As many know, we are involved in the Holy Garden of Patmos project. This article by Vincent Rossi (RELIGION and the FORESTS magazine June, 1999) discusses St Amphilochios of Patmos and the theological importance of trees and our Christian duty to protect them.
“Whoever does not love trees, does not love God.” This was the teaching of the renowned Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Amphilochios of Patmos (1888-1970). According to Orthodox scholar Bishop Kallistos Ware, Fr. Amphilochios was an ecologist long before environmental concern became fashionable. “Do you know,” the elder said, “that God gave us one more commandment, which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment, “Love the trees.” When you plant a tree, you plant hope, you plant peace, you plant love, and you will receive God’s blessing.” It is recounted that when the elder heard the confessions of local farmers, he would regularly give as a penance the task of planting a tree, while he himself would go about the island watering young trees during times of drought. His Christian love for trees transformed Patmos, the island where St. John the Evangelist lived for many years. Where photographs taken around the turn of the century reveal barren countryside, a thick and healthy forest now grows.
Many other examples could be found of people who, from religious conviction, combined a deep love of God and a love of trees. The story of John Chapman (1774- 1845), better known as Johnny Appleseed, who wandered the American frontier, a Bible in one hand, a bag of seeds in the other, planting trees and herbs, who was considered a healer and something of a saint by Indian and settler alike, comes to mind. Are these just unusual examples of religious piety that one can admire but dismiss as irrelevant to one’s own spiritual life as a Christian? After all, so the reasoning goes, trees are not people, but plants, put here on earth by God for human use. Or is there truth to the teaching of Elder Amphilochios that there is an implicit “eleventh commandment” in the Bible that enjoins human beings to love the trees? Is it possible that there is a spiritual link between the way we treat God’s creation and the state of our relationship to God? Should Christians recognize that, just as the First Epistle of John teaches that anyone who says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar, it is equally if implicitly true to say that anyone who says he loves God, but willingly participates or acquiesces in the wanton destruction of forests and trees is also deceiving himself?
Is there Scriptural evidence that God actually cares how we treat trees and forests and the rest of His creation? I believe the Elder from Patmos is right: there is a link between love of trees and love of God. In the first place, it is clear from Scripture that respecting, protecting and honoring nature as the creation of God is a fundamental spiritual duty of all Christians.
The principal text outlining human responsibility for stewardship of the earth, including the forests, is Genesis 2:15, with its two key verbs, “to cultivate” and “to keep,” describing how we are to exercise our stewardship in creation. Supporting this principal text are a number of other key texts, including Rom. 8:19-20 and 2 Cor.5:17-21 which indicate our God-given vocation to reconcile and restore creation to its God-ordained natural order. To be Christian is truly to be ecologist in a Biblical sense. More specifically, within human responsibility of creation-care and earth stewardship, the care of forests and trees possesses a special place in Biblical ecology.
Let us now turn to the witness of Scripture. Scripture is rich with references to trees and forests. The words “tree” and “trees,” “forest” and “forests,” occur hundreds of times throughout the Bible. These occurrences may be grouped into general categories and contexts. Among them are references to trees and forests as: 1) a species created by God and of intrinsic value: (Gen.1:11-12, 2:9). 2) a source of food; a natural resource, or a source of wealth: (Gen.1:29, 2 Kgs.19:23; Ezek.39:10) 3) a natural part of the local or planetary ecosystem: (1Sam.22:5; 1 Kgs.7:2; Isa.57:5; Mt.21:19-21; Mk.11:13; Rev. 7:3. 9:4) 4) a sign of and/or response to God’s blessing or punishment: (Isa.41:19-20, Rev. 7:1) 5) a simile or metaphor modeled on the tree’s natural properties: (Ps.1:3; Isa.56:3; Mt.7:17-19,12:33; Mk.13:28; Lk.13:6-7,17:6; Rev. 6:13). A great many tree references are of this category. 6) a sign of the natural world in harmony with itself: (Gen.2:9; Ps.104:16-17; Song 2:10-13) 7) paradigm of the cosmic world tree; primordial living symbol of human knowledge and life: (Gen.2:9, 17; 3: 1-24; Rev.2:7, 22:2) 8) symbol of the Cross of Christ: (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29; Gal.3:13; 1 Pt.2:24)
This represents only a small sample of the hundreds of references to forests and trees in the Bible. Human beings excepted, no other living organism appears as often as trees in Scripture. On the basis of textual prominence alone, the tree is the most important nonhuman living organism in Scripture.
