all people, everywhere, for all time.

This is a sobering thought, isn’t it? We do not like to think of Jesus as still suffering, but I’m afraid that is what we must think. The pain of every cruelty still reaches to heaven and adds to Christ’s unthinkable burden. And yet isn’t that exactly what He said to Paul during his apocalypse on the road to Damascus: Why do you persecute me?

I have spoken of the great privilege and responsibility Christians have to forgive, meaning that when we forgive someone for sinning against us, we not only begin the healing process of softening that person’s spirit, but we also accept the burden of the harm that person causes to God. Our forgiveness is also God’s forgiveness.

But we may also put this in terms of relieving Christ’s burden. When we, as Christians, accept the divine suffering from wrongdoing, we are, to that extent, taking the weight off Christ’s shoulders and placing it on our own. On becoming Christians, we are given a share of Christ’s own spirit for that very purpose, to extend the reach of Christ’s forgiveness into the world. Just as children, maturing within a household, are asked to relieve the burdens of their elders, so we, maturing as Christians, are asked to relieve Christ’s burden.

When Paul wrote on many occasions of sharing in Christ’s suffering, this is surely what he was communicating. Christ’s suffering is ongoing. Our privilege is to share it, and the proof of our fidelity, of our brotherhood and sisterhood with Christ, is our commitment to relieving Christ’s burden. That is the yoke He invites us to share.

This will be a difficult teaching for those who think of following Christ, of being Christians, mainly in terms of receiving benefits. There are benefits involved, to be sure. But the chief ‘benefit’ is not a benefit at all in worldly terms. It is the benefit of suffering.

Becoming a Christian is, at its very heart, not a promotion, but a recruitment, a recruitment into the sufferings of Christ.

THE LIMITATION

When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man, he was forgiving the sins of a stranger; he was forgiving the man for harm he caused to others, not to Jesus himself.

And similarly for the immoral woman in Luke’s account. It could perhaps be supposed that he was familiar with her from another occasion, but not that she had caused him harm on that occasion. Jesus was, again, forgiving her for harm she had done to others, not personally to Jesus.

In these two separate events Jesus was acting as God Incarnate. The harm these two had done had in fact also been done to Jesus, as God incarnate. That’s why Jesus could forgive them, even though he had not humanly participated in whatever their sinful behavior had been.

But it goes without saying that we Christians are not God incarnate. Our privilege does not extend to the forgiveness of strangers. How could it, since we by definition have not been harmed by them?

The magnitude of the human privilege of extending divine forgiveness is staggering, but its scope is limited. It is limited to the forgiveness of those who have done us harm.

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The Christian privilege of forgiving sins is not innate to them because of who they are – as it was innate to Christ – but rather an authority vested in them by virtue of something they have done, namely, committed their lives to the service of Christ.

A Christian’s authority may be thought of as something like the authority of a king’s ambassador. An ambassador’s authority exists within prescribed limits, prescribed applications. An ambassador may arrange treaties by the King’s vested authority, but an ambassador’s eldest child does not automatically become the next in line to the throne, should the king die. That privilege lies with the king’s oldest child, simply by virtue of who the child is.

So also, in the spiritual nature of things, a Christian does not suffer from the behavior of strangers, as Christ did. Christians, like non-Christians, suffer only from the harm done to themselves, and can forgive only that harm. To extend our image, Christians are the ambassadors of God’s forgiveness for the harms done to us, not the harms strangers do to each other.

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None of this is to deny that we can be harmed as, so to say, collateral damage by those who are not targeting us directly. The mother suffering from wrongful harm inflicted on her child is a good example. But even in cases like these, the only harm the mother can forgive is the harm done to her, not the harm done to her child.

Our language obscures this spiritual truth. The mother might readily say to her child’s assailant: “I forgive you for what you did to my child.” But that has no bearing on the child’s own grievance. The primary debt created by that grievance is owed to the child, and that debt only the child can forgive. The mother’s forgiveness cancels only the debt owed to her, not the debt owed to her child.

And similarly for all other cases – many much more subtle that this one – of personal harm suffered from the maltreatment of others.