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One and Only Noble Tree

Today is Holy Cross Day. This has always seemed to me like a strange time of year to remember and venerate the central symbol of Christian faith. We’re nowhere near Holy Week or Easter, and even Lent is a long way off. On the other hand, every single Sunday in our liturgical lives as Christians, even during Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; likewise every Friday is an invitation to remember the passion and suffering of Jesus on the cross. Liturgical time is not particularly linear or even logical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Today’s commemoration stems from fourth-century accounts about the Emperor Constantine and the buildings he constructed in Jerusalem to mark the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; those sites were purportedly dedicated on September 14, 335, and eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, this mid-September day has been a time for reflection, though not so much on the death of Jesus per se but on the cross itself.

Yes, a bit odd perhaps but I’m reminded rather vividly these days, in an era of heightened ecological awareness, that the wood of that cross was once a living tree. The wood itself, as some strands in Christian traditions would have us ponder, “remembered” its own life as the Lord of Life was hung upon its “branches.”

What I appreciate about this view of the cross is how an otherwise “inanimate” object can still “remember” life, how life is still buried within it, perhaps like the faintest of heartbeats. Indeed, even some early depictions of the cross picture it as a slowly budding tree, as if still rooted, as if still living, as if by being touched by the flesh of the Incarnate Word of God, the life within the wood itself surfaced and blossomed.

Thinking about the cross in this way stretches my imagination and invites me to see life in every nook and cranny of everything God has made. Strictly speaking, there are no “inanimate objects” anywhere in the universe; everything pulsates with life from the Creator. This stands in shocking contrast—perhaps, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson has labeled it, “blasphemous contrast”—to the pervasive treatment of Earth’s ecosystems as a vast storehouse of lifeless stuff for us to mine, harvest, and burn at will.

And so I pause on this Holy Cross Day, not worried in the slightest about how oddly timed such a commemoration might be. The Cross will stand for some time to come for ongoing pain and suffering experienced by God’s creation. Perhaps as well the hope, deeply buried within that suffering, of God’s own life still to come. As with most artifacts and rites of a Christian life, this one is a complex brew of memory and hope—of recalling the death of Jesus and still proclaiming the (startling) promise of new life.

I am helped in all of this, as always, by music and by hymn texts. And every year on Holy Cross Day I recall one of my favorite hymns from Holy Week. It always brings me to tears. It’s an ancient text—some have placed it as early as the sixth century. It invites an astonishing level of adoration for the cross, not as an instrument of death but as the means to see anew the resilient presence of God’s own life. I offer two of the verses from that hymn for our shared pausing and reflecting. The text is by Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus and you can find it in the Hymnal 1982, #165 and #166:

Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for awhile the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty 
gently on thine arms extend.

“The Beauty of the Cross,” Daniel Bonnell
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Healing Shame, Changing the World

Perhaps you’ve seen the random placard in a football stadium crowd with “John 3:16” written on it. If you grew up like I did, you probably memorized that Bible verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…”

That’s supposed to be a life-changing snippet of Scripture, and it certainly can be. But for me, the two verses that come right before it prompted a profound re-orientation to Christianity entirely. This is rather odd, actually, because those verses are pretty obscure and they refer to a bizarre story from the Hebrew Bible.

I’m convinced that there are nuggets of spiritual insight here that carry the potential to change the world. To get there, I would invite you to consider that modern Christianity has focused so much of its attention on sin and guilt that it has left virtually untouched the issues of bodily shame and social violence.

“Redemptive Love of Christ,” Bronze door of the Grossmunster Church, Zurich

My own work as a teacher and pastor, my understanding of Christianity and the role Christian faith communities can play in the wider society, indeed my own life and sense of self changed significantly when I turned more directly to the problem of shame and its consequences (it prompted me to write a whole book rooted in this insight called Divine Communion).

What I’m referring to here, in shorthand fashion, is this: the problem of guilt says, “I did something bad”; the problem of shame says, “I am bad.”