But is there a larger and deeper significance to trees and forests in the Bible? The importance of the images of trees and forests in Scripture cannot be attributed merely to numerical frequency alone. There must be a deeper meaning, a meaning both literal and spiritual, that delineates the revelation of the Holy Spirit as it relates to forests and trees, and that reveals the attitude that God expects human beings to take to the trees and forests He has created. There is.
This deeper meaning emerges out of the differences and the relationships between the kinds of references to forests and trees. I refer especially to the ways that Scripture uses the image of the tree.
The eight categories above, which are not exhaustive, give us a clue. Characteristically, Scripture uses the image of trees and forests in three basic ways, plus a subsuming fourth, which represent respectively three kinds of the Scriptural tree, corresponding roughly to the Pauline trichotomy of body, soul and spirit, plus a transcending fourth, representing the presence of the Holy Spirit that is “everywhere present and fillest all things.” We may call these three types of tree usages the Natural Tree, the Metaphoric Tree and the Symbolic Tree. Subsuming the functions of the previous kinds of tree while transcending them is the fourth kind of tree in Scripture, which we may call the Iconic Tree.
1. The Natural Tree We meet the “natural tree” as part of the integrated order of the natural world. Throughout Scripture there is a warm and loving quality to the references to trees, almost as though they were “relatives” of the Biblical writer or familiar members of his community. And that, precisely, is what they were. The trees mentioned by name in the Bible— species such as hazel, chestnut, poplar, vine tree, olive, wild olive, palm, fig, bramble, cedar, pomegranate, hyssop, fir, juniper, bay, almond, apple, oak, acacia, myrtle, cypress, pine, brier, willow, mustard, sycamore, almug, lotus, frankincense, holly, galgal—were part of an ecological community called the Land of Israel, a community acutely aware of the interdependence of all the elements of life on earth, including human culture.
Forests and trees are also often mentioned in Scripture as a source of food, shelter, fuel, commerce and artistic expression. This approximates the way human societies from time immemorial have used trees. What is especially significant is how Scripture deals with trees and forests as they are used by people. The Bible does not forbid the cutting and harvesting of trees for human use. The cedars of Lebanon were used in the construction and adornment of the Temple of Jerusalem (1Kgs. 5:1-10). However this is not the end of the story of the natural tree.
Following the injunction of “cultivating” and “keeping,” Scripture indicates a strong preference for Godly stewardship. This is strikingly shown in the injunction against cutting down the trees of an enemy in time of war (Deut.21:19). This principle of restraint is especially remarkable, given the context of warfare, when it is characteristic of human nature to abandon ordinary ethical rules to conquer the enemy. The Bible emphatically tells us that all is not “fair in love and war” when it comes to the natural world, and specifically when it comes to trees. The verse following, which seems at first glance to mitigate the law against destroying trees in time of war, upon close reading actually confirms the law of restraint. “Only the trees which are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, to build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it is subdued” (Deut.21:20). The Torah of God makes it clear that only the trees that are not “trees for food” may be cut down, for the “tree of the field is man’s food.”
God tells his people that under no circumstances, not even during war, may you endanger the food supply. More than this, the destruction of non fruit-bearing trees even of an enemy is also prohibited, for Deuteronomy specifies that the cutting down of non fruit-bearing trees is allowed only for the purpose of building siegeworks. There is no indication whatsoever that Scripture justifies a scorched-earth policy. The first part of verse nineteen states without qualification: “you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them.” By the principle of restraint, remarkably enjoined even in time of war, and by the specification that trees must be spared, the Bible clearly implies and points to that “eleventh commandment” insisted upon by the holy Elder Amphilochios of Patmos: trees are to be protected, nurtured and, yes, loved, not only for their benefit to humanity as food, but for their role in the harmony of the earth environment, and for their own sake as a creation of God.
2. The Metaphoric Tree By the “metaphoric tree” I mean the Scriptural use of the image of forests and trees in simile, metaphor, allegory, analogy or parable for teaching basic moral and spiritual principles. The metaphorical use of the tree-image is the largest category of references to 4 trees and forests in the New Testament. Just as natural references to trees are on the physical-natural level of existence, or the level of the body, so the metaphoric tree in Scripture relates to the level of soul. To say soul is to say the moral-ethical and therapeutic-spiritual. This is the pre-eminent level of Scriptural teaching and admonishment concerned with and focused upon the way to salvation.
