The Tree

Each day during Lindisfarne's Holy Week someone gives a talk on a hymn about Christ's passion and death. One of these was 'Sing, my tongue, the Saviour's glory... faithful cross above all other, one and only noble tree' by the Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus. He journeyed to Gaul, describing himself as a wandering minstrel, and his journey as just one in a series of adventures. He was inspired by Martin of Tours and became Bishop of Poitiers. It is thought he wrote this hymn to celebrate a large piece of the True Cross (discovered by the Empress Helena in Jerusalem) which Queen Radegund of the Franks brought to the monastery she founded at Poitiers. He likens the Cross to a second tree prepared by the Creator to redeem the evil that followed from human beings eating forbidden fruit from the first tree in the Garden of Eden. Both humans and creation need healing as a result of this disobedience. 'Then another tree was chosen/which the world from death should free... From that holy Body pierced/Blood and water forth proceed:/Earth and stars and sky and ocean/By that flood from stain are freed.'

The apostles Peter and Paul describe the Cross as a Tree – the two cross beams may have been cut from the same tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24). This image flowered in the imagination of people such Venantius Fortunatus and in Celtic lands. In the Celtic imagination the Tree of Death, linked to Eden’s tree of disobedience (Genesis 3), becomes the Tree of Life, linked to the ultimate tree that brings healing of nations depicted in the Bible’s last book (Revelation 22). The Cross, with Christ no longer there because He has risen from death, becomes the Tree of Life.

The Anglo-Saxon poem, 'The Dream of the Rood' (Tree), which is carved on the beautiful Cross now preserved in Ruthwell Church just north of the English-Scottish border in western Britain. is perhaps the greatest flowering of the school of poetry inspired by Saint Hilda’s cowherd, Caedmon. In part two the crucifixion story is told from the perspective of the tree. The tree learns that it is not to be the bearer of a criminal, but of the Son of God. The Lord and the Cross become one, and they stand together as victors, refusing to fall, taking on insurmountable pain for the sake of humankind. In a sensational and culture-changing image, Christ, the blood-drenched victim becomes the supreme Anglo-Saxon warrior who by choosing death, makes possible eternal life for everyone.

The Tree speaks:

I remember the morning a long time ago that I was felled at the edge of the forest and severed from my roots. Strong enemies seized me, bade me hold up their felons on high, and made me a spectacle. Men shifted me on their shoulders and set me on a hill. Many enemies fastened me there. I saw the Lord of humankind hasten with such courage to climb upon me. I dared not bow or break there against my Lord’s wish, when I saw the surface of the earth tremble. I could have felled all my foes, yet I stood firm. Then the young warrior, God Almighty, stripped himself, firm and unflinching. He climbed upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem humankind . . . I saw the God of hosts cruelly stretched out. Darkness with its clouds had covered the Lord’s corpse, the bright radiance. A shadow went out forth, dark beneath the clouds. All creation wept …'

In both the Poitiers and the Celtic understanding everything, including creation itself is transformed by this cosmic tree event.

Pilgrims are on their way from Iona, Carlisle, Haddington and Hexham carrying the heavy, bare Cross-beams of the Tree on their shoulders, walking on Good Friday with bare, perhaps bleeding feet across the final soaking sands of their long journey. On Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, these 'Trees' will be covered with brightly coloured flowers, and the pilgrims will dance and sing around the island. Once again, in our times, the Tree of Death becomes the Tree of Life.

Posted at 08:44am on 17th April 2014
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