12 March 2018

When the Wood is Dry: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Veneration of the Cross, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11th March 2018

All over the country, you see numerous large woods and forests. Not all of these are the ancient woodlands you would think they are. After the First World War, Britain had only 5% of its forest cover left. It had all been burned for fuel, or used for industry, trade and war. During the Second World War, replanting efforts took a an even greater hit, when the forest cover was cut by a third: wood was urgently needed for fuel, industry, paper, munitions, rifle butts, repairs and construction, and for any other effort needed to prevail over the Nazis of Germany. The replanting of land with trees had began in 1919 with the foundation of the Forestry Commission and, a century later, it is the country’s largest landholder. Forest cover now reaches 10% of the land, with ambitions for even more. It is worth pausing to thing that, while many of us, especially in towns and cities, look upon trees as part of our green lung, purifying the air and enhancing the environment and the enjoyment of the natural world, for much of the last 300 years, trees’ great purpose has been to be destroyed – cut down for fuel, for shipbuilding, construction, defences, and to forge and make the weapons of war.

This thought of the industrial death of the tree, rendered unforgettable in The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien celebrates an uprising by the trees of the forest against Saruman, the wizard who has turned all his power for good to evil, burning the wood for forging ploughshares into swords, takes us back to the time a little before Our Lord was born, when there was an uprising against Roman rule in Galilee. The Romans defeated the rebels and crucified two thousands of them along the four-mile road between Sepphoris and Nazareth. The carpenters of both towns would have been forced to make the crosses, exposing great tracts of woodland to infertility, as the moisture was dried out of the earth. At least a generation of young men was lost, echoing the account in St Matthew’s gospel of the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem a few years later. The memory of the devastation of the population must have been vivid in the home and community in which Jesus grew up, and He was well aware of the use to which wood was put. I often think that this atrocity, when so many mothers’ sons were slain, lay behind His lament to the daughters of Jerusalem, after He is led away - found to be innocent but nonetheless condemned - from Pilate’s court, when He says,
Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women…’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23. 28-29, 31)
The Lord, of course, handled wood from trees every day of His youth. We usually think of Saint Joseph, His fatherly guardian as a carpenter. But in the Gospel, he is described as a tekton. The word is close to words we use to this day in English – e.g. architect, protect. It means someone who makes a roof; or puts a roof over your head. In other words, it is someone who constructs a building – a house, a store, a temple. Wood was Christ’s raw material, the everyday tool of the trade in which He was trained by Joseph. Nothing could be more solid and concrete in their practical, daily living: wood in life and death was literally a hard reality.

Here, then, are three contrasting purposes. First, the glory of the living and breathing green creation; secondly, the destruction for fuelling industry, economy and even the bellicose visitation of death; and third the construction of household, of the family home, of human community and of sacred space for the dwelling of the Spirit to bring “God with us” close. In Jesus’ life, memory, faith, vision, and destiny, all three purposes meet their converging point. A tree, that once lived, bore leaves and fruited seed, has the sap rising in it turned back to the earth, as it is called into a purpose it can only serve if it is dead. This is “what will happen when the tree is dry.” Then, two dead wooden beams assault with violence the living Person Who created them. They hold Him distorted into their shape, not His, a shape that has been given to them against their nature. They convey their own destruction to Him, and draw Him into their death. And yet, from this hell-invented parody of a tree, bringing back all that collective memory of the mass execution on the road outside the town where He had grown up, Jesus pulls to Him the wood of the trade He learned at the side of His adoring foster-father. Holding it by the nails in His hands, once more the carpenter builds a house. Again He creates the house for a holy family, like the first at Nazareth. Now He constructs the first new household of faith, as He says to St John, “Behold your mother” and, to the Theotokos, “Mother, behold your son.” For from that moment, the beloved disciple took the Mother of God to his own house and made it a home for them both. Before their eyes, they were seeing Christ’s work of redemption taking place in His Passion; and in three days from the household spiritually crafted from the wood of the Cross, St John would outrun St Peter to the Tomb to find it empty – and then run back to declare to the Lord’s Mother the first good news of His resurrection.

In our Liturgy today, we sing, “To Your Cross, O Master, we bow in veneration.” This is because our faith, the faith that comes directly to us from the first household of faith in Christ’s Passion that dawned on Mary and John at the foot of the Cross, is not in the power of an instrument of death, but in the means of shaping a new creation for our humanity. Thus we go on to sing, “and we glorify Your resurrection!” For, just as the beams of a disfigured tree imparted death onto the Creator, so the Creator, in the act of nailing together the first pieces of His new household of faith, gives back life to the hard and dried up wood. The great hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, from the sixth century, which will be sung from next weekend in the Latin Church until Good Friday, has it exactly:

Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend.
Faithful Cross! Above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit they peer may be;
Sweetest Wood, and Sweetest Iron –
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee.
We, in our way in the Christian East, join them and add this:
By Your Cross, You destroyed death; You opened Paradise to the thief; You changed the lamentation of the myrrh-bearers to joy and You charged the apostles to proclaim that You are risen. (Troparion of Sunday, Tone 7)
When the Lord tells us, then, in today’s Gospel (Mark 8.34-9.1), “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, bear in mind that He is remembering the terrible events that coloured the whole of His upbringing in the community of His home town, Nazareth, and the terrible cost that is risked when justice, goodness and faith in God and His Kingdom is prized above even life and family. He is also mindful that towards a Cross is the inevitable course that His own words and ministry will take Him. Yet when He says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” and follows it by saying, “Whoever loses their life for Me, will save it,” He is not holding out for us the prospect of defeat and a dead-end sacrifice, but the inevitable consequence of crucifying our God endowed with the skills of a builder: we are being offered not only a new household for our faith and those who believe it, but the construction work of a Kingdom from God, now come with power. (Mark 9.1).

And so we sing, “The tree of the Cross … has quenched the flaming sward [that] no longer bars the gate to Eden. The sting of death banished, You, O my Saviour, have come out and called…. ‘Return again – to Paradise!’” (Kontakion of the Triodion, Tone 7).

With Jesus to His Passion and Cross, and with Mary Magdalen, Peter and John to His Resurrection, “Arise, let us be going!” (Mark 14.42; John 20.3-4)