Trees permeate Holy Week. On Palm Sunday branches are torn from trees (Gk: den’-dron) and placed on the road into Jerusalem (Mt 21:8). On Monday the fig tree (soo-kay’) is cursed, on Tuesday it is dead (Mk 11:13, 20). Also on Tuesday, in his apocalyptic discourse, Christ says: “Observe the fig tree and all the other trees (den’-dron).” (Lk 21:29).[i] On Thursday he refers to himself as the vine (essentially a water-laden prostrate tree) (Jn 15:1-5). On Good Friday Christ says: “…if they do these things when the wood (or ‘tree”) (xoo’-lon) is full of water (or “green”), what will happen when it is dry” (Lk 23:31)[ii]
Acts 5:30: “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘…The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.’”
Acts 10:39 – 4: again Peter: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…”
Acts 13: 28 – 29: Paul: “… they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…”
1 Peter 2: 24: “He… carried our sins in his body up onto the tree…”
After Pentecost, Peter and Paul, filled with their new understanding of what happened, used “tree” when speaking directly to others. Later Paul does use “cross” in his letters. The tree-picture is so central to the events of the Mystery of Golgotha that we cannot dismiss it as a simple or equivalent alternative to “cross.”
WHAT IS A TREE?
Below is a typical cross-section of a trunk (or large branch).
A. Bark; B. Phloem; C. Cambium;
D. Sapwood (living xylem);
E. Heartwood (dead xylem)
The cambium is alive, just a few cells thick, encircling the entire tree. When these cells multiply, those moving towards the center become sapwood xylem; those going towards the periphery become phloem and bark initials. Bark initials give rise to bark, a dead tissue continually sloughing away like skin. Sapwood continually dies forming heartwood, the bulk of the trunk. The heartwood accumulates, increasing the trunk’s diameter.
If we include sapwood, cambium, phloem and bark initials as the “living part” of, for example, a sugar maple ½ meter in diameter, this living layer would comprise but 2-4 centimeters, the cambium itself but a few millimeters. The phloem transports photosynthate from the leaves downward for the tree’s growth and functioning and for storage in the roots. When tapping for syrup one must not go in too deep, otherwise one misses the sapwood, which transports sugar-laden sap up from the roots. But, as already said, the sapwood continually dies into heartwood. So, the tree is built out of death.
Wood is made of substances extracted from the air above and the earth below. Earth substance is pulled up into the air and light via roots and sapwood, while air- light substance densifies and moves earthward via leaves and phloem. Rudolf Steiner describes a tree trunk as a pillar of earth reaching skyward,[v] but it is also sky and light drawn earthwards. He describes the cambium as continuous with the forest-soil’s humus layer, itself being a kind of “cambium.”
So the living part of a tree is a thin cylinder of life around death. The tree’s life radiates into the surrounding forest. In the roots the dead proportion increases, and Steiner describes an impoverishment of life-forces in the soil around the root zone.[vi] He further describes how there is a gathering of rich soul-forces surrounding and emanating from a tree’s crown, and where birds and insects abound. He suggests taking in the wafting aromas of trees as a way to sensibly perceive the supersensible astral environment of a forest.
A tree, as we know, is a blessing for all sorts of life. And do we not love the trees probably more than any other plant form? The rejuvenation we feel when walking through a forest comes not just from the peace and quiet, but also from being imbedded in these tree-borne fields of life and soul.
ARE HUMAN BEINGS LIKE TREES?
Mark 8:22-26: “And they bring a blind man to Jesus… Taking the blind man by the hand…and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see people, but they look to me like trees, walking.’ Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently…and began to see everything clearly.”
People looking like walking trees? Was the man, at first unable to clearly perceive physical forms, perhaps sensing moving fields of etheric and astral light reminiscent of those around trees?
Deuteronomy 20:19 “When you besiege a city…in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them…For is the tree of the field a human being, that it should be besieged by you?” Does God ask a rhetorical question? Might there actually have been some confusion in that early, still clairvoyant consciousness, between a man and a tree?
Or consider Psalm 92:12-14. “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree. He will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green.” Is this only a metaphor?
Rudolf Steiner compared the human being to an upside down plant, roots corresponding to the thinking head, flowers to the reproductive-digestive-will pole. But he was referring to the general plant form.[vii] The specific tree-type has its trunk as a kind of root extension, together corresponding to the mostly dead human head, not just the skull but also the nerves. In this sense, the death-process within the roots and trunk corresponds to the death-creating activity of our fallen and dead thinking. In the letter to Sardis (Rev. 3:1), the community presaging the consciousness of our current epoch,[viii] the angel says: “You have the name of being alive, yet are dead.”
THE TREES IN THE GARDEN
There was a river in the Garden of Eden. Outside the Garden, it branches into 4 great rivers (Gen 2:10). But earthly rivers don’t branch; the branches converge! The branching form of earthly rivers, often called “dendritic,” is a reversed image of how life moves in the spiritual world. The great river of life originates as a single gushing from God, then branches as does a tree.
In a tree the movement of water follows both patterns. It is gathered from the periphery into the roots, converging to the trunk like earthly rivers do. But in the crown, the trunk river branches out as water flows back into the peripheral air and light corresponding to the Paradise-river’s movement. On the other hand, as sugar-laden water flows back downward, the earthly pattern is above, the heavenly below. Both flows occur simultaneously. In the tree, therefore, life moves in both the earthly and the spiritual patterns. The part where death truly dominates, the xylem, holds the heavenly and earthly streaming together.
The bible says there were two trees in the garden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge which could also be called the Tree of Death, for Adam was told that if he ate from it he would die.
