Today is Palm Sunday and I was thinking about how central trees are to the story God is telling in this world. What does it mean that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the week he was crucified, the crowd "took branches of palm trees" (John 12:13) to welcome him?
What do we make of the moment when Jesus curses the fig tree?
What does it mean that the Bible begins with a “Tree of Life" in Eden (Gen. 2:9) and ends with a "Tree of Life" at the end, a tree whose leaves "were for the healing of the nations" (Rev. 22:2, 14, 19)? The Tree of Life is the image that bookends the Bible: Paradise lost and Paradise found.
In many ways the story of the Bible, and the meaning of the Christian gospel, is bound up within this narrative. What can restore Paradise? What can allow humanity to enter into that perfect presence with God again, symbolized in this mysterious “Tree of Life”?
Turns out the answer was a tree of death.
In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross, those banned from the garden can now return. Separated from the “Tree of Life” presence of God since Adam and Eve’s original sin, humans now have access again, through Christ.
Trees bring life both in living and in dying. In life they provide the oxygen we need to survive. Without trees and their leaves, we can't breathe. They also bear fruit for our sustenance. They provide shade from the heat. They provide life to entire ecosystems of plants and animals.
And yet trees also bring life in their death. Trees that are cut down provide wood that becomes shelter, or fire that keeps us warm. In their death, trees give raw materials for farming and industry and furniture and medicine.
Is it any wonder that trees had to die in order that Noah's ark could be built, to give life to God's people amidst a flood of death? Is it any wonder that of all human occupations, Jesus was a carpenter, working with dead trees in order to bring new function and shelter? Is it any wonder that the ultimate Tree of Life was a tree cut down to form a cross, its branches the instrument of death that brings us life, through the crucified Christ?
I've been thinking about trees recently because the avocado tree in our backyard is shedding all its leaves: brown, ugly, dead leaves whose absence creates space for the next batch of avocados to grow. The same is happening with our Mandarin tree. We recently pruned it to almost bare bones, but only so that new life would emerge. And that's what is happening. The orange blossoms are white and fragrant, and as they fall they reveal tiny green orbs that are the new baby oranges.
Paul tells us in Romans 1:20 that God's "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."
We need to read and love the Bible, but we also need to read and love the "book of nature." We need to look for aspects of God in the "things that have been made." The stories they tell, the truths they bear, are profound.
Trees give life, but they often do so through death. Falling leaves and springtime blossoms are an annual rehearsal of the death and resurrection cycle. A forest fire which chars acres of trees seems at first a devastating thing. But in the ashes and barrenness there are the makings of new habitats, the seeds of renewal.
This is the Christian story too, and the story of anyone who follows after Christ. To be a Christian is to enjoy the fruit of the Tree of Life, and to bear fruit in our own little tree lives, as branches connected to the True Vine. We will bear fruit especially if we put down solid roots in healthy soil, rather than uprooting ourselves constantly, and if we are willing to be pruned and shaped, rather than growing our own wild way.
By connecting to the Tree of Life who died on that Calvary tree, whose leaves are "for the healing of the nations," our lives bear witness to the oxygen and shelter and sustenance that only Christ provides.