“On a bare | Hill a bare tree saddened | The sky. Many people held out their thin arms | to it, as though waiting | for a vanished April | to return to its crossed | boughs. The Son watched | Them. Let me go there, he said.” (RS Thomas, The Coming)
For several weeks on some days, the sounds of St Mary’s has whirred to the sound of steel and wood, as our trees are pollarded, a piece of work to make the site safe and to care for the trees.
Listening to the sounds from my desk, I hear the crack, the split and fall of wood, crashing through branches, grounded with a deep thud. Through listening to the sounds and watching the work, I am reminded of the heaviness of wood. The workers carry and hurl sawn logs, leave behind a stump of a tree, silhouetted against the grey sky, waiting for new growth. And there is the smell and scent of wood too, its sweetness a perfume for the senses.
In six weeks’ time it is wood that is venerated though not just any wood or any tree but the wood of the cross, a heavy burden placed upon the shoulders of Christ, so heavy and destructive that he needs help along his sorrowful way. But the burden was greater still, carries the crack and split, the crash and thud, the heaviness of human sin.
The Cross in Christian theology is not simply the physical thing, an instrument of torture, an item of pain but a means through which we talk about the death of Christ. It is synonymous with salvation, a symbol of God’s saving love played out in metal piercing flesh and wood. The heaviness of sin crashes to the ground, the sweetness of his salvation a perfume for all.
St Paul says that for some, the cross is a “‘stumbling block’ and ‘foolishness’ but for us it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Where there seems to be failure, suffering and defeat, we see the power of God’s unending love although sometimes, perhaps, we can’t see the wood for the trees.
“This is the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world,” sings the priest three times on Good Friday. The people respond, “Come let us adore.” The Liturgy of Good Friday is more silent, more stark than any other. The church has been stripped of ornaments and colour, there is no musical accompaniment, the bells are silenced.
“Come let us adore,” they say or sing. And adore they do, moved by him who has moved the world with his love. They approach the unveiled cross, the Tree of Life, offer a gesture of love, of sorrow, of gratefulness, as they draw close to kiss or touch the wood of the cross, bringing to him their need of him. “Nothing in my hands I bring | Simply to Thy cross I cling| Naked, come to Thee for dress | Helpless, look to Thee for grace: | Foul, I to the fountain fly, |Wash me, Saviour, or I die.” (Rock of Ages)
The trees at St Mary’s will sprout again, growing upwards and outwards, extending their branches into the sky, a home for nesting birds, a thing of beauty, breath for the earth. During Lent, we draw near and nearer to the Cross of Christ, praying that the power of his Love will flourish in our lives during Lent – the Springtime of the Church.
For many people, Easter is the time when it is hoped that life will emerge from lockdown, as they grapple with what their “new normal” has been or could be. It’s not a phrase I like to say or hear, banned as it is from my vocabulary! And yet, perhaps, Easter is and always has been the new normal, the power of God’s love to defeat darkness, hurl down death, deal with sin, open up new possibilities of life with God. Whatever Easter means to you, though, perhaps all of us in different ways are “waiting for a vanished April to return.”
And yet Christians, whether in or our of Lent, are always an Easter people who glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14). April has returned, the Tree of Life is alive with leaf, it is fruitful with God’s love, brings hope to the world.