The Book of Psalms offers many examples, none better than the first lines of Psalm 1:
1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful….
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in season….
Another example, this time in the form of an allegory in which the children of Israel are warned of the hidden dangers of monarchy, comes from Judges 9:8-15:
8 The trees went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. 9 But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, Come and reign over us. 11 But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees? … 14 Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. 15 And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.
All the books attributed to Solomon contain tree references, some of which are acute observations of trees in nature, others are metaphoric. It is noteworthy that when the Bible wishes to demonstrate that Solomon is the wisest of all men, it speaks in terms of his knowledge of the natural world, in particular, of trees: The metaphoric tree is prominent in the parables of Jesus. The parable of the fig tree (Mt. 24:32; Mk. 13:29; Lk. 21:29) and the parable of the mustard seed (Mt.13:31; Lk.13:19) are two of the most outstanding of these.
3. The Symbolic Tree What we are calling “the natural tree” represents the Scriptural expression of Biblical culture’s awareness of the intrinsic value of trees and of the central role played by trees in ecological balance, as well as the human use of trees for food, shelter, trade and commerce to satisfy the needs of the body. The “metaphoric tree” represents the figurative use of trees for the purpose of education, moral instruction, and the inculcation of the teachings necessary for salvation to satisfy the needs of the soul. Beyond these two levels or types of tree, a third tree-image occurs in the Bible, which we are calling the “symbolic tree.” The Holy Spirit in Scripture employs the image of the tree to reveal and communicate truths about the cosmos, about humanity, about God’s will in creation, and thus, about the deepest principles of the order of nature and life. It is this symbolic, anagogic (that is, uplifting) function of trees in Scripture that we call The Symbolic Tree.
The most important context in which the symbolic tree appears is the story of God creating the Edenic Paradise in the center of which He planted two trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:8-17). This passage is part of the “second creation story” of Genesis Two, which scholars agree is older than that of the creation story of Genesis One. We Christians must not let the familiarity of this story blind us to some of its remarkable features, especially as they relate to our theme. Aside from man, trees are the first living thing mentioned. It is highly significant that of all the plants and growing things that could have been mentioned, only trees are actually mentioned. This is a strong indication that Scripture singles out the tree as representative of the biosphere as a whole. This corresponds with an ecological view which recognizes trees as the organic center around which all the other parts of the ecosystem are organized. Without directly pointing it out, Scripture is bearing witness to the pre-eminent value of trees in the organic world or biosphere.
Two categories of trees are distinguished in Genesis 2: those “pleasant to the sight” and those “good for food.” Both categories link trees to human physical and psychological well-being and represent the gift-nature of trees to humanity. Trees are shown to be a gift and blessing of God to man, as Elder Amphilochios taught, bearing in themselves elements of hope, peace, beauty and love. Without introduction or the slightest bit of explanation, the Sacred Narrative reveals the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the Garden. Here we confront the primordial symbol of the sacred World Tree, which is a universal symbol in human consciousness. In the Genesis Two creation story, our primary concern is the image of the tree. Why the tree? Why does the Holy Spirit use the tree to symbolize life? Why is human consciousness, across the spectrum of cultures and times so congenial to, so accepting of, the tree as the universal symbol of life?
To answer this question we must ask and attempt to answer another: What is a symbol? Commonly, this word is used as a synonym for “figure” or “sign” and is opposed to what is “real,” such as when someone says that something is “only a symbol” or that such and such “symbolizes” or “represents” so and so. But symbol can mean more than this. A symbol may be distinguished from a metaphor in that the latter is a figure of speech in which we speak of one thing in terms of another; whereas a symbol is not specifically linguistic and may represent physical objects and visual representations. One may speak metaphorically about a tree, but one cannot say, for example, that the tree is a metaphor of the cross, because a tree, as a physical object, is not a metaphor. One might properly say that the tree is a symbol of the cross. Because symbols are not figures of speech, but signifying objects, the representational definition of symbol—symbol as “only” a sign—does not exhaust either the meaning or the function of symbol. Because the nature of a symbol is rooted in real objects, its meaning is not exhausted by convention and, as it were, on the “horizontal” plane.