Consider the difference between those two statements—having done something bad and being bad—it won’t take you long to feel the difference in your own body.

One of many social science researchers working on this issue is Brené Brown, and I would urge you to watch her videos and read her books just as soon as you can. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling…that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging…”

Unworthy of love and belonging? That’s heartbreaking…and far too common.

We’re told this about ourselves almost constantly—our culture of celebrity; our idolization of wealth and popularity; mass marketing and advertising aimed at making us feel needy and empty without certain products; fitness crazes that make us hate our bodies; the list goes on.

Brown says that shame is likely the source of many destructive, hurtful behaviors; this sense of being unworthy of connection, she says, “can make us dangerous.”

She means, dangerous to ourselves (when we isolate and self-medicate) and dangerous to others (when we project our own unworthiness on those who are different from us and then punish them for it).

Needless to say, there’s a lot of resistance to dealing with issues of shame; ironically and tragically, a lot of people find it shameful to talk about shame—the problem feeds on itself, in other words. As Brown puts it, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”

If, however, we cultivate our capacity for naming it and addressing it, we can weaken its power over us. We can, at long last, find healing—for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our communities, dare I also say, for our nation.

All of that is preface to the rather odd verses in John’s account of the Gospel that introduce the more famous one so many of us have memorized. In those verses, John’s Jesus says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (3:14).

Stick with me here, because we need to know two interrelated things for this peculiar verse to make any sense.

First, the image of a serpent was a powerful one for ancient Mediterranean societies. Among the several meanings of this image, serpents could symbolize healing—the shedding of a snake’s skin evoked renewal and new life, for example. Serpents could also be dangerous and deadly, and this was important, too. That mix of risk and hope lingers in the old aphorism about how to soothe the effects of a hangover—you just need some “hair from the dog that bit you.”

More directly: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

The second thing we need to know is that the story John’s Jesus refers to is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible. It’s a story about the ancient Israelites as they are bitten by poisonous serpents which make some of them ill and more than a few of them die.

God instructs Moses to do a very strange thing in response: to make a bronze image of a serpent and then lift it high upon a pole. Anyone who looks upon that image, God says, will be healed—and they were (Numbers 21:9).

Some have suggested that this story influenced the development of the familiar image of a snake wrapped around a pole as a symbol for the medicinal arts. Others have suggested that the “rod of Asclepius” wielded by the god of the healing arts in Greek mythology is the origin of the healthcare symbol. In any case, across these cultural contexts, the insight remains: that which causes the disease also provides the cure.

John apparently wants us to think about that ancient story in relation to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If so, John invites not a mechanism of atonement to secure forgiveness; John wants us to gaze on the source of our pain for the sake of our healing.

If unnamed, untreated bodily shame can make us dangerous, as Brené Brown says, then let us seek out the cure for that disease within the disease itself—being fully human. God actually does this for us in Jesus—God becomes human, becomes the very source of our shame so that God can also become our cure, lifted high for all to see.

I am truly convinced that naming, addressing, and healing bodily shame would change the world. So much of our distress, our self-loathing, our fear and hatred of the “other,” our destructive behaviors and ecological suicide erupts from that grim pit of unacknowledged shame.

That’s not an easy trail of ideas to follow, I realize. Thankfully, John’s Jesus offers multiple ways for us to see his meaning. The very next verse, the famous one, is Jesus making his meaning plain: “for God so loved the world.”

That’s the key, right there—God’s love.

“For God So Loved the World,” Marguerite Elliott

Forgiveness is a great antidote for guilt, and we all need it, but it won’t touch our shame and it won’t mend our violent divisions and it won’t soothe our social heartache.

The only thing that will touch all of that and then heal it is love—and not just any kind of love, but the love of God, who does not love us from afar—as if ashamed of us—but instead becomes one of us.

Not to condemn the world, John says, but so that the world might be saved.

For God so loved the world…