The first time I saw it – and really looked at it – tears of sorrow welled in my eyes. I had been running on a trail through Maudslay State Park near Emery House. A massive, ancient tree with a sprawling network of gnarled roots and a soaring canopy greeted my gaze in a silent embrace. Almost every inch of its bark was covered in deep, jagged scars where names, dates, profane words, and crude drawings had been gouged. Over this surface the garish colors of spray-painted graffiti formed another layer of human commentary on this mute, living canvas. In what might have been a plot of inviting shade beneath its branches stretched a graveyard of empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and other garbage. I sighed deeply, and I knew that in this desecrated parody of a tree I beheld an icon of Christ crucified.
“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” In a manner of speaking, God became public property in the person of Jesus. Of course, God belongs to no one in the sense of ownership. But if we consider God’s desire to become radically accessible and available to all, as we see that desire made manifest in the life of Jesus, the image works. Land held in public trust for the good and access of many, such as a state or national park, is subject to the wise and careful maintenance of those who cherish it, just as it is equally vulnerable to the negligence or abuse of those who treat it as an endlessly available commodity. Just as God was entrusted into human hands in the Incarnation, hands that carefully, lovingly swaddled, fed, caressed and held him, so also the Son of Man is betrayed into human hands that will slap, bind, torture, and nail him to a cross.
This saying of Jesus drives a painful wedge down the center of the conceptual universe that the disciples take for granted, the assumption that this Way of Jesus is a path of progress from the relative powerlessness of Galilean fishermen to the pure power of a promised Messiah. Jesus must either be powerful or powerless. Healing and amazement confirm the hope and expectation of power. Jesus’ painstaking, second prediction of his passion confronts the disciples with powerlessness, their own as much as their Master’s. What kind of power awaits a victim of betrayal?
This victim is the Son of Man, ben Adam, the truly Human One. This is the One whose human journey recapitulates and redeems the earthly pilgrimage of every human being. It is our hands that betray this Son of Man. Our hands betray the one who made us with his own hands. And because his Humanity is ours in its essence, in betraying him, our hands betray one another and ourselves.
These acts of betrayal are rarely premeditated. They are often not even conscious. So often, they are the clumsy, careless fumbling of hands that have not paused, for just a brief moment, to weigh the worth of that which they handle – and to weigh their own worth.They are the hands that casually gouge the flesh of other creatures to leave our mark upon the world. And these gouges and fumbles and failures to pause are sin. This is the collective sin in which we are all implicated, in which we are all complicit, that gathers like grit beneath the fingernails of every beautiful hand of every child of God.
The true wonder, the real cause for astonishment, is that Jesus continues to give us himself. He continues to entrust himself to our distracted, careless, fumbling, callous human hands, because his love for them and for us is endless and unbreakable. He knows that we will drop him or worse, countless times. The mystery of grace, of living in the full knowledge that we are beloved sinners saved by Christ, is that each time we drop him, we are given a new chance to stretch out our hands to receive him. Each time we drop him, we can depend on him more and more to catch us. And though we drop him every moment, he holds our souls in life and his right hand holds us fast. As he places himself into your hands at this altar, place yourself in his.
A single, cryptic phrase inscribed on that tree stays with me. Though its precise meaning is concealed from me, it wheedles its way into my heart like a splinter, or a hard saying of Jesus. The simple words: “This tree has seen GOD.”
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