A symbol is also capable of “vertical” significance by making visible a higher meaning. Further, a symbol, by the meaning of its form, its “transparency,” may itself be in the physical world the manifestation of a higher, invisible reality. Such was the view of the Fathers of the Church. The very physical presence of the symbol re-presents the higher reality it points to and reveals. Thus “symbol” and “reality” may not be opposites, but may coincide. As an example of this kind of “living” symbolism, Bishop Kallistos Ware cites Edward Carpenter’s (1844-1929) vision of a tree:
‘Has any one of us ever seen a Tree? I certainly do not think that I have — except most superficially… Once the present writer seemed to have a partial vision of a tree. It was a beech, standing isolated and still leafless in early Spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of most amazing activity.’
Bishop Ware comments, “Here is a vision of joyful wonder, inspired by an underlying sense of mystery. The tree has become a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe.”
Carpenter’s experience, plus the bishop’s comment, provide insight into the tree as symbol. Something in the nature of the tree makes it a symbol of life itself. The tree’s upright form; its three-fold structure of roots-trunk-branches; its intimate connection with the four elements—roots deep in the earth, branches high in the air, its power to draw down sunlight and draw up water; its longevity and stability; its silent generosity, offering shade, shelter and sustenance to all other living things; its created capacity to “unite the life of Earth and Sky,” all these qualities of the tree-nature created by God make it a powerful, central and universal symbol of life. Yet this capacity in the tree to be a symbol only hints at the depths of that “deep secret at the heart of the universe” embodied by the symbolic tree and glimpsed by those blessed with even a “partial vision” similar to Edward Carpenter’s. For the life we have been speaking of is created life. But the Tree of Life in Paradise confers eternal life. The tragic consequence of Adam’s sin reveals the luminous reality of the Tree of Life just at the moment that he loses all contact with it.
‘Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever,” therefore the LORD God sent him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen.3:22-24).’
The loss of access to the Tree of Life meant death and expulsion from paradise, and the way back blocked. The “deep secret at the heart of the universe” still lies beyond the flaming sword of the cherubim. Nevertheless its presence may yet be intuited and felt, as did Edward Carpenter, in the transparent symbol of a living tree, truly seen.
If a symbol is, in its highest meaning, the reflection of a higher reality, then the sin of Adam can be seen as becoming attached to the symbol instead of the higher reality. The symbol had become an idol. Choosing the created symbol over the uncreated Life it symbolized, Adam’s vision was darkened. He lost not only the Tree of Life, but the tree as the symbol of life. The fatal descent had begun, from the paradisal vision of trees “pleasant to the sight,” as transparent symbols of life, to the infernal sight of “clearcutting”: the brutal stripping of entire mountainsides of their forests to feed the world’s appetite for wood. Nevertheless, natural things have not lost their inner nature; they still praise God their Creator. The trees along with all else in creation wait with earnest expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19), that is, human beings redeemed by Christ and members of His body, so that they once again may see both the forest and the trees. Restoring this Christian unitive vision of creation as a cosmic sacrament points us to the Iconic Tree.
4. The Iconic Tree The mystery of life is that even the life of fallen nature partakes somehow of the Life beyond life, even though without redemption access to the Tree of Life remains blocked by separation, sin and death. As a great saint of the early Church, Dionysios the Areopagite wrote in his enormously influential work, The Divine Names, “Life” is one of the names of God: ‘The Divine Life beyond life is the giver and creator of life itself. All life and living movement comes from a Life which is above every life and beyond the source of life. From this Life souls have their indestructibility, and every living being and plant, down to the last echo of life, has life.’
St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662), a profound student of Dionysios and a great theologian in his own right, sums up the whole tradition in a few words: ‘Death in the true sense is separation from God, and ‘the sting of death is sin’ (1 Cor. 15:56). Adam, who received the sting, became at the same time an exile from the tree of life, from paradise and from God; and this was necessarily followed by the body’s death. Life, in the true sense, is He who said, ‘I am the Life’ (Jn 11:25), and who, having entered into death, led back to life him who had died.’
