Homily delivered on August 9th, 2015.
It all begins and ends with a Tree, and the fruit thereof. This may seem to us at first to have very little to do with the Gospel, but let me take us somewhere for just a few moments. The image, or icon if-you-will, of the tree occurs in most mythologies and belief systems throughout history. Indeed, in most of pre-Christian Europe, the tree is a sacred symbol. For the old Celts, which at one point covered most of mainland Europe and the British Isles, the tree was a religious gathering point. It is put forward by Roman and Greek historians that the Druids gathered and worshipped in nemetons, a word that means ‘sacred grove.’ The word, druid, itself has been taken by many to mean ‘wise men of the oak.’
The most notable example of the tree in a religious belief system in pre-Christian times, however, is the Norse Yggdrasil, the world tree. The Norse believed that the whole of the cosmos was contained within Yggdrasil, and that the fruit of the tree was the nine realms of all created reality. The roots of the great tree Yggdrasil are continually gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg. It is this same tree on which Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, was hanged for nine days. As one Norse saga puts it, “Odin sacrificed himself to Odin.”
Likewise, to many peoples trees have been considered gateways to the Otherworld, or a home of a god or spirit. Even today in parts of rural Ireland when a road, or some other public work needs to be completed, care is taken not to disturb, or cut down, a hawthorn tree as a particular hawthorn was at one time thought to be one of the dwellings of the Tuatha De Danann, the old Celtic gods.
So, what is it about the tree that has been so significant to peoples throughout history? Why does it still symbolize strength, power, stability, peace, or conversely danger and terror? Because the tree is a cosmic center and touches all realms the ancient peoples considered sacred. The tree grows from a seed in the earth, a traditional pointer to the underworld, to the world we know, that animals, and man walk upon, and its branches extend into the heavens, the realm of spirits and gods.
We read in the 2nd chapter of Genesis:
8 And God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and placed there the man whom he had formed. 9 And God made to spring up also out of the earth every tree beautiful to the eye and good for food, and the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of learning the knowledge of good and evil. 10
Every tree was beautiful to the eye and good for good. Trees bear fruit. They bear life. But there is a tree set before man in the garden that was not given to him. All of the plants and trees of creation were offered to man as a gift, a means of communion with the God who had made him, except the Tree of the learning of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree alone, was not given to man for food. And as long as man refrained from eating from this tree; as long as he did not partake of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, then he had life and communion with God.
You see, it all begins with a tree because we know the outcome of the garden, don’t we? Adam and Eve did eat from the one tree in the whole cosmos that was not given to them for food. But God, had already put in the midst of the garden another tree, the Tree of Life, by which mankind would ultimately be saved. This tree, the Tree of Life, the tree on which the God-man Himself would hang to free us from sin and death, had already been seen by Adam and Eve. They knew there was a Tree of Life. They knew this tree was significant, holy, and would have something to do with salvation. So it should be no wonder to us that throughout the history of the world, throughout belief systems, or mythologies that we don’t consider even remotely Christian, this symbol has permeated and endured.
It is this second Tree, this Tree of Life that is, for us, our hope and our salvation. We sing and pray frequently that the Cross is our invincible weapon of peace. We encourage each other by singing through the Cross, joy has come into all the world, and that through the Cross, Christ has destroyed death by his own death. And it is this same Tree, on which the God-man was crucified that opens for us the gates of paradise, and allows us to participate in the life of God through the indwelling grace and power of the Holy Spirit. For it is this Tree that bears the fruits of God.
In writing his Epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul reminds his flock that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control do not originate within us. These fruits are of the Holy Spirit. They are the fruits of the Cross. Christ has taken our passions that Paul lists in the preceding verses: idolatry, the practice of magic, hatred, strife, selfish ambitions, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envies, murders, excess drinking, orgies, and similar things and has nailed them to the Tree of the Cross. The fruit of the fallen tree, the tree of the learning of the knowledge of good and evil, is taken up and nailed to the Tree of Life. In doing this Christ has freed us from their power, influence, control, and spiritual consequence which is death.
Being freed from the curse of the fallen tree, the Holy Spirit is planted within us so that we may grow, flourish, and exhibit the fruits of thereof. These fruits the Apostle tells us of: love, joy, peace, patience, and so on are the natural result of our being grafted into His life. Christ, after all, is the root, and we the branches, and the life that is flowing in us, and through us, is nothing less than the Holy Spirit Himself, the Giver of Life. And as we live, we produce the fruits of life.
The fruits of the Spirit are not forcefully implanted in us, however. We are not forced to be joyful, or peaceful, or patient, or kind. God does not impose self-control on us. That wouldn’t really be self-control, would it? No, to be grafted onto the Tree of Life means that we must come to our own tree, our own cross. We must voluntarily take up that cross to follow Christ. Christ says in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it
So, the image of the Tree is everywhere. It is the Cross. The oak, the hawthorn, the Christmas Tree, the Yule log, Yggdrasil, the white tree of Gondor, and so many others point us to the One Tree. They point us to the Cross. Specifically, they point us to the life-giving Cross of Christ, and by extension they remind us of the cross we ourselves must bear. But, dear ones, in bearing this cross, we unite ourselves to the One Cross, and are given life, and become bearers of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. For the Tree of Life, let us give thanks to the Good God; to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.