This wooden Ethiopian hand cross is my most precious devotional object. It has many associations for me from my time in that beautiful land, with a Christian story that is both ancient and vibrant. And Ethiopians have a very deep intuition about the mystical connections between trees and the life of faith. Churches are often surrounded by sacred forestry and, in more recent years, these little forests have been rediscovered as having a key role in fostering biodiversity and topsoil protection. Of course they do: God’s creation is a wonderful and complex unity that exists in startlingly diverse forms. And this little cross speaks to me of that unity with a beautiful interlacing pattern with floral motifs formed of the wood of a tree. It speaks also of a unity in faith with its resemblances to the early Christian crosses of these islands, similarly organic and looping in form.
But on this day of all days, its greatest eloquence for me is in its resonances with the fertile paradoxes that come from the Christian language about the Cross as the Tree of Life, a thing of beauty and of ugliness, of glory and of shame, fashioned from the material of creation for the most cruel ends and yet also a tree whose leaves are for the healing of all. This language is abundant in the hymn, Vexilla Regis, which we will hear later, and in that other ancient song of praise to the wood of the Cross, Pange Lingua.
Even more striking is the language we hear in St John Chrysostom’s sermon for this most holy day: ‘This Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep; beneath its boughs I grow and expand; as it sighs around me in the breeze I am nourished with delight.’ For St John it is food, clothing, shelter, ladder, and ‘the foundation of the universe … the binding force of all creation.’ Extraordinary language with which to refer to one particular instrument of execution, one among very many thousands, whose footprint on the written histories of the empire under whose crushing boot this poor body was broken was barely visible. What can we make of this paradox? How do we claim as an event of cosmic importance this single instance of casual brutality of the powerful against the poor that has been repeated too many millions of times through history?
St John Chrysostom goes on to describe how, in St Matthew’s account, all things shuddered and were shaken when Jesus breathed forth His divine spirit on the Cross. The breaking of this fragile body is accompanied by the breaking of the very rock on which creation stands, the very rock in which the tree of the Cross is planted. All creation is ruptured. But as the Spirit of Jesus is commended to the Father, filling all things with life, the Creation stands firm once more.
We see this very same rupture all around us in polluted seas, melting ice, parched land, disappearing species. It is the same rupture we see in emaciated bodies, bomb-devastated apartment blocks, polarised communities. How does this singular tree offer healing to such deep wounds?
The reason St John could speak so warmly of this blood-stained wood is that the one whose life-creating death took place there opened a new way to life for all creation. Life is no longer a question of my survival which is sustained by what I can take for myself, but of genuine freedom gained through giving ourselves fully and joyfully in generous love. We look upon the crucified one and see on that tree one who is victor over death. Chrysostom sees him as stripped, not in humiliation, but in readiness for battle. He has defeated all the powers of destruction and greed by the one thing that is stronger than death: love – unbounded, unflinching, freely and lavishly given love.