Fr. Gregory Hallam · March 26, 2014
On the celebration of the Holy Cross and its Veneration, we have three trees in view. The first, the Tree of Life, which is God Himself. The second, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whereby with ascetic struggle we can all acquire that purity of heart without which no one can even see the first Tree, God, let alone receive the Life that flows from Him. And finally, the third tree, the Tree of the Cross that we venerate whereupon our lives are blessed and not cursed; the Law giving way to Grace, the Cross to Resurrection.
One of our hymns used before Christmas says this:-
“Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb appeared as a spiritual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.”
It may seem strange that half way to Easter, in the middle of Great Lent, I am quoting from a Christmas hymn and yet this is not so strange at all. Christ is to be found in all of human history and indeed before the advent of humanity. He is foreshadowed in Old Testament times and made present in the flesh in the Incarnation when the second Person of the Holy Trinity received our human nature from the Theotokos – planting it as it were in her womb.
That little word “plant” is used in the hymn: “for her womb appeared as a spiritual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant.” The Plant of course is our Lord Himself, the Word, the Logos made flesh. We first encounter this Plant in the book of Genesis, chapter 2 when it is referred to as the Tree of Life. Now, in antiquity and still to this day, the Tree of Life is an ancient, enduring and universal symbol which speaks for itself. However, in Orthodox Christian theology the Tree of Life both in Eden, (or as we should say Paradise), and in the Ever Virgin Mary’s womb it is no less than Christ Himself. This is first of three trees we shall deal with today and it signifies our life-giving God.
The hymn starts by saying that “Eden has been opened for all.” It had first been shut and humanity evicted from the Garden on account of our mishandling of the second tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the original ancient story that Genesis refashioned and later generations were to reinterpret, the serpent that emboldened Adam and Eve to eat from this tree was not understood to be the devil but rather simply a cunning and dangerous animal that introduced enmity between humanity and the High God of an original divine pantheon. That is what the text actually says. Clearly, early monotheism could not accept this story in its original form so later generations were to reinterpret the narrative in a completely different way. The serpent became Satan and God’s action in forbidding the eating of the fruit of the second tree became entirely philanthropic and nothing at all to do with the original motif of divine jealousy and human infantilism (much like the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods).
It was instead a loving action of a loving God that forbade the eating of the fruit of the second tree. Man was but a child spiritually and could not yet handle such knowledge. After the disobedience of our first parents and their expulsion from Eden the second tree became present curse rather than a future blessing. The first tree, the Tree of Life became inaccessible to humanity, guarded at the gates of Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. Humanity had chosen against God and the result was spiritual corruption and death, mercifully limited in scope by the physical mortality that had infected all of creation since the preceding angelic fall of Satan himself.
The change in the second tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from a future blessing in Eden to a present curse in this world is amply demonstrated by the consequences of the Fall of man that we see around us every day of our lives. Although the divine image and likeness in humanity has not been entirely lost, humans now have to fight against those passions that continue to infect them if they are to have any chance of rescuing the second tree from being a curse, a curse that prevents good and evil being distinguished through human sin and corrupting spiritual death. Such a victory over sin and death, a victory that would truly liberate humankind from the suffering brought on by the Fall, could only be achieved by an act of God himself. This actually happened in time through the consent of our Lady and the advent of her Son; both prophesied in Genesis itself, the Mother of God, the New Eve and her “seed”, Christ, who would bruise the serpent’s head. In the Incarnation, God turns the accursed second tree into a tree of blessing, reconnecting it, and of course us, to the first tree, the Tree of Life, God Himself.
St. Paul eloquently describes this transformation of the second tree by a third, which we know from him and the other apostles to be the Tree of the Cross. St. Paul identifies the curse as the Law with its dual nature. That which is good, the Law becomes our antagonist, a curse because, being out of communion with God before Christ, it justly condemns us on account of sin. In Galatians Chapter 3 St. Paul writes this:-
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10-14)
There are two key phrase here, the first: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”. St. Paul is quoting from the Law itself in Deuteronomy (21:23) where anyone who was hung on a tree was regarded as being cursed by God. The second phrase introduces us to the third tree of our account: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us”. How was this so? … because Christ voluntarily hung Himself on this third tree, the Cross, for our salvation. By becoming cursed for us, Love in the form of the Crucified Christ, became an inexhaustible source of blessing for all humankind.
To go back now to the Nativity hymn, this is why Eden has been re-opened for us … because the third tree, the Tree of the Cross has lifted the curse and the resurrection has brought us back to the Tree of Life. Even the second tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is no longer a danger to us provided that we trust Christ with our whole mind, heart and strength and follow him on the way of the Cross to eternal life.
And so it is on this celebration of the Holy Cross and its Veneration that we have three trees in view. The first, the Tree of Life, which is God Himself. The second, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whereby with ascetic struggle we can all acquire that purity of heart without which no one can even see the first Tree, God, let alone receive the Life that flows from Him. And finally, the third tree, the Tree of the Cross that we venerate whereupon our lives are blessed and not cursed; the Law giving way to Grace, the Cross to Resurrection.