Jesus’ death on a ‘tree’ holds multiple symbols

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”

Hey, wait a minute. Don’t you mean, “by hanging him on a cross”?

This line from Sunday’s first reading — Acts 10:34a, 37-43 — stands out as a bit strange. However, this substitution of the word “tree” for “cross” appears several times in the New Testament.

Besides the example in Sunday’s reading, it shows up also in Acts 5:30, 13:29 and Gal 3:13. The example from Galatians reads: “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.”’

Here, St. Paul quotes Dt 21:22-23a. It refers to the practice of hanging the bodies of executed criminals on a tree for display. In a similar way, the heads of decapitated criminals in medieval England were stuck on London Bridge after their execution.

Of course, in the case of Jesus, it was different. Nailing him to the cross formed part of his execution, not its aftermath. Calling the cross “a tree” linked his death to the passage in the Book of Deuteronomy. It also alluded to another important tree in the Old Testament: the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The story of the fall as recounted in Gn 2 tells us that the first human beings, contrary to God’s wishes, ate the forbidden fruit from that tree. Their disobedience brought sin into the world and a curse upon the human race.

In contrast, Jesus’ obedience to the will of God brought salvation to the world. His obedience reverses the trajectory of the first human beings’ fault.

Consequently, the New Testament calls Jesus the “new Adam.” And we can look upon the cross on which he died as replacing the tree that produced the forbidden fruit.

With this in mind, the first antiphon for the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours for the Fifth Sunday of Lent proclaims: “See how the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life.”

Early Christian art sometimes translated that statement into a visual image. For example, the mosaic in the apse of St. Clement Church in Rome, which dates from the 12thcentury, shows a crucifix which has sprouted a leafy vine, which encircles figures of the saints. Streams of life-giving water flow from the base of the cross. 

Certainly, the cross that has come to life also points to the resurrection of Jesus. That is always in the back of our minds as we reflect upon his death. 

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