One of the things which makes the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so powerful is that the story is told and retold from a myriad of different perspectives. We have the canonical gospel stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as well as a number of others which didn’t make it into the Bible like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Telling the story from the perspective of different people helps us to have a more well rounded appreciation for the depth and universality of the gospel. In this article I want to share with you a version of the story you may not have heard, from the perspective of someone you may not expect – the tree upon which Jesus was crucified.
The Old English word ‘rood’ is used to mean ‘cross’ in this story. It has the same root as our modern word ‘rod,’ which means ‘pole.’ The poem that this story is recorded in is called The Dream of the Rood. The poem is likely one of the oldest works of English literature that survives to today. The oldest copy we have is found in the tenth century Vercelli Book but the composition is more likely to be eighth century. This was a time when the Anglo Saxons were converting to Christianity and so the poem reflects certain aspects of that ancient pagan culture while still being thoroughly and completely Christian. You can find the full text of the poem, translated into modern English, HERE.
No one knows who wrote this poem originally, though it has been attributed to a number of people throughout the centuries, most famously Caedmon. Whoever wrote it claims to have had a sacred dream in which he was visited by the tree which became the cross that Jesus was crucified on. It is marvelous for many reasons. For one, it is a beautiful thing to see the story from the perspective of a person who isn’t human, and especially one who played such a crucial and important role in what happened on the original Good Friday. In the dream the poet saw a sacred tree in Heaven with God and the angels. He describes the scene like this:
“It seemed to me that I saw the greatest tree
brought into the sky, bewound in light,
the brightest of beams. That beacon was entirely
garnished with gold. Gemstones
prominent and proud at the corners of the earth—
five more as well blazoned across the span of its shoulders.
Every angel of the Lord warded it there,
a brilliant sight of a universe to come.
Surely it was no longer the gallows of vile crime
in that place—yet there they kept close watch,
holy spirits for all humanity across the earth,
and every part of this widely famous creation.”
The first thing to note here is how the tree is associated with the entire universe, it has gems on it which are the four corners of the earth. At this point in history there was a commonly held belief in the “world tree.” Throughout the poem the tree is represented as both the tree of life from the Biblical tradition and a form of the old pagan world tree. This is important because the poem describes a mystical union between God and creation. The tree is the icon of creation while Jesus is the icon of God. The fact that the resurrected tree in Heaven is described as “a brilliant sight of a universe to come” speaks to me of the eventual restoration of all things and the deification of all creation, which you can learn more about by clicking HERE.
The tree talks about the way in which it was brutally cut down and taken away from its home in the forest. It describes these enemy warriors as forcefully removing it for the awful purpose of bearing their criminals in torture. But when the tree saw Jesus being brought to it, grief was transformed into gratitude. The tree remarks that it could have slain all those enemies but dared not waver from the sacred mission at hand. The tree also points out that the nails which went through Jesus’ flesh also went into its own wooden flesh. The sacred blood which stained Jesus’ clothes also stained the tree. The whole experience was something they went through together.
The incarnation of Jesus, in which God came to experience human life in all its mediocrity and cruelty, was like a sacred marriage between Heaven and Earth – and that marriage was consummated in the crucifixion. God chose to be fastened to the world tree and did so in the most unexpected way. It was the moment where the incarnation was the most genuine – just like how a human marriage is most genuine in times of hardship. That’s when people’s true colours come through and real trust is built. The depths of human experience and suffering were embodied by God and the creation (signified by the world tree) was literally joined to God in the person of Jesus by the nails of pain and suffering.
The tree was then buried with Christ in the tomb and was also resurrected up into Heaven where it now resides with Jesus and the Mother Mary. The tree informs the poet that it is now exalted higher than all the other trees in the world in the same way that Mary is the most blessed of all the kindred of women. Just as Mary bore the saviour of the universe in her womb at the beginning of his life, so did the tree bear him on its shoulders at the end of his life.
The tree represents the entire cosmos but it also represents the path of each person who wishes to find their way home to Heaven. There is an ancient idea that the human being is a microcosm of the entire universe. The world tree is both the cosmos and the human being. If you want to learn a bit more about that concept you can read an article I wrote for Advent titled The Universe Inside You.
Just like the tree, we must be joined to Jesus in the crucifixion and resurrection. We too must be joined to his hands and feet like the tree was. We too must be stained in the blood of the saviour if we wish to be resurrected into new life. The path to Heaven is one of union with Christ, where we are joined to God through the nails of suffering and hardship. In the ancient monastic tradition in which this poem was likely written, the nails by which we are joined to God were understood to be a life of asceticism and contemplation. If you want to learn a little more about asceticism and how it can be the means by which we are joined to Christ, you can check out these two articles: Asceticism as an act of Solidarity and Training for Holiness.
There are many things worth noting in this poem. Not only is there the beautiful symbolism of the world tree and cosmic healing, but there is also the imagery of Christ as conquering death. Jesus is presented more as a hero than a suffering victim. Rather than being a helpless victim, Jesus is the one who chose to take on the sins of the world in order to save it. Jesus is a brave hero and the tree makes a point to say that it remained firm and unmoving in solidarity with Christ’s bravery. In the words of the tree:
“The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me—
yet I dared not bow to the ground, collapse
to earthly regions, but I had to stand there firm.
The rood was reared. I heaved the mighty king,
the Lord of Heaven—I dared not topple or reel.”
While this is undoubtedly an influence of the heroic poetry of the Anglo Saxons at the time, it was also the earlier understanding of the Easter story. Penal substitutionary atonement came along much later in history. In the New Testament and the early church the idea was not that Jesus had to die to appease God’s wrath but was rather that God in the form of Jesus came to conquer death and bring victory over evil. In ancient Rome a slave was liberated by the paying of a ransom. God paid the ransom to liberate us from bondage in the household of death. Christ was the hero who paid the price to liberate us from sin, not to appease an angry version of himself in a ridiculous act of extortion.
The path to mystical union is not an easy one. It is not a lovely stroll through the garden. It is a great burden which requires a certain amount of steadfast dedication. The story of the crucifixion, especially when told from the perspective of the cross, is one that compels us towards sacrifice and a willingness to overcome evil even at the cost of our own suffering. It is the health of the entire universe which is at stake and we must play our part with steadfast devotion.
The tree is all of creation and it is also each individual. Just as the cross was fully part of the crucifixion with Jesus, so are we to participate in the liberation of our own souls, even if we are simply the medium upon which God acts. It was the hero Christ who won the victory, but we (represented by the tree) must be prepared to receive him and must patiently bear the crucifixion with him.
It is not something that is done distantly on our behalf but a visceral process in which we must play our own part. Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him, the tree in this poem tells us to become the cross upon which Christ is crucified. In the the crucifixion both the tree and the Lord are made one, Heaven and Earth are joined and the marriage of incarnation is consummated.
Just as the tree is now seated with Christ in Heaven, so may we be healed with Christ in the miracle of resurrection. With courage, we can also overcome sin. This is the good news of the cross. This is the gospel – that we can overcome the bondage of evil if we are joined to God and stand firm in our love and patience. There is hope for every creature if we are mystically joined to God through our suffering, patience, and love. The hero Jesus leapt upon the cross ready to confront sin. May we do likewise.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or sign up for our email list to receive weekly reflections. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.