With his allusion to John 11:25 (“Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”), St. Maximos gives us the link to the Iconic Tree to which the symbol of the tree is finally pointing. For with the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and glorious Ascension of Christ, the glory of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14) has transformed the image of the tree from symbol to icon. In order to understand how the symbol of the tree becomes an icon, we need to touch on the meaning of icons in the Orthodox Church. The icon is not merely religious “art” or pious decoration. Iconography is sacred art with a primarily liturgical function, which is to manifest the unity of creation with heaven in the liturgy.
According to the Orthodox understanding of icons, icons make present that which they re-present. Therefore, the icon is a “symbol” as we have tried to present it, but a symbol in the highest possible sense. An icon is the apex of symbolism in which the visible reveals the invisible in an essentially sacramental manner. As we have seen, a symbol, contrary to a widely held opinion, both popular and scholarly, is not necessarily opposed to “reality,” and can signify much more than mere “representation.” In fact, the essence of the symbol is precisely to make known by reflecting or manifesting a reality beyond itself. According to the Bible, the natural world was created by God so that He might be made known: because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead (Rom.1:19-20).
As Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes: “the world is symbolical in virtue of its being created by God”; to be “symbolical” thus belongs to its ontology, the symbol being not only the way to perceive and understand reality, but also a means of participation. It is this natural symbolism of the world that is reflected in the understanding of the early Church that the universe is itself a Book, the Liber Mundi, or “Book of Nature” through which the wisdom, power and glory of God might be known.
Philip Sherrard, one of the foremost theologians of this century and a contemporary exponent of the sacred cosmology of the Greek Fathers of the Church, says that it is crucial that we learn to: ‘Read the book of nature, the Liber Mundi, in a way totally different from that in which we have been taught to read it. It demands that we read it in a way similar to that in which the great spiritual expositors tell that we should read the Bible—we have to learn to look on the world of natural forms as the apparent, exterior expression of a hidden, interior world, a spiritual world: all the phenomena of the world of nature represent or symbolize with things celestial and divine.’
Or as the same author says in another place:
‘a true reading of the book of nature, the Liber Mundi, leads to the recognition that these realities constitute the immaterial, spiritual and uncreated realities of the forms of the natural and physical world; they embrace the archetypes of which these forms are the exterior, apparent expression. This in turn means that we are able to perceive through our physical eyes the symbolic function that natural things possess by virtue of their correspondence and interpenetration with spiritual things.’
The Book of Job says the same thing more directly:
‘But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind? (Job 12: 7-10).’
To perceive the living symbolism of natural things—to read the Book of Nature—is to perceive the spiritual presence of which each natural form is the image—or icon. There is an inherent “sacramentality” to creation because the Divine presence in and through and beyond each created thing gives each its uniqueness, immediacy, transparency and meaning. Thus to learn to read the Book of Nature is to move from creation to symbol to sacrament. That movement from symbol to sacrament is, as it were, an “iconic” movement. For the tree, its iconic movement came as the God-Man Christ Jesus was crucified on the cross at Golgotha. At that moment, and irreversibly, the image of the tree, source of the wood that formed the instrument upon which our salvation was wrought, became forever a symbol of the cross.
There are five instances in the New Testament in which “tree” is used for the cross on which Jesus was crucified: three in Acts (5:30, 10:39, 13:29), one in Galatians (3:13) and one in First Peter (2:24). Remarkably, each of these texts is a kerygmatic paradigm—that is to say, each is a unique divine moment filled by the Holy Spirit in which the Spirit-directed and empowered preaching of the Good News revealed the form and contours and scope of the Christian faith.
1) The Witness to the Religious Authorities—the Power of the Gospel: Acts 5:30 shows Peter, standing before the high priest and the chief priests of the temple after his miraculous escape from prison at the hand of an angel of the Lord, fearlessly bearing witness to the Good News: ‘The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.’
2) The Witness to the Gentiles—the Universal Scope of the Gospel: Acts 10:39 shows St. Peter again, this time teaching the pagan centurian Cornelius at Caesarea, after his threefold vision of the great sheet filled with all manner of creatures and after refusing to eat being instructed of God that “what God hath cleansed, that call thou not common”: ‘And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree.’
3) The Witness to the Jewish People—the Gospel as the Fulfillment of Salvation History in Christ: Acts 13:29 shows St. Paul in the synagogue at Antioch on the Sabbath day, preaching to the assembled congregation a magnificent sermon in which he shows through the Law and the prophets that the entire history of salvation is fulfilled in Christ Jesus: ‘And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.’
