Good Friday – The Tree of the Cross

‘Behold the wood of the cross,’ we say on Good Friday. ‘Touch wood,’ we say on any day of the year, reaching out for the nearest piece of wood as an extension of the wood of the cross. When we cross our fingers it is a sign of the cross we are making.

The cross is a tree. This tree represents the union of God and man in Christ, and the history that creates this union, and the gospel that reveals this history.

The cross is a representation of the figure of a man with his arms extended upwards. Moses held up his arms until the battle against the Amalekites was won and Israel was saved (Exodus 17.11.-12) in battle. ‘He opened wide his arms for us on the cross.’ His arms are up in welcome and to give us his protection. The Lord extends his arms out in order to save us and give us his shelter. He extends his covenant to include us, so we are covered and protected. He holds out his arms as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and as the Holy Spirit gives us his protection, portrayed in our West window as the dove with outstretched wings.

The Lord opens wide his arms for us also on occasions when his arms are not mentioned. In the Transfiguration on the mountain the disciples see the Lord radiant with glory, with Elijah on one side and Moses on the other. Peter wants to recognise their dignity by setting up awnings to give them some shade. By his reply the Lord indicates that it is he who gives Peter and the Disciples shelter. The Lord is our covering (kippur), the covenant and the atonement that keep us safe. He raises his arms so that we can all come in under his coat. Moses and Elijah, the prophets and the law, are two wings of this shelter. Elijah stands on one side of Jesus, Moses on the other, so that the three of them form a triptych, in which Elijah and Moses reflect different aspects of Christ, so that we can see better who Christ is because we can see these two aspects of his identity in these two other figures.  The elements are no threat to the Lord, for they are simply his obedient servants. But the Lord gives us our shelter not so much from the elements, but from some of the worst consequences of the disorder in creation that result from our failure to rule it well. The Lord gives us shelter. He gives us a place to be. That place is with him. He is that place.

The cross as staff and symbol of authority

The cross is the staff Jesus carries. A staff indicates who is in charge. It tells us that of all the people gathered here, this one is the king. His sceptre identifies him. Thy rod and staff strengthen me (psalm 23.4). As this staff, the cross is the tangible manifestation of his authority. When the master holds his staff out before him, he decides how to separate those who are ready from those who are not, and gives judgement in favour of those who are right over those who are not. As this staff the cross is able to cut through anything and so to separate what has been lumped together, mixed and confused. In the hands of the good judge it therefore brings clarity to everything it moves through. The sword is a staff that has become a blade sharpened to separate sinew from bone. The shepherd moves through his flock, moving his staff left and right so that each animal is directed to the right or left and so either into the pen or back out into the field. He may divide them into those who will breed and those who will not, those who will stay and those who will go. The Lord judges and decide which is the right place for us to be.

The Tree is the Gate of Heaven

The rood screen is a tree. A rood is the trunk of a tree. The tree opens itself for us so that we can step through it into the company of God’s holy people in heaven. The tree is the gate. Since it had never opened before, we had not noticed it or realised that it was a gate.

In our church we go through the rood screen up into the sanctuary, into the redeemed Garden of Eden, where we join the choir before the altar and throne of the Lord. This garden in a courtyard is paradise and a model of creation redeemed and restored. The rood screen has a double door which you go through as you step up into the choir. The screen and almost all surfaces in the choir are carved or decorated with twining plant motifs indicating that we are witnessing the arrival of new life and so of spring. The Lord opens the gate of heaven to let us in. The cross is this gate.

The Cross embodies the Lord

Jesus is on the cross. He appears as man without God, and so as man in desolation, left alone with death, quite helpless. The Lord is hung up as a thing discarded and rejected by all men, too repulsive to be tolerable to human society. He is a visible warning that this way is closed, barred by this body left to die and become repulsive in this most public manner.  Our dying Lord becomes indistinguishable from all horror, and from death itself. He looks as twisted as the serpent which represents death, and the destruction of all that is good. He is this image and the summary of man contorted by all the horror pitched against man. But Jesus is not solely on the cross.

We must also say that the cross is Jesus. The cross is a representation of man reduced to the simplest elements, the Son of Man as stick-figure. Indeed the cross is two figures superimposed, Man who is with God and God who is with Man. The cross is not only man in desolation. It is also man with God and glorified by him.

