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Wood brought to life

GOOD FRIDAY during St. Matthew Passion

21 March 2008 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

There are lovely postcards depicting some of the beautifully turned and decorated wood on the staircase of the Handel House Museum. They would make good birthday cards for Bach whose nativity we celebrate today. Malcolm Crowthers who photographed them, and showed me round the museum, also noticed some wonderful details here in St. George’s when he was helping us with some breathtaking pictures for a revised guide book. This is a church where wood is one of the main visible materials. Most strikingly in the decoration surrounding the William Kent Last Supper at the east end. Stripped churches on Good Friday reveal the details and beauty of wood laid bare and stark. Wooden crucifixes are venerated in many churches throughout Christendom, including this one earlier today.

Some claim to have relics of the true cross, though were all the claims true there would probably be enough wood to rebuild structures like the Globe Theatre several times over!

Wood plays an important part in the story of redemption. In the garden of Eden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and its fruit were forbidden, and provided the locus for the fall. Wood is used to withstand the dramatic Biblical climate change that brought the flood. In preparing for the deluge Noah is told to build an ark ‘out of resinous wood’, and thus wood is associated with deliverance and rebirth. Later in the Older Testament we are told about the wooden staff used by Moses. Following God’s instructions, Moses uses the staff first to part the sea, and then later to strike the desert rock from which flowed water. We read of fabulous buildings made from the cedars of Lebanon…wood used to build King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as well as royal palaces.

And wood is also right there from the start of the New Testament. Jesus himself was born in a wooden manger…whilst Joseph was a carpenter.

Bishop Fortunatus in the 6th Century wrote an extraordinarily passionate and ecstatic hymn giving honour to the wood of the cross:

Faithful Cross! Above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend!

The sense of assurance and confidence surrounding this tree of glory invites faith in God who is most sure in all his ways. And yet we experience this tree of glory as a tree of shame as well. The point of Good Friday is to make us see what our sins and betrayals really mean. The sin and folly lies in the dreadful perversity of our humanity trying to annihilate God…in order that we would be gods ourselves. We want to be at the centre of the universe, and we are not. God gives himself into our hands so that we can do with him what we will. What we will is to crucify him. We attempt to obliterate God from the horizons of our minds and from reality itself.

Sin makes us become so much less than ourselves. We invest our energies, our hearts and desires in the things which do not…and cannot satisfy. And if we persist in our misguided ways, then we will find that our love has itself grown cold, passive and ugly…ourselves become hardened, embittered and like dead wood. There is no spring in our souls.

How drab to lead wooden lives. I never forget the times my piano teacher describing this phrase or that as wooden. Dull and lifeless…an awful reproach.

But as we meditate on the wood of the cross, and the long tradition of the place of wood in our salvation, the church will shortly be filled once again with the music of Bach. Played on intricate wooden instruments which, in expert hands and mouths make glorious music…pointing to the potential of bringing wood alive…and to lives singing in harmony with the divine purpose.

George Herbert makes precisely this point in his poem Easter

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part,

With all thy art

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Thanks be to God.
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