What comes to your mind and heart when you hear the word forest or tree? What forest or trees do you recall? With which forest or tree do you most identify? Probably all us have a particular forest or tree which comes to mind: a special forest or tree which has, or has had, importance to us, perhaps going back to our childhood. Perhaps it is a single tree, in, or on, or beneath which we have played, or met a lover, or found refreshment. Perhaps it is a rainforest, or a stand of eucalypts in which we have spent some time. Perhaps it is a forest or a tree we have encountered in another place or time, on a holiday or a journey. Whatever it is, it will have shaped our life and awareness in some way...
Some forests and trees have particular national and cultural connotations and deep symbolic significance. In folklore, forests have also been places of mystery, closely linked with the unconscious elements in our lives and world. Trees therefore have powerful resonances for us, operating on many different levels. No wonder then that the idea of cutting down a tree can evoke strong feelings. The mythological and symbolic power of forest and tree is also therefore not surprisingly found in our Christian scriptures and traditions, including in our first reading which we hear today. Here, in the second great Genesis Creation story, we are told about the planting of a garden in which is found ‘every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food’. In addition, there are two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This second Genesis Creation story is one we do not often read. This is a shame, as it offers us other ways into the meaning of Creation which we do not find in the first story in the first chapter of the book of Genesis. In this account, which is almost certainly the older of the two, there are some distinctive features. These differences, such as the order of creating other animals and human beings, are not easily reconciled with the earlier account of Creation. Which is not really a problem, unless you are a fundamentalist who tries to read the Bible literally. For the point of this story, like the story in Genesis chapter 1, is not so much to tell us how Creation came into being as why it did so and what its significance is. It seeks to tell us that God creates our world as something that is fundamentally good and intended to flourish. Our role as human beings is to share in this flourishing and to relate to every aspect of it. That is the meaning of the man being asked to name every living creature. For, in ancient thinking, as our Aboriginal people tell us, when you give something a name, or know the name of something, you establish a living relationship with it. You make a bond with it and you are responsible for it. We know that too on at least a surface level, don’t we? When we know the names and properties of plants or animals, then we become bound to them in a closer way. They are no longer merely objects separate from us. They are in some way part of us. Which is why, if we have no real knowledge of something, we are more likely to abuse or destroy it. In the same way, let us not get hung up on the biological details of the origins of man and of woman: something best understood by modern science rather then one or other of our two Genesis Creation stories which themselves differ from one another. The God point is that man and woman are intimately related as helpers and carers of Creation.
Again, the meaning of the trees in our first scripture passage today can be read in different ways, depending on how literal or fundamentalist you feel you need to be. The key point however is surely that all of us know the awesome reality of good and evil and the possibilities of tasting the fruit of the tree of life. For, in a real sense, symbolically at least, all of us are the first man and the first woman, Adam and Eve, who represent our human nature. All of us taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in our lives, which brings us awareness of sin and suffering, of the brokenness as well as the joys of life. That is just how life is. None of us can escape this. We can understand it literally, as something an actual man called Adam and an actual woman called Eve themselves did at the beginning of time. We can do, but we don’t have to, and most of us don’t as it doesn’t make much scientific sense. What it most certainly does is make profound spiritual and psychological sense. For we are just like Adam and we are Eve, aren’t we? We know good and evil in our own lives. It is just part of being human. That is really what the story is trying to tell us. But it is also trying to tell us something more. For there is another tree, the tree of life.
Knowing good and evil is kind of scary, isn’t it? It can bring us great joy but also great suffering. It can help us grow but it can also lead us into grief. That’s why, spiritually speaking, our Bible and Christian tradition talks about that other tree which can help us hold these things together, reconcile us and help us taste the fruits of eternal life. For our Christian tradition relates the ancient symbol of the tree of life, found in many cultures, to the cross of Jesus. Made from wood of ordinary trees, this tree is both the tree on which all our sin and suffering can be pinned and the tree of the new life which lies beyond all our brokenness. Like the trees we find comforting and renewing, the cross of Jesus, the tree of God’s new life, can help take away our pain and enable us to move on in our lives with new strength and joy.
For there are more to forests and trees, you see, than meet the eye. Reflecting on them spiritually, as we do today, enables us to find deeper meaning in our world and our lives. They help us to see that God’s Creation is rich and good and is given to us to name: to relate to and care for deeply. After all, some rightly call forests and trees the lungs of the world: they help us and other creatures to breathe and live. You and I would think twice about cutting off our lungs, or polluting them, wouldn’t we? Why then, as a species, are we often so slow to care for the forest and trees of our world which give us such breath and life? They remind us that we are interconnected with all of God’s Creation. If we ignore that knowledge of good and evil then we will not flourish like the biblical garden of our first reading today. Spiritually speaking, the forests and trees thus recall to us to the tree of life, the cross of Jesus. We need to acknowledge our wrongdoing and our sins and sufferings. As we do so, like the shade of a great tree, the cross can cool, comfort and heal us, and from its branches we can taste once more the fruits of God’s Spirit. We are then no longer simply like the first Adam and Eve, we are the new Adam and Eve, which is Christ himself. We are renewed in the image of God which is spoken of in Genesis and we are encouraged to live as Christ, the second Adam did; in peace and harmony with all.
In the name of he who hangs upon the tree and leads us out of the darkness of the world’s great forest into the glades of eternal light: in the name of Jesus, Amen.