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Christ the Trees, the Temple

"When you get the time to do it and you drive up here and leave your truck and walk into the woods and stay a while in a pretty place where you don't hear no noise and nothing's bothering you, and you go back the next week and that place is not even there, that's hard."

-- Joe Begley (1919 - 2000) of Blackey, Kentucky.

As I write, it's the end of February, and that means Lent. It's a season to reflect mortality, loss, and then at the very end, celebrate rebirth and resurrection. Today's gospel reading was the Transfiguration of Jesus when He and Peter, James, and John climb a mountain and Jesus shines like lightning, flanked by Moses and Elijah.

It was a familiar sight to Moses, that one. He'd seen the burning bush before, only now he stood on a different mountain and saw God burning bright to signify the freeing of all generations of people, not just those under the slavery of Egypt.

"Those who use the world assuming

their knowledge is sufficient

destroy the world. The forest

is mangled for the sale

of a few sticks, or is bulldozed

into a stream and covered over

with the earth it once stood


...the destroyers

leave behind them one big story,

of the world and the world's end,

that they don't know. They know

names and little stories. But the names

of everything are not everything.

The story of everything, told,

is only a little story. They don't know

the languages of the birds

who pass northward, feeding

through the treetops early

in May, kept alive by knowledge

never to be said in words.

Hang down your head. This

is our hope: Words emerge

from silence, the silence remains."

-Wendell Berry

"But Jesus remained silent before them and did not answer. So the chief priest said to Him, 'Are You the anointed Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?'" -- Mark 14:61

There is a sudden, stinging ache when you see a large area of trees cut down or logged in an area where you grew up. You sort of go dizzy for a few seconds, similarly to when you hear that someone you really love has died. And then all this dread pours in; the dread of knowing that you're going to have to live with something awful that cannot be undone.

Moses came upon a burning bush. A fire raged on it, and yet the bush didn't burn up. It stayed alive and unconsumed, and at the same time, the fire didn't go out.

"...The gnarled,

clenched, and forever shut

fist of their greed makes small

the great life. Hollowed out,

the soul like the green hill

yields to the force of dearth.

The crack in the despot's skull

descends into the earth,

and what was bright turns dull."

-Wendell Berry

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." -- John 2:19

So Jesus, the burning bush, the Tree of Life, the temple, was cut down. Like a logged forest, He is cruelly stripped and His body, the land, is naked and so we want to turn away. His seamless tunic (usually painstakingly woven by the wearer's mother), is sold for a few pennies. "The forest is mangled for the sale of a few sticks, or is bulldozed into a stream and covered over with the earth it once stood upon." And instead of being flanked by Moses and Elijah, he was between two thieves. This time, God let the burning bush be consumed if only for a short while. The temple crumbles.

Abraham had had the luxury of a ram with its horns caught in the thorn thicket to take the place of his son Isaac. This time, Jesus was the ram with his head caught in the thorns. Thorns are always represented in the Bible as the consequences of sin. Horns represent power, and so God humbles Himself to be caught in the consequences of our fallenness.

We say that God's ways are mysterious, and that's true. But His ways are beyond mysterious; they are miraculous; ironic. When God tells Moses to throw his walking/shepherd's staff onto the ground, it turns into a snake. The thing that once stabilized or directed is turned into a thing that is frightening, repulsive, and unyielding. So it is with the cross: the thing that is frightening, repulsive, and unyielding ultimately becomes the thing that stabilizes and shepherds our lives. So Jesus is the snake on the pole, lifted up for us to see and to rid ourselves of the venom of sin in our lives. When we keep our eyes on Him, we are stabilized and shepherded. Throughout scripture, God works through the illusion of opposites to create new life. Only through death and hopelessness -- only then can eternal life and bubbling waters of rebirth spring up once again to sing the wordless song of hallelujahs.

Three days later, the Tree of Life, though mangled, stood again and bore fruit of living water. After being destroyed, the temple is rebuilt beyond the glory of Solomon. The leaves of the burning bush remain evergreen.

God knows every tree that has fallen. Every bird nest built in hope that has been consumed by the chainsaw, or fox den that has been uprooted by the bulldozer is known to Him. All of creation groans for the redemption... And so during this season of Lent, I look forward to the hope of all creation singing again, even when things can seem the opposite of that hope. The trees will spring up where the land was ravaged, and the chorus of eternal birdsong will be heard within its boughs once again. A red fox will gracefully flash like a flickering flame through the underbrush, and the land will not be quenched.

"Go from the corrupted nation

to the ruining country. With the land

again make common cause.

In loving it, be free.

Diminished as it is,

grant it your grief and care,

whole in heart, in mind

free, though you die or live.

So late, begin again.

...Out of charity let us pray...

...that they too may

wake to a day without hope

that in their smallness they

may know the greatness of Earth

and Heaven by which they so far

live, that they may see

themselves in their enemies,

and from their great wants fallen

know the small immortal

joys of beasts and birds."

-Wendell Berry

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