On 20 March, the Guardian newspaper carried a feature entitled ‘How Easter became the new Christmas – crackers and all’. It went on to report that demand for Easter crackers had increased by 63% on 2016 and that people this year are having bigger parties and buying bigger presents. And that’s when the irreverent thought struck me – ‘Goodness me, we’ll have to have be having an Easter tree next!’ Then the second thought struck me – ‘But we already have!’ What was it that Sydney Carter, in his poem Friday Morning, put into the mouth of one of the brigands crucified on Calvary alongside Jesus?
It’s God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter
A-hanging on the tree.
But the use of ‘tree’ in the sense of ‘cross’ goes back a lot further than that. When, after Pentecost, the apostles were arrested and taken before the Jewish Council because of their refusal to desist from preaching in the Temple, Peter answered the High Priest by saying, ‘The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree‘ (Acts 5:30). The Greek word used there is xylon and in everyday Greek it meant not only a tree but also objects made from wood, specifically including a gallows. And it certainly seems to have been the apostles’ preferred term for the Cross, for Peter uses it again in both Acts 10:39 and 1 Peter 2:24 while Paul uses it in Acts 13:29.
The reason is pretty clear. For a Jew, the word xylon linked what happened to Jesus on Calvary with Deuteronomy 21:22-23 where Moses had given this instruction to the Israelites: ‘When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.’ That is, of course, the scripture to which Paul is referring when he writes: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” – in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14).
The Cross – the Tree of Death – has become the Tree of Life because the one who hung upon it is the one who ‘gives life to the world’ (John 6:33). Once, long ago, humankind was expelled from the Garden and denied access to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24) but now through Christ our access to the Tree of Life has been restored. ‘Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.’
There is an Easter tree and it is the Cross. And now, on Easter Saturday, it is already an empty cross. Jesus is already ‘harrowing hell’ (1 Peter 3:18-19; 14:6) and tomorrow he will be meeting his followers. He will be risen, but he will still bear the marks of his crucifixion – ‘the tree’ – in his hands and feet.
Perhaps, if Easter is indeed to be the ‘new Christmas’ in the commercial life of our jaded, empty world, we Christians should actually encourage everyone to have an Easter tree in their homes … But only so long as it is a stark, bleak empty cross in the corner of their living rooms, devoid of decoration at least until Easter Day. Only then (we might suggest) could they festoon it with twinkling, coloured lights and make sure to put a large sign upon it which proclaims, ‘He is not here, he is risen’!
He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!