On Good Friday, we repent of having abandoned man. We admit that this is what we have done. We are the ones who have driven our fellow man out, rejected and abandoned him. We decided that he was no good. We made ourselves his judges and condemned him and so usurped the judgement of God. The man we have judged and sent away appears us abandoned by God. We are mistaken. God has not abandoned him. Our own people are divided, excluded, and left desolate by us, but not by God. Our judgement of them rebounds on us. The crucifixion shows that it is us who are tied up. We are pinned to this cross of our own making. We are now hanging and squirming because our sin fixes us there: our fear, aggression and delusion hold us. This cross to which we have fixed those we have condemned has not made us free. The very reverse has happened. By condemning and binding them, we have become bound. Next to the cross to which we have attached them is the cross to which we have bound ourselves. Both are our work. Thinking to free ourselves from the man we despise, we have bound ourselves. We used the power of binding and loosing in order to bind the other man and loose ourselves. But in doing so, we have bound ourselves just as much as we have him. Who will rescue him from us and raise him out of our power? Who will come to break our grip, lift us up out of our bonds and so rescue us? Who has the authority and the power to reverse what we have done? Who can step into our place and perform what we couldn’t? Only the Son of Man who is the Son of God can be what man may be, and do what man has been given to do. Thus the Son of Man steps into our bonds, in the place in which the bonds on us are tightest and most deathly. Then when they are fully tightened around him, they break. They could hold us, but not him.

During Holy Week and Good Friday in particular we call the Lord to free man from the cross to which we have nailed him. We name particular people and groups of people, whom we have despised and rejected. Now on this day we articulate their cry of dereliction and their complaint to God against us. We call them to forgive us, and we call the Lord to release them and to release us from the judgement by which we have bound both them and us. We ask the Lord to rescue our victims from us, to break our power over them. We ask God to rescue us from our sin. And the Lord pulls them up out of our power and so free them, and he pulls us out of our own misused power and so frees us. Our power pulls us down into destruction and death; God’s power pulls us up, out of our own manic and destructive grip and sets us up where we are safe from ourselves with him and so are free.

Christ hangs on the cross as Daniel stands in the fire, unmoved. Though the fire is all around them, precisely where Daniel and his companions are, the fire does not burn. It doesn’t burn them because they are proofed by the holiness of God. They are untouchable for, being contiguous with God, nothing created can touch, that is, harm them. The glory of God has proofed them against all other forces. The forces of destruction cannot get near them. Since they are unmoved by it, the fire raging around only reveals their inviolability and invulnerability. It glorifies them.

Jesus Christ takes our place on our cross. This man stands there in the place where the desolation is worst. The desolation rages against him and all around him, but it cannot consume him. As he stands there, the desolation is revealed to be powerless against him, so it reveals his invincibility. Rather than destroying him, it frames him and shows us who he is. And it shows us that he is with us, and will not separate himself nor be separated from us by any other power. Where he is, we are. Where that glory is, there he holds us with him, so that his glory spreads to us. The resurrection is there in the cross all the time. The resurrection arrives not by running away from the cross, or being extracted from it, but by enduring it, until the cross has proofed us against all the powers of destruction, and those powers themselves are exhausted and broken. It is the resurrection that makes the passion and its enduring possible. The resurrection vindicates the cross, shows us that the glory is right there and always has been.

The cross is one man without God, who stands in for all men without God. And the cross is God with man and present as man to man. God is there as one man is with another. This God does not give up on man or let himself be sent away. Since God does not leave man even at this point of desolation and horror, the cross establishes that God does not leave man. Man cannot make God give up on him. Man cannot revolt or repulse God. God is the basis on which man may be discovered, and any man may come to know another. God is the companion of man. Man cannot be thought, and may not think of himself, without God. Man may or may not be ready for this companionship, able to acknowledge it and accept it, but the companionship is already established ahead of him, displayed here for us publicly by the cross in the unity of these two figures, the bound and desolate, and the invincibly enduring. That man may be abandoned or rather could have been abandoned, can only be thought because this event establishes that man is not abandoned. God will not give him up and will not be sent away by him. We do not have the power to make God give up. He cannot be made to change his mind by anything we do, no matter how appalling that may be. God is unsendawayable.

Man is present to God, and God to man. When man calls, God hears, no matter how lowly or how wicked that man is. God cannot be removed. Where we are, he is already. We may not perceive, be certain about or have any knowledge of his absence or his presence. There is no measure of his proximity. We are not able to discern the slightest trace of him, but he is where we are, for we are unable to create for ourselves any place which he has not already prepared for us. Man cannot remove God from man. There is no man without God, for no man is capable of overcoming God’s resolution to be the companion whom we have been made for. The cross is a tree, and the tree is the meeting place. The tree itself is a representation of the two us together, so when anyone looks they alternately see one figure and then two. They see man, and then they see man with God. They see the Lord, and then they see man with him.