Tree of the Cross

Tree of the Cross

What kind of tree was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified? What happened to the cross after Jesus died? These questions inspired centuries of storytellers to spin tales that filled the gaps in our knowledge with fanciful images and fables. Some tell which species of tree was used to fashion Jesus' cross. Others claim that the cross was made of one of the sacred trees described in the Bible as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Still others glorify the miraculous powers of the true cross, the actual wooden cross on which Jesus died. Over the centuries the tree has served as a sacred symbol in many different cultures. Some mystical interpretations of the cross echo the meaning folklorists have assigned to these other sacred trees.

The Tree of the Cross

A number of old Christian legends identify the kind of wood used to make Jesus' cross. For example, one legend states that the Romans made the cross out of a dogwood tree. As the soldiers approached, the dogwood quivered with reluctance to serve so terrible a purpose. God rewarded the dogwood for its tenderness by turning it into a small, crooked, and delicate tree whose limbs could never again be used to make a cross. Another legend suggests that the only tree willing to serve as the wood for Jesus'cross was the mistletoe. As punishment for its participation in the Crucifixion the mistletoe became a shriveled and scraggly bush, unable to live on its own and instead reduced to life as a parasite on other trees.

The True Cross

According to legend, St. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, journeyed to the Holy Land in the year 326. There she sought and found the true cross. The story claims that St. Helena found several crosses buried underneath the Temple of Venus, a pagan monument constructed over the site of Jesus' crucifixion. The bishop of Jerusalem suggested that the body of a dead man be laid against each of the crosses in order to discern which was the true cross. Nothing happened when the corpse was laid on the first two, but when the body touched the third cross, the dead man sprang to life. Other variations of the tale state that a sick woman was healed the instant she touched the true cross.

The legend continues by declaring that St. Helena left part of the true cross in Jerusalem, took a piece of it back to Constantinople with her, and sent a piece on to Rome. There the Romans built the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, or the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, expressly for the purpose of housing this holy artifact (see also Golden Rose). This artifact, which many believed to be the true cross, quickly became the holiest and most sought after of Christian relics. Fragments of wood said to have come from the true cross were soon distributed throughout Europe. Many tales sprang up concerning the miraculous powers of these fragments. Scholars believe that the Good Friday devotion known as the Veneration of the Cross may have been inspired by St. Helena's apparent discovery of the true cross and the spread of its relics throughout Europe.

Biblical Trees and the Cross

Another genre of legend attempts to give the tree used to make Jesus' cross a spiritual pedigree. These legends suggest that the tree was a descendant of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whose fruit Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. God had forbidden them to eat this fruit, so as a punishment for their disobedience he expelled them from the Garden.

According to one version of the legend, years later, when Adam was sick and dying, he sent his son Seth back to the Garden to obtain a healing balm. Upon arriving at the gates of the Garden of Eden Seth relayed his father's request to the angel guarding the door. Although the angel refused to give Seth the balm, he did give him three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge. (In some versions of the tale the seeds come from the Tree of Life.) Along with these seeds the angel relayed the promise of humanity's future salvation. Seth returned to Adam with the seeds and the promise. Upon hearing the angel's message Adam laughed for this first time since his expulsion from the garden. Shortly thereafter Adam died, and Seth buried him with the three seeds under his tongue, according to the angel's instructions. So it was that a great tree grew out of Adam's grave.

As the years rolled by the tree figured in the lives of many important biblical figures. Moses' staff came from a sapling cut from the root of this tree. King David replanted it in his garden where it grew into a mighty tree. Solomon ordered the tree cut down, hoping to use it as a beam in his magnificent palace, but the workmen found the log either too long or too short for every purpose and so threw it into a ditch where it became a natural log bridge for those who wished to cross. The Queen of Sheba almost set foot on this bridge when she recognized it and understood its destiny. She waded across the stream rather than set foot on it. At her urging King Solomon adorned the log with gold and silver and installed it as a lintel in his palace. His wicked grandson later stripped the log of its valuables and tossed into a pool where it sank. It resurfaced in the last year of Jesus' life. One Friday morning Roman soldiers hauled it out of the water and used it to fashion a cross with which to crucify Jesus of Nazareth.

This legend heightens the connection between Adam's sin and Jesus' sacrificial death. The same tree that tempted Adam into sin became an instrument of salvation by providing the wood for the cross. Further, the image of Jesus hanging on a cross made from the wood of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil suggests that Jesus himself is the fruit of that tree. This image in turn opens up a new way of understanding the Eucharist. If Jesus is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge then partaking of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, presented as Jesus'body and blood, offers Christians a taste of the once-forbidden fruit of that tree.

Christian artists in the Middle Ages frequently pictured the cross as a kind of tree. These images draw a connection between the fruitfulness associated with trees and the Crucifixion, presenting viewers with a visual image of the new life arising out of Jesus'sacrificial death. In some instances, the cross was depicted as the Tree of Life. According to the Bible, the Tree of Life also stood in the Garden of Eden. Its fruit granted immortality to those who consumed it. In portraying the cross as the Tree of Life artists again echoed the idea that Jesus' death granted humanity access to eternal life.

Other Sacred Trees

In biblical times other Middle Eastern peoples besides the Hebrews told stories about the Tree of Life. This tree, signifying the source of life itself, can be found in the religious art and stories of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians. Furthermore, examples of sacred trees can be found in the mythology of peoples from around the globe. Frequently the tree stands for the cosmos, that is, for all of creation. Or it may stand for the central axis of the world. Just as the central axis of a tree runs from underneath the ground to the skies, so the central axis of the world tree is said to unite heaven and earth.

Some mystical interpretations of the Christian cross echo the ideas discussed above. Because the cross extends in all four directions some Christians have understood it to represent the totality of existence. Others have interpreted the vertical bar as a symbol of eternity while the cross bar represents time. Still others have viewed the vertical beam as representing heaven and the horizontal beam earth. Interpreted in this light the cross represents the intersection of time with eternity and the meeting of heaven and earth.

Further Reading

Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. 1866-68. Reprint. New York: University Books, 1957. Becker, Udo. "Tree, Tree Cross." In his The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. New York: Continuum, 1994. Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993. Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Cleveland, OH: Meridian, 1963. Every, George. Christian Legends. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987. Goldsmith, Elisabeth. Ancient Pagan Symbols. 1929. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976. Hackwood, Frederick William. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1969. Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. "Tree, Trees." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
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