by Patty Morwood
A few days ago I hiked through a forest with friends, bending down often to collect the fiery red and orange leaves strewn on paths and boulders. I remarked to myself, again, that leaves don’t really matter in this annual recollection; it’s the Tree itself that grips me.
It always does at this time of year when they begin to go dormant and release their deadening leaves into the cooling wind.
Just few years ago during this very same season, my husband and I rode an antique train up a mountain in West Virginia. A swath just a few feet wide had been cut through a vast sea of trees to allow the old tracks to still hold that old train as it made its eight-hour trek to the top, where miners who had worked deep in the mountain in the 1800s had built a town for their families.
Periodically a family member would take the long ride down to civilization for necessaries or to find a doctor. The ride down, the ride back up. Two days surrounded by trees.
To this day it’s the only sight to see through the windows. No structures, no light, no sky even. Trees stretched upward so high one doubts their top branches really exist. Trees packed together, marching in lock-step to the summit of their mountain. An endless experience for any passenger rocking to and fro with hours more to go.
But I was riveted. “Patty, what are you thinking?” he queried. “About the Tree,” I answered as thousands of them sped by my window, a silent witness.
The Cross is our reminder today of a saving love so startling that hymnists and poets over centuries have penned the most glorious language to portray it. But the Cross was a terrifying sight, an anathema to even speak of for those on the ground who witnessed its use in ancient times.
The Gospels barely mention it; we know His feet were nailed to the pillar and His arms to the crossbeam.
Instead they wrote of the week leading up to it: palm branches, poignant gatherings at Lazarus’ house, the Last Supper and Gethsemane, the trial and the screaming “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” of the midnight rabble, the brutal trek of a nearly unrecognizable Man through the streets of Jerusalem.
And they wrote of its victory-day afterward: women laden with spices suddenly face-to-face with the Resurrected One, followers on the road out of Jerusalem walking and talking with their Lord unknowingly, the lying collaboration between natural enemies: soldiers, government and religious leaders.
In those days everyone knew the inhumanity and the agonies of the Roman cross. Everyone had seen it. Why go into it when expensive scrolls were needed to explain the new fresh Gospel circulating where Paul and Peter and Barnabas and Luke had traveled with their life-changing story of love?
But you and I must take a long hard look at the Cross. We don’t see this sort of thing ringing our cities that teem with shops and theaters and walking paths and parks.
But the Romans would leave the pillar entrenched in the ground just outside the towns or even at a crossroads, standing mute as a warning to occupied peoples of what would be the fate for the next rebel against their rule. Afterward they’d throw the body into a shallow pit nearby for the carrion to feast on until they reached the stripped-clean skeletons layered underneath.
Their bodies were nailed as one would nail a marker or a sign. Huge nails; powerful blows hammered by soldiers deadened to the cries for mercy.
But that one particular Tree, that monstrous obscene Cross, was stained with a deep red drained from a God-man willing to be there. The most beautiful of men died impaled because of you and me. Because our sin so long ago had incurred the wrath of God and the greatest mercy of God … so long ago.
For us, for you and for me. For the joy of our salvation.
Why would I write this now? Why not save this essay for Easter Week?
Because fall is the season marked by millions of trees undergoing a remarkable change right before our eyes; many families plan excursions into areas of spectacular fall foliage. Because we decorate our dining tables with vibrant leaves collected from trees shutting down for winter. Because rustling is a sound that awakens and reminds.
Because I can’t any more look at trees in this season with a simple enjoyment.
Never again will I be able to hike a forest, wrap my fingers around bark for balance, bend down with the impulse to collect, without experiencing the deep mournful regret for sin and an ever-deepening awe and gratitude for our Lord’s bloody rescue.
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