God is Reigning from the Tree – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas Hall

Palm Sunday

There’s no such thing as a tree.

I’ll explain.

Biologically, we tend to group living creatures, different species, together with their closest relatives. Take birds, for example. There are many different birds, ostriches, hummingbirds, penguins, vultures, the list is vast. But every bird is more closely related to every other bird, than they are to any creatures outside of that group, “birds.” It’s a neat, tidy category.

But that’s not true of trees. When we look at plant genetics, when we look at the fossil record, we see that what we commonly call “trees” isn’t a neat, tidy category of close relatives. Instead, the development of trees, of tall, massive, woody plants, extending up above other plant life, is a strategy, a structure, a way of being, that emerges again, and again, and again, in different plant families over many years. Our much-vaunted palm trees are more closely related to grass than they are to, say, a pine tree.

But, come on. Of course trees are a thing. Of course there’s such a thing as a tree. They’re just not a neat and tidy biological category. Instead, we should think of trees as a phenomenon, a dynamic happening, bubbling up from the substrate of the natural order, erupting forth in any place where this particular mode of being can gain purchase, and thrive, and live.

Which takes us to today, Palm Sunday, the victory procession of Christ into the holy city. When the crowd gathered palms and other branches as banners of tribute to the long-hoped-for ruler of the world. As the Church has commemorated this day, the custom spread of gathering these branches, blessing them, offering them. But, depending on your local climate, palms might not be very easy to come by. So other trees were used, are used to this day: olive, willow, yew, spruce, cypress, fir, and more. In some places it’s not even called “Palm Sunday,” it’s named after the local tree used, or even more broadly, just called “Branch Sunday.”

And that fits. The imagery of the palm, specifically, works well, because in the Greek-speaking world, palms were associated with victorious athletes, champions. To ascribe this sort of victory to Christ with palms makes sense in that culture, while also challenging the notion of victory, as Jesus prepares to die. But it is also the offering of the poor, who afford no more pomp than the produce of the field. It is also the offering of nature, which cries out with the human crowd to glorify the Creator. It is a foreshadowing, of the triumph leading to the crucifixion, where, as the hymn goes, “God is reigning from the tree.” It’s a hearkening to the ancient story, where humanity sought to seize the Tree of Life’s forbidden fruit, and fell into sin, and in this triumph, finally, finally, may we be rescued from our banishment and taste this fruit of the Tree of Life, this Christ of whom we are about to partake this day. This is not a neat and tidy category, something to observe, nod in approval, and put on our shelf; it’s a phenomenon, erupting forth with joyous vigor wherever this mode of being can find purchase in the world.

This day, we begin the central observance of the Church, Holy Week. We have undergone the journey of Lent, and here we are. Maybe Lent was a time of deep prayer, deep connection with God for you. If so, step forward into the observance of Holy Week. Maybe Lent was a real struggle for you, a real awakening to your sin and frailty. If so, step forward into the observance of Holy Week. Maybe Lent, wasn’t much of anything for you, maybe you were distracted. If so, step forward into the observance of Holy Week. It’s more than an invitation; this is the stuff of our very lives, as individuals and as the Church. It will not look the same in every person or place. It’s not a neat and tidy category. But the phenomenon will grow and persevere, the offering will erupt forth, the trees will grow, in whichever heart they find purchase. And from there, Christ beckons, reigning from that very tree, as he always has been, and ever shall be.

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