Triduum – The tree

Whilst the cross is being venerated (in places where this sort of thing goes on) during the Liturgy of the Day on Good Friday the choir may be singing the traditional hymn ‘Pange Lingua’ (Sing my tongue) with the refrain known as ‘Crux Fidelis’

FAITHFUL Cross!
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
 none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!

So often in hymns and readings for this season the cross is referred to as a tree.  It’s a useful way to refer to the cross when you want to be able to make a connection between Adam and Jesus. If the first man, Adam, fell from grace because of the fruit of a tree then the new Adam will himself be the fruit of the tree that will restore grace.  Jesus is that Second Adam and so the tree connection makes the connection. The fruit of one tree brought death, the fruit of a second tree brought life. ‘None in fruit thy peers may be’, we sing as we ‘behold the wood of the cross’.

It was therefore wonderful for me in my quest for the ‘hidden and holy’ in Jerusalem whilst there on sabbatical last year, that I came across a monastery set right at the heart of modern Jerusalem but off the beaten track as far as pilgrims are concerned.

The Monastery of the Cross is in Emek Hamatzlevah, the Valley of the Cross which is now part of west Jerusalem, just below the Knesset, the Parliament of Israel. The place was founded around the 4th – 5th century on a site venerated by the early Christians as being where the wood was obtained from which the cross was made.  But the story that surrounds it is amazing.

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The Monastery of the Cross

It goes back to the hospitality of Abraham and his three visitors, three angels, an experience of the Trinity.  The tradition is that before they left after they had been fed by Abraham and Sarah, they gave their staffs, made of different woods, to him.  The story then moves on to after the events concerning Lot and his sinful acts that we read of in Genesis.  Lot comes to Abraham and asks how he can be forgiven.  The Patriarch tells him to take the three staffs left by the angels and plant them on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was then to water them with water from the River Jordan.  If they blossomed it would be a sign that God had forgiven him.  Lot takes the staffs and despite the attempts of the Devil to prevent him, waters them with Jordan water.  They blossom and grow into one tree composed of three woods, pine, cypress and cedar. The story then moves forward to the trial of Jesus.  Pilate orders that this cursed tree (as he sees it) made up of three woods of different heights, be felled and brought for use in the crucifixion.  That is what happened.

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The tree is watered and blooms

The monastery that you find today is peaceful and beautiful.  The frescos in the main church are stunning and seldom seen as there are few visitors.  Behind the main sanctuary is a chapel in which, beneath the altar, is a hole from where the tree was removed.  Whatever the truth of the story it was a beautiful and holy place and it put me in touch with the tree, with the wood.  I was reminded of that wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘The Dream of the Rood’, and a passage from it

I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,
until I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood:
“That was very long ago, I remember it still,
that I was cut down from the edge of the wood,
ripped up by my roots.”

I traced the journey of that tree from that valley across to where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands which was itself at that time ‘without a city wall’ as Mrs Alexander’s hymn describes it. I climbed the steps up to Golgotha and to that other hole beneath the altar into which this tree was replanted. I had placed my hand in that first hole from which the tree had been ‘ripped up by my roots’ to us the Rood’s own words, and now placed my hands in this second hole, cut into lifeless rock in which the tree would bear fruit.  Then I went down the stairs that led to the quarry in which St Helena’s workers found the discarded wood, the discarded tree.

The carol ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ a setting by Elizabeth Poston of a poem by an unknown author dating back to the 18th century, begins like this

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

The tree we venerate is the tree of life and the fruit of that tree is what gives us life.  Planted, replanted, it continues to bear fruit.

Jesus Christ,
fruit of the tree that gives life,
may I too be
a fruit-bearer
and
a life-giver
as I follow you.
Amen.

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My Holy Week – Good Friday

There’s such a sense of momentum from the second half of Maundy Thursday until now on Good Friday. It is as though events overtake you and you’re caught up in the breathlessness of it all. And that must be good, and that must be how it must be, because that is how it must have been for Jesus and his disciples. Events took them over as they were taken over, as evil had its day, as political power buckled under the demands of the crowd, as one man bore the weight of everything.

Yesterday evening, the ‘Evening Celebration of the Lord’s Supper’, was amazing. I’ve presided at that service so many times but this year it seemed to affect me differently. It was something to do with the feet to be perfectly honest. Twelve members of the congregation had offered to have their feet washed (or at least a foot) and they were seated down the nave. Canon Mark Oakley, our Holy Week preacher, had already challenged us to think what the church would have been like if the command to wash one another’s feet, which Jesus gave to his disciples, had replaced as foremost and paramount the command to eat bread and drink wine ‘in remembrance of me’.

‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13.14)

What, he asked, if we were a community of foot washers rather than bread breakers. The bowl rather than the altar would then have been at the heart of our liturgy and our life. It was a fascinating idea. It is an evening of commands – to love, to wash, to eat, to drink. And we perhaps couldn’t follow them all and so we chose the meal, we chose to follow the command to eat and drink, and forgot the command to wash, until this night.

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One of the things that the priest becomes very familiar with is seeing the row of hands held out waiting, wanting communion, the bread of life. Those hands have been part of the Lent art installation ‘Earthworks’ and have reminded me of those hands. But we have also had a series of feet in the Cathedral, at the High Altar. And so seeing these twelve feet before me, waiting to be washed I found very moving. And it’s physically demanding. Up and down, up and down, juggling the bowl and towel and the water – pouring, holding, drying the feet. It’s intimate, personal, nothing quite like it. You look at the feet, not at the face. Young feet, black feet, gnarled feet, feet that have taken long journeys, feet that have been well looked after. We know hands well, we hold them, touch them – but feet are so different. Yet, like hands they tell their story – and it’s a story of pilgrimage, of the journey people are on.

'Earthworks' feet

‘Earthworks’ feet

That journey continued today because some of those same feet were on the Walk of Witness that I took part in from Blackfriars to Waterloo. On the way we gathered people and at the Pop-Up Church in the station people stopped hurrying for trains as we sang ‘Amazing Grace’. It was amazing and there was grace abounding. Then back in the Cathedral we took that journey with Jesus to the cross.

The Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday is for me perhaps the most powerful service of the Christian year. It has its own pace, the slow walk to the cross, the walk of the mournful, the solemn walk that brings you to Calvary. Within all the solemnity though its the veneration of the cross which is amazing. The line of people down the nave, each wanting their moment at the cross, making that journey to be near the cross on this day, is staggeringly humbling.

In the station I was asked to give an interview. ‘Why have you been doing this; why is Good Friday important?’ I spoke about the way in which so many people don’t know what’s going on when they see the procession coming down the street, and maybe, maybe we just remind them of the day, like on Palm Sunday. And why do it? Because whilst some may think that this was something that happened then, we know that it happens now. Christianity, Jesus, God, is always in the now, in the present moment and setting the cross at the heart of the busyness of Waterloo Station as people hurry past, their feet bearing them on their journey and setting the cross in the heart of the Cathedral where the pilgrim journey always continues is a reminder that the foot of the cross is planted in the now of the world.

Holy feet, holy journeys, the sacred feet of Jesus nailed to the cross, the foot of that cross driven into the earth, feet to be washed, feet to be cherished, journeys to be made.

Lord,
may every step I take
be on the path
that you tread before me.
Amen.

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