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Crux Fidelis: The Tree of Life

Edward Burne-Jones, "Tree of Life"
Faithful Cross! Above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!
—Crux Fidelis

In which the pilgrim, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, meditates on the Crucified Christ as the Tree of Life.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, commemorating the finding of the True Cross by Constantine's mother Saint Helena during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Subsequently, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was ordered to be built upon the spot where the cross was found. But today we celebrate not only the finding of this relic, this tangible link to the Passion and Death of our Lord, but also the deeper mystery of the Cross.

When we stretch our our allegorical sense into the words of Scripture, we find many types of the Cross in the Old Testament: Noah's Ark, constructed of gopher wood, prefigures the saving power of the wooden cross that carries us through the sea of sin (Gen 6:14-18). Jacob, while fleeing Esau, slept and dreamed of a ladder that stretched from Heaven to Earth (Gen 28:11-12); just so the Cross links Heaven and Earth across the abyss of sin. Moses' staff, highlighted in today's first Mass readings, not only was lifted up with the bronze saraph to heal the stricken Israelites, but also was raised at the parting of the Red Sea (showing again the sea as a symbol of sin and death), and struck the rock which brought forth the saving water: the Cross is our road through Baptism.

But the ancient type that draws me in and lifts my heart to gaze in wonder on the cross is The Tree of Life. Prelapsarian Man ate freely from the Tree of Life, which resided at the center of the Garden. Upon it hung heavy the fruit of eternal life. How can we not see that upon Golgotha, in a paradox of paradoxes, that a new Tree of Life has been raised from an instrument of death? "They put him to death by hanging him on a tree." (Acts 10:39) And just as the Tree of Life grew at the center of Paradise, the Crucified Christ is the center of all space and time.  On that glorious new tree, the rebellious Satan is caught and held fast, just as the rebel Absalom was caught by a tree (2 Sam 18:9-15). Beneath these eternal branches, we shall meet the Trinity, as Abraham met the Lord beneath the tree of Mamre and served the three mysterious men who appeared (Gen 18:1-8).

God, in his Wisdom, not only revealed the Tree of Life and the Cross by types to the people of Israel within the Old Testament, but one can find the signs of this type in many pre-Christian faiths throughout the world. Perhaps the most powerful of these is the story of Odin and the World Tree. Odin, the "All-Father" of the Norse patheon of Aesir, in order to gain greatest wisdom made a sacrifice of himself to himself, by hanging himself, pierced by his own spear, for nine days upon the World-Tree Ygdrasil, which stretches from the Underworld unto the Highest Heavens, linking all Creation in the myths of the North Men. How can we not see an echo of Christ, who hung upon the tree as a sacrifice of reparation for sin, whose heart was pierced with the centurion's spear? God's love for humanity is so great that all cannot help but reach out for the truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Cross, and their myths are inchoate graspings at those deepest of truths. How miraculous that the Lord has revealed his Cross and the Tree of Life by types to all people, but how glorious that he has revealed the True Cross, not in some hazy mythological "once upon a time" but at a particular place in space and history, amidst his chosen people. The very cross and tree by which He will restore them to Paradise.

 The Cross draws us to dwell in the Garden of Eden, where we find not only the new Adam restored by the Tree of Life, but also the New Eve in Jesus' mother, standing still at the foot of the cross as she gazes upon her Son who by his death has defeated Death crushing the head of the serpent under his heel as was foretold (Gen 3:15). The Garden where the New Adam is restored as seneschal of Creation, revealed when Mary Magdalene identifies the Risen Lord as the gardener (Jn 20:15). But we have strayed from the Cross, the Tree of Life on which hangs the new fruit of Eternal Life, the flesh and blood of our Lord. This fruit, this promise of salvation and infinite Glory of the Lord we share in each time we partake in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, the Cross, the Tree of Life: all of salvation is made present to us, here and now, at each and every Mass. To follow the Way of the Cross is to walk the path to the tree of life, the way of the righteous as the Psalmist sings, that we too may become with Christ forever "like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither." Amen


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