A Tree in the Garden

Good Friday Meditation 2011
Church of the Abiding Presence

We were reminded yesterday that the journey we take for the 40 days of Lent is designed to turn up our inclinations to serve others, focus on the truer and the simpler and the spiritual, and especially to tune into the ways in which we are served by others, culminating in the decisively un-modern moment of the washing of feet. There are people around us who help us in our sojourn, seen and unseen, and now we know that they are all around us.

But this day, this Good Friday, the passion story echoes in this space void of cloth, absent things that absorb sound, and the starkness of the place is accentuated by the fact that the room itself, stripped bare, awaits the moment in which it will be dominated by the cross of wood.

This wood will bring into the room the setting itself for the suffering and death of Jesus. A creation of nature, a tree beautiful in its own right, turned into an instrument of torture and the worst kind of death available in the first century. This is only one more way in which the images clash before us. The [Passion story] Fourth Gospel is full of actively dueling dualisms: Beauty and horror, light and darkness, death and life, Spirit and flesh. Every clash of these paired images is charged with purpose for us.

We have a Gospel that has given us the signals that abundant life does not merely come after our earthly death, but is offered now. Light isn’t the opposite of darkness, but is to be found in the midst of it. Believing isn’t so much agreement with a proposition (or a cluster of them), or right knowledge, but is more like knowing God. And where might we find the love of God [?] but in betrayal, in the most unjust trial, in the cruel interplay between an occupying army and an oppressed people, in the failed politics of that moment, and finally in the torturous suffering and death of the innocent chosen one.

We have this cross of wood, once a tree, standing in a garden, itself suggestive of the place where God’s creation began, where in the voices of the narrator, 2nd chapter of Genesis, there are trees standing in the middle of the Garden, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, planted there by the creator and first orchardist. So as the biblical story begins in a garden, surrounding a tree, it ends there as well. From the last chapters of Revelation,

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” And so the narrator announces that nothing accursed lives there.   (Rev. 22.1f.)

And so it is by Christ, echoed in the trees, that the Word of God moves us from garden to garden, on an arc that we describe as creation, fall, and redemption. The tree which offers shade, beauty, food, and even healing cannot avoid the consequences of a fallen creation any more than Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Judas, Peter, Andrew or any of the rest.

And so it is that the tree signals the crucifixion of Christ, the middle of the story, where death and life vie.
We talk about the cross as if it is a good thing. We inherit this from St. Paul who framed the cross as a source of life and power. And in the telling of the Fourth Gospel writer as well, Jesus Christ reigns, rules from this cross as if from a throne.

Martin Luther spotted this in his own meditation: "...you must no longer contemplate the suffering of Christ (for this has already done its work and terrified you), but pass beyond that and see his friendly heart and how this heart beats with such love for you that it impels him to bear with patience your conscience and your sin. Then your heart will be filled with love for him, and the confidence of your faith will be strengthened. (--Martin Luther, Meditation on the Passion, LUTHER'S WORKS, 42, p.13. )

Luther is probably right that God did not intend for us to be stuck in fear and terror before this tree. But instead to see, in a final and definitive way, that God would take our frail frame, the full implication of becoming as one of us, and suffer and die. So that we might know God, as human, as one of us -- to know that we may be connected to God in a death like his so that we might see ourselves loved beyond death, in a resurrection like Christ’s.

Behold the tree and Christ who died upon it. And grasp the signal that abundant life does not merely come after our earthly death, but is offered now. Light isn’t the opposite of darkness, but is to be found in the midst of it. Beauty is sometimes contained within the terrible, the unspeakable, the unlovely. Believing isn’t so much agreement with a proposition, but is more like knowing God. And ‘where might we find the love of God?’ but cursed upon a tree, ruling over the nations, revealing the heart of God for the redemption of all humanity, and all creation.

Posted: 4/22/2011 10:11:39 AM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

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