The Tree of Life is the great flowing river-of-life emanating from God with the “sound of many rushing waters” (Rev 1:15), then branching out into the myriad of created living beings, the “ten-thousand things” of Taoism.[ix] This is a supersensible tree. The Word is this very Life, which is also Light (Jn 1). This is another way of thinking about Christ; as the life-light of the world born as an “only” river from God, then branching out and through all living beings, both spiritual and earthly.
As Man fell in the Garden, attaching knowing to sense-perception, our thinking took on hardened contours and the world also took on hardened contours (see poem by Steffen). Man and World hardened together. Gradually we left the Garden entirely. Do we have the mission to accomplish spiritual freedom through being separated (= “sin”) as individuals from the Tree of Life, through experiencing “death”?
One could say that the entire sense-world is the Tree of Knowledge or Death having arisen within the Tree of Life as the heartwood-xylem of the world!When the Bible states that Christ was hung from a tree (xylem) it means that he was hung on the dying, dried-up and dead wood of our sense world.
A remarkable thing about our trees is that they are both alive and yet mostly dead. In the cambium lives a vague remnant of the Tree of Life while most of the tree’s size and mass is comprised of dead wood, like the Tree of Knowledge which separated out (again, separation = “sin”) from the Tree of Life. Consider again what is said to the community in Sardis in Apocalypse 3:1-2: “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die…”
How much of us is dead, how much still lives? This question faced the spiritual world when Christ was sent to the earth. On Good Friday, the wood still had “green,” had some life. But all the tree images of Holy Week point towards the wood being caught up in a drying, dying process. Humanity’s death process, originating from eating from the Tree of Sense-Knowledge, was threatening to overtake it. With Christ’s hanging from the tree, not only did humanity’s death-process reach a nadir (or zenith depending on point of view), but also a turning point.
The turning point came because the Life of the World united with World Death. Or, one could say, the Tree of Life reconnected with the Tree of Death infusing it with rejuvenating life as a New Creation!
THE TREE AND THE CROSS
Picture Christ hanging from the Tree.
(Deut 21:22-23): 22 “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse…”
Under Mosaic Law, to be hung from a tree was the ultimate punishment and disgrace. It meant the person had abandoned connection to the Law, hence to God, and was so totally given over to the earthly world that he at the same time fell into separation from the community. He was suspended between heaven and earth, dead and at home in neither world. He was “hung from a tree.”
Whereas the Cross-symbol pictures being fastened to the physical human body of death, the tree-symbol goes further. It shows Christ being hung from the very dying world, the entire universe. Thus Paul can say: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers…” (Ro 8:22-23), because all of creation had been, through the Fall, taken into Death. The great river of life was in danger of being overwhelmed by death.
THE NEW JERUSALEM TREE
Christ came to restore the Tree of Life, that is, to resurrect a living world from a dying world. In the New Jerusalem only the Tree of Life grows. That “other” tree is no longer there. He hung from the Tree of Death reuniting it with the Tree of Life. We could also say that He himself became the Tree of Death! By taking upon himself the sin, the separation, of the world from God, He so permeated this tree with Truth, with the “New Confession”, and with Life, the “New Faith,” that the Tree of Life resurrected!
Perhaps we can think of tree anatomy this way: that the Tree of Life consists only of cambium, sapwood, phloem and bark initials. There is no heartwood, there is no bark. There is only flowing, pulsing, moving light and life. This is another way of thinking about the Resurrection Body; as pure flowing Life and Light in the true Form of the human body, the living human body, being the microcosm of the World-Tree of Life.
Legend has it that the tree that was dead, even thorn imbued, sprouted roses. Hence the Rose Cross picture as a picture of the new Tree of Life redeemed from the Tree of Death by the Deed of Christ.
Revelation 22:2: “…in the middle of its street on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
What kind of a tree is this, which grows on both sides of the river and bears 12 kinds of fruit? This supersensible tree emerges from the river of life springing from God. The river branches “dendritically” out into the tree and is continuous with it. This tree branches through the 12 regions of the heavens pouring a 12-fold variety of beings and moralities into Creation. The world itself has reconnected with THE TREE and RIVER OF LIFE which are again one.
Christ made this possible by being the first to redeem life from death. We are to continue this work which He began, far into the future. With His life working in us, we can hope to bring life back to the world. In time, each of us must also hang from the tree as He did.
And all that has been said here is contained in Albert Steffen’s beautiful short poem!
Written by Rev. Peter Skaller, Housatonic, Massachusetts, USA.
Recently printed in the journal Perspectives.
[i] From the German in: Steffen, Albert: 1921, Weg-Zehrung, Im Rhein-Verlag zu Basel.
[ii] (Here the Greek word den'-dron is used, the more usual word we associate with “tree.”
Why did Luke not use this word in Acts, wheretree is translated from xy’-lon from which we derive
“xylem,” the mostly dead wood of the tree?
[iii] The “green” wood is literally the “xylem full of water” (hyd’ro xy’lo) or “sapwood” as opposed
to when it is dry or xeric (xe’ro) or “heartwood”. See below, What Is A Tree?
[iv] In his gospel, Luke, also the Acts’ author, uses “crucify”, which contains the root for cross
(stau’-ron), but only refers once to an actual cross on Good Friday, that which Simon of Cyrene carried.
The other evangelists use “cross,” but this word never comes from the mouth of Jesus when referring to
the event on Golgotha. In the conversation with Nicodemus in John 2 Jesus says he “must be lifted up as
Moses lifted up the serpent…” Moses used a staff, according to legend a piece of the “Tree of Life” from
the Garden of Eden, to lift the serpent, which wrapped around it and later became the healing symbol of
the medical profession.
[v] Rudolf Steiner, June 12 & 15, 1924 (GA 327), August 30, 1919 (GA 295), March 15, 1920 (GA 312)
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