Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. He responds to a question on the cross of Jesus as the tree of life. In the post find a stained glass window from St. Mary Church, Waukesha, Wisconsin. Father Matthew Widder, pastor, gave permission for the image to be used here.
On Good Friday my pastor preached on the cross of Jesus as the tree of life, explaining that the tree of our defeat in the garden of Eden became the tree of our victory on Calvary. This was new to me. Can you say more about this?
What your pastor preached about on Good Friday is concisely expressed in the preface for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on Sept. 14: “For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth.”
Some years ago I discovered the text and tune of a beautiful song about the tree of life composed by Marty Haugen and titled, “Beneath the Tree of Life”:
Come and gather beneath the tree of life,
Come and gather beneath the tree of life;
Root of wisdom, branch of peace, fruit of healing and release.
Come and gather beneath the tree of life.
For us who are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the tree of life is his cross. That is how John the evangelist would have us see it as we hear his account of the Passion, death and burial of Jesus on Good Friday.
“In the place where he had been crucified, there was a garden,” John tells us (John 19:41). And in that garden, the cross is a tree of life, more desirable than the one in the garden of Eden. For the tree of life is a royal throne for the crucified Lord, the one who said “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), the one who is stronger than evil, death and sin.
Gifts freely given
Jesus brought all of our human sin, failure and anguish to the cross so that we might receive from it all of his divine power for reconciliation and healing, for wholeness and happiness, both in this life and in the life to come.
From his tree of life we receive release from words and works of death, and are filled with all the life of God. Easter empowers us to rediscover the meaning of Christ’s dying and rising, to accept the unimaginable and undeserved gifts won by those life-to-death-to-life events and now made ours through the liturgy. And all for free!
“Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation,” wrote Alexander Schmemann. “The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise” (“Great Lent” [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969], 93).
So great is God’s goodness that Christ gives us returning exiles to eat from his salvation-cart long before we actually get there. Thus Byzantine vespers invites each worshiper to pray that “I may partake of the Tree of Life and grace which was given to me in the beginning” (quoted in Thomas Hopko, “The Lenten Spring [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983], 27).
Christ pulls the salvation-cart full of life-giving fruits into the midst of every liturgy we celebrate. And all for free!
“We proclaim Christ crucified,” declared St. Paul, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Gentiles alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Such is God’s foolishness in Christ: God shares with us reconciled sinners all the fruits of Eden, that place of everlasting life and happiness. God invites us to take from the harvested fruit piled high in the salvation-cart of Christ. And all for free!
Fruits of the liturgy
But we who share the blessed fruit of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection dare not think that we do so because of any merit or credit of our own. God chose us, the followers of God’s foolishness in the Crucified One, to reject and overturn the wisdom of this world, “so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:29) — not even any director of liturgy who has been most responsible for another magnificent Holy Week and Triduum. (It seems that the monks of my monastery always say that this year’s liturgies were the best ever …).
But no matter whether everyone and everything was flawless (and if they were, would we know if God prized them any more highly?), “Christ is the feast, and on this single Life Tree is variety indeed, the 12 fruits that fill us to the full growing on one single tree” (Revelation 22:2) (Gail Ramshaw, “Words Around the Fire” [Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1990], 45).
We taste the church’s best spiritual fruits in our liturgical celebrations. For with Christ as God’s chosen guide into the ways of divine-and-human mysteries, “we are taught to perform in this world the symbols and signs of the blessings to come, and so, as people who enter into the enjoyment of the good things of heaven by means of the liturgy, we may possess in assured hope what we look for” (Theodore of Mopsuestia). And all for free!
Our salvation in and through the risen Christ is God’s gift, not a reward. For the only true reward, the only one worth praying about and preaching about and singing about, is the one that Christ gained for us by his victory over death.
That is the reward he delights to share with us from his salvation-cart, as we receive the gifts of heaven through our liturgy on earth. And strengthened by those gifts, we might even find ourselves handing out his life-giving fruits to others. Happy Easter Time!
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.