The Wood of Salvation: Reflections on the Feast of the Cross
Sermon Preached by Teva Regule, M.Div., Ph. D., on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 2023
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.
Across the street from my childhood home was a large undeveloped wooded area, full of various trees and natural vegetation, with a stream that ran through the middle of it. As a young girl, I spent countless hours playing in these woods—walking and biking the makeshift trails, splashing in the water of the creek, and climbing the trees. The woods were where I experienced the beauty, goodness, and harmony of God’s creation and where I was free to be most fully myself. It was my own little “Garden of Eden.” I used to climb one tree, in particular. It was partially fallen so it was easier to climb than the others. As I was making my way up the tree, I would imagine that I was climbing to heaven. I am not sure what I was going to do if I ever got there; I remember just wanting to be closer to God. Although this fantasy was born out of a child’s imagination, it takes on greater resonance with our feast today, at the center of which are a tree and the wood of the cross.
Trees are central to the Christian story. They play a pivotal role in the story of the Creation, the Fall of humanity, and in our Redemption. In the second Creation story in Genesis, after humanity is formed from the ground, the human is placed in a garden. In this garden we are introduced to two trees, specifically—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the text we are told that the Tree of Life is in the middle of the Garden, but we are not told, or at least not explicitly told, the location of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Humanity is seemingly given free reign in the Garden. However, God instructs the human not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as the moment they do so, they will be doomed to die (Gen. 2:16–17). Interestingly, later in the story, when Eve is asked by the Serpent if God really told humanity not to eat from any tree in the Garden, she answers that she and Adam could eat from any tree, but not the “tree in the middle of the Garden” (Gen. 3:3). Although we are never told where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is located, in Eve’s mind it was in the middle of the Garden.
What if we were to entertain this possibility? What if the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil were both in the middle of the Garden or even the same tree, but representing differing realities—one, a life with God that leads to life more abundant (Jn. 10:10) and the other, a life without God that leads to death. The serpent tempts Eve by saying that if one eats of this tree [in the middle of the Garden] then they will not die, but that their “eyes will be opened and they will be like gods” (Gen. 3:4–5). However, in doing so, they will be striving to be like god, but without God. The irony of the story is that humanity is already like God—we are made in the image of God and, we believe, called to grow into God’s likeness. In the image of God, we are given freedom, consciousness, and rationality. And we are called to become like Him—Good, merciful, loving, creative, and wise, just to name a few of the qualities attributed to God in Scripture. However, like little children, we had yet to comprehend fully the wisdom of God’s injunction.
But as we know, humanity did eat from the tree and thus began the strain in our relationship with God, each other, the animal world, and with all of creation, and most importantly, within ourselves. This alienation from God would introduce sin into the world that ultimately leads to death. To help to heal this relationship, God would send His Son to us—to heal what ails us, teach us how to be in right relationship with God and our neighbor, and ultimately, to nullify the power of death over us through His own death on the Cross and Resurrection. The wood of a tree would now become the means of life. As we sing in Orthros for the feast today, “Blessed are you, O Tree, in which Christ was stretched out” (Ode 5).
Today we celebrate the finding of the wood of the cross of Christ by the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, in the 4th century and its return to Jerusalem in the 7th century after the Persians had plundered Palestine some years earlier. We should remember that for the first three hundred years after the death of Jesus, Christians were a minority within the Roman empire who were often persecuted. Many of the sites of Jesus’ earthly life and death were either neglected or had been converted to the service of the Roman gods. It was not until the 4th century that Christianity was officially tolerated and began to flourish as the eventual religion of the empire.
As the story goes—a temple to Aphrodite had been built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. As part of her project to reclaim the sites of Jesus’ life and death in and around Jerusalem for Christianity, Helena had the statue destroyed and the earth around it removed, revealing the tomb of Jesus and three crosses. One of these, it was believed, to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified and the other two, the crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with him. However, Helena did not know which one was the “Wood of salvation.” At the inspiration of Macarius, the Archbishop of Jerusalem, a lady of the city who was near death from disease, was brought to touch the crosses and as soon as she came near to the Cross of Jesus, she was made perfectly whole. Later, the bishop lifted up the cross at the Ambon of the church built on this site, and when the people beheld it, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy” (www.goarch.org). They rejoiced in the reclamation of the wood of the cross. As we sing in one of the sessional hymns of Orthros for the feast, “In Paradise of old, the wood stripped me bare; for by giving its fruit to eat, the enemy brought death. But now the wood of the Cross that clothes us with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth; and the whole world is filled with boundless joy.” This is what we continue to do today. As we sing as one of the stichera at Vespers, “O precious Cross of the Lord…You are the strength of those who struggle. At the sight of your elevation, the whole creation rejoices and exults and glorifies Christ whose goodness tied all things into one.”
The cross, once a symbol of crucifixion and death, was and is now a symbol of resurrection and life. At this feast today, we are asked to venerate the Cross as we sing, “For a tree put forth the fruit of death in Paradise—but life is the flower of this Tree on which the sinless Lord was nailed.” The wood of the cross that Christ touched was transfigured into the Tree of Life. It is this Tree that now re-connects us to God, reconciling all of humanity to God and showing us the way to life more abundant. Let the power of this Wood heal and transfigure our lives as well as we climb all of our trees in life. But let us always remember to do it with God by our side. Amen.