Please see below Fr Chad’s Home Retreat for Saturday 15th May. A pdf download is available at the bottom of the page. Alternatively, click here to view on our YouTube channel.
The tree, like the river or the mountain, is surely one of the key elemental symbols from the natural world. Trees have become national symbols, the English oak, the Scots pine, the Lebanon cedar, the Canadian maple. Trees offer us a model, something fixed for us to observe, a natural parallel moving from seedling to sapling, from young to mature to dying, vulnerable to uprooting storms, to decaying disease. Of course, their sense of life is not the movement of animals, but time is marked by the budding, opening, falling of leaves, by the weathering over the years, the animal damage, the north side moss. Trees offer individuals the imagery both of roots, that hidden vitality, those invisible resources out of sight and of fruits, that productive fulfilment, that visible contribution. Trees offer couples imagery of togetherness. You may have heard at weddings Kahil Gibran’s advice ‘stand together yet not too near…the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.’ Or Louis de Bernieres’s description ‘Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.’
So it is not surprising to find the image of the tree throughout the scriptures. In Proverbs Wisdom is described as ‘a tree of life to those who lay hold of her’. Solomon is described in his wisdom as ‘speaking of trees’. They offer a parallel world, an analogy for the human condition, both positive and negative. The singer of songs tells his beloved ‘You are stately as a palm tree... The fig tree puts forth its figs, arise my love and come away.’ The Lord says of Israel in Hosea ‘his shoots shall spread out, his beauty shall be like the olive tree’. In Isaiah he promises ‘like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be’. On the other hand, when threatened by a foreign alliance, ‘the heart of king Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.’ Joel foretells impending destruction ‘pomegranate, palm, and apple – all the trees of the field are dried up. Surely joy withers away among the people’. And Job laments his calamity ‘I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree’.
Today this sort of natural parallel is often reversed, with trees being compared to humans. Many books today present how trees think and feel and communicate, the wisdom of their secret or hidden life. Some go further, ascribing mystical, sacred powers to trees. The scriptures do see the trees joining in our praise of God. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord. Praise the Lord from the earth…all fruit trees and cedars. and most memorably of all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. we worship with the trees. We do not worship trees. The scriptures are clear on the limitations of trees, and the dangers of idolatry, of serving the gods of other nations ‘in the high places, under every leafy tree’, of worshipping images made of wood. Isaiah mocks the carpenter felling a tree, taking half for a fire to warm and feed him, using half to make a god. Jeremiah shames those in Israel ‘who say to a tree, you are my father’.
Trees have their place in the temple, as the psalmist emphasizes. I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God. The just will flourish like the palm-tree… in the courts of our God. Trees provided the branches and boughs to build the shelters for celebrating the feast of Tabernacles. But they are not sacred objects. God is described as a rock but never as a tree. You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar. They remain part of creation.
They are not an end in themselves, they serve a purpose. It was a palm under which Deborah sat to judge the people of Israel. It was a broom tree under which Elijah was jolted out of his depression by the angel. It was a sycamore which enabled Zacchaeus to climb high enough to see Jesus passing. These trees are a means to an end. The Psalmist praises God for watering the cedars of Lebanon where the birds can then build their nests. There is no sentimental reverence for trees in themselves. Above all they are celebrated for their produce. The trees of the promised land are rich with vines, figs, pomegranates, olives.
Trees are used as symbols not just of fruitfulness but also of pride. I have seen the wicked triumphant towering like a cedar of Lebanon, observes the psalmist, I passed by again; he was gone. It is also to a cedar that Ezekiel compares Pharoah – beautiful in its greatness and, the envy of all the trees. But as its heart was proud of its height, foreigners have cut it down. The danger of hubris is dramatically conveyed in the dream Nebuchadnezzar relates to Daniel. There was a tree at the centre of the earth…its top reached to heaven. He hears the voice of a holy watcher. Cut down the tree…leave its stump in the ground. Daniel has to tell the king, the tree – is you.
The imagery of trees operates at different natural and moral levels, therefore. But the scriptures also tell the story of our salvation through the language of trees. The opening drama of Genesis concludes with Adam and Eve banished from the tree of life. The final drama of Revelation concludes with the tree of life in the middle of the heavenly Jerusalem. The central drama of redemption in Christ is summarised by Peter’s words to the high priest ‘The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.’ On holy Saturday we hear an anonymous homily imagining Christ speaking to Adam. ‘See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one…’.
Christ brings the fulfilment of the psalm in today’s title. He is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season. He is the tree with his roots deep in the stream of his Father’s love. Jeremiah compares those who trust in the Lord to trees sending out roots by the stream – in the year of drought they are not anxious and do not cease to bear fruit. In Ezekiel’s vision of the river flowing from the temple, the trees growing on its banks are enabled to bear fresh fruit every month. Even in the drought of Calvary, Jesus continued to trust – and to bear fruit. Father forgive them, son behold your mother, today you will be with me in paradise. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – that river flowed from the temple, deep, out of sight, sustaining Jesus in his passion.