4) The Witness to the Early Church—the Gospel as the Transformation of the Covenant in Christ: Galatians 3:13: Here Paul teaches the doctrine of faith in Christ how we cannot be justified by the Law, but only by faith in God and in Christ, who redeemed us by becoming answerable to the Law on our behalf, who died for us and rose again: ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.’
5) The Witness to all Christians—the Gospel Command to Follow Christ on the Path of Suffering: This epistle evokes the suffering of Christ on the tree of the cross as an example for all Christians of all times: ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.’ (1Peter 2:24).
In each of these primordial moments of the revelation of the Gospel through preaching of the mission and message of the Church of Christ, the image of the tree as the cross was invoked as the very heart of the Gospel. This cannot be mere coincidence.
Liturgy and the Liturgical Ethos We have seen that Holy Scripture bears witness to the singular importance of trees, not as objects of worship, but as one of the most complete manifestations in the created order of the wisdom, goodness and mercy of God. We have seen that awareness of the interdependence of all life is prominent in the Bible, and that the Bible knows trees to be of central importance to the balance and harmony of all the aspects of the living community of beings on earth. We have seen that Scripture utilizes the figurative value of the nature, growth and function of trees in the biosphere or “soil community” to teach moral lessons and spiritual wisdom. Finally we have seen that the Christian Revelation draws upon the inherent symbolism of the tree and the natural sacramentality of creation to reveal that Christ Himself is the “deep secret at the heart of the universe.” But what are we as Christians and as human beings to do with this knowledge?
Scripture tells us that the proper response to the revelation of God’s truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom, life and mercy is praise and thanksgiving. The Church, as Body of Christ, calls us to the Eucharist: communion in the Kingdom in thanksgiving. Putting the two together means that the truly human task on earth, combining the healing of disorder, the manifestation of the Gospel and the perfecting of praise, is to develop a liturgical ethos, to liturgize the world. What does this mean? And how do trees relate to liturgy and the development of a liturgical ethos? Liturgy, leitourgia in Greek, means, literally, the “work of the people” [leit-people, ergonwork].
Scripture tells us the work of the people of God is thanksgiving and praise. The Gospel Revelation of Christ—”ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) and “This is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God” (John 17:3) first fully manifested at the Baptism of Jesus (Theophany) and accomplished for all creation on Golgotha, culminates in the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the establishment of the Church in which all are called to “give thanks for all things” (1 Thess. 5:18). When we know who Christ is and what He has accomplished, when we experience the freedom inherent in that knowledge, we will be naturally filled with thanksgiving. It flows from the impulse in the heart to give thanks to Him who made us free from bondage to sin and death, an impulse rooted in heart-knowledge.
We have seen that from the beginning of Revelation and the history of our salvation God used trees to teach humanity. We have seen the amazing emphasis upon trees in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Church. The liturgical ethos—the heart of a Christian response to the creation–is centered around the acts of praise and thanksgiving which are the chief responses of human beings to the presence of God. As the earth, including all living creatures, from microbes to the human microcosm, and the macrocosmic universe as well, are created by God with a symbolic ontology and a sacramental potentiality, they fulfill their existence also in praise. Indeed, the greater degree of transparency in the creature, the greater its symbolism, the more it praises God. The Christian mind and heart must truly reflect a liturgical ethos, which is to give voice to the song of praise for all creation. Of all plants the tree most fully symbolizes the blessings that God has bestowed upon us through creation. The presence of the tree in the natural environment and also in Scripture is a sign of health, hope, goodness, fertility, abundance and order. The destruction of trees in Scripture is a sign of God’s wrath and punishment for all transgressions of the order of nature and of spirit.
Presently trees and the forests of the world are being wantonly destroyed to an unprecedented degree by the hand of man. How long will the four angels holding the full retributive power of nature be stayed by the mercy of God?
Clearly the entire witness of the Christian Revelation calls all Christians to protect the trees. Christians should be at the forefront of any campaign to restore the forests of the world.
Growing trees are a sign of hope, peace and love, as the Elder from Patmos has said. Landscapes wantonly stripped of their forest cover, hillsides ravaged to feed the insatiable greed of the market, can such sins against nature be anything but signs of an inevitable day of judgement? Good deeds may not forestall this day. Nevertheless it is a universal Christian duty to protect the forests. Love the trees. Love the trees.