And what sort of tree does Jesus compare himself to? I am the vine, you are the branches – and my father is the vinedresser. This is a final challenge to our individualism. Some parents envisage in their mind’s eye the outcome for their carefully nurtured and individuated child, staked, protected, dug, fertilized, its unsightly branches lopped off, its growth measured and compared. But what if family life is more like coppicing, where parents sacrifice their individual height and splendour in order for new growth to be nurtured, not as separate trees, but as part of the overall unit.
Of course that longing to be an individual tree, look at me, is deep-rooted, so to speak – not for us to clap our hands in praise of God, but for others to clap their hands in praise of us. At best to be part of a grove of similarly splendid trees – look at us. To be simply, humbly part of a vine can seem demeaning, constricting. Why not celebrate the wonderful variety of individual trees? The unity of the vine, however, does not mean the uniformity of the branches. We are all branches in different ways. The vine is not a sign of servile dependence, but of inter-dependence. I do not call you servants, I call you friends. Jesus was happy not to be the vinedresser, he did not see himself as a heroic individual. He is a vine that needs us as branches.
Questions for reflection
Where are your roots?
- Does your stream flow from the temple?
- What is the sustenance that nourishes you?
What are your fruits
- What do I offer others and how do they benefit?
- How do I share – what does it mean to be both grateful and generous?
- How am I part of the vine
- What does that challenge in me?
- What does that enable in me?
Home Retreat Scripture Readings
Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen 2:9 NRS)
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (Gen 3:6 NRS)
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Gen 3:8 NRS)
He cried out to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exo 15:25 NRS)
On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. (Lev 23:40 NRS)
a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, (Deu 8:8 NRS)
You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. (Deu 12:2-3 NRS)
You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God; (Deu 16:21 NRS)
She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. (Jdg 4:5 NRS)
The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us.' 9 The olive tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'You come and reign over us.' 11 But the fig tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?' 12 Then the trees said to the vine, 'You come and reign over us.' 13 But the vine said to them, 'Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?' 14 So all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come and reign over us.' 15 And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.' (Jdg 9:8-15)
He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; (1Ki 4:33 NRS)
But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." (1Ki 19:4-5 NRS)
Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. (1Ch 16:33 NRS)
And they found it written in the law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, "Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written." 16 So the people went out and brought them, and made booths for themselves, each on the roofs of their houses (Neh 8:14-16 NRS)
"For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. 8 Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, 9 yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. 10 But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?(Job 14:7-11 NRS)
10 He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree. (Job 19:10)
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psa 1:3 NRS)
I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon. 36 Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found. (Psa 37:35-36 NRS)
8 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. (Psa 52:8 NRS)
The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 13 They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. 14 In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, (Psa 92:12-14)
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. (Psa 104:16-17 NRS)
Praise the LORD from the earth…fruit trees and all cedars! (Psa 148:7-9 NRS)
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. (Pro 3:18 NRS)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives away. (Pro 11:30)
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Pro 13:12)
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Pro 15:4)
The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. (Sol 2:13 NRS)
You are stately as a palm tree (Sol 7:7 NRS)
When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. (Isa 7:2 NRS)
He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it …No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" (Isa 44:19 NRS)
Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel. (Isa 44:23 NRS)
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isa 55:12 NRS) and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." (Isa 56:3 NRS)
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isa 65:22 NRS)
As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed-- they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets, 27 who say to a tree, "You are my father," (Jer 2:26-27)
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer 17:7-8)
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. (Eze 17:22-24 NRS)
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. 4 The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. 5 So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. 6 All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. 7 It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. 8 The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. 9 I made it beautiful with its mass of branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden that were in the garden of God. 10 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, 11 I gave it into the hand of the prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out. 12 Foreigners from the most terrible of the nations have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land; and all the peoples of the earth went away from its shade and left it. 13 On its fallen trunk settle all the birds of the air, and among its boughs lodge all the wild animals. 14 All this is in order that no trees by the waters may grow to lofty height or set their tops among the clouds, and that no trees that drink water may reach up to them in height. For all of them are handed over to death, to the world below; along with all mortals, with those who go down to the Pit. (Eze 31:3-14 NRS)
On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing." (Eze 47:12 NRS)
Hear the dream that I saw; tell me its interpretation. 10 Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12 Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed. 13 "I continued looking, in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and there was a holy watcher, coming down from heaven.
14 He cried aloud and said: 'Cut down the tree and chop off its branches, strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from beneath it and the birds from its branches. 15 But leave its stump and roots in the ground, with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field. Let him be bathed with the dew of heaven, and let his lot be with the animals of the field in the grass of the earth. (Dan 4:9-15)
His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. (Hos 14:6 NRS)
The vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple-- all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people (Joe 1:12 NRS)
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Mic 4:4)
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Hab 3:17-18 NRS)
Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars! 2 Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! (Zec 11:1-2 NRS)
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mat 3:10 NRS)
In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. (Mat 7:17 NRS)
it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Mat 13:32 NRS)
And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. (Mat 21:19 NRS)
"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. (Mat 24:32 NRS)
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' 8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luk 13:6-9 NRS)
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. (Luk 19:4 NRS)
Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." (Joh 1:48 NRS)
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (Rev 2:7 NRS)
through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:2 NRS)