One day, when I was a child, I ran toward a tree I wanted to climb, then
stopped suddenly to stare in disbelief at the giant thorns sprouting all over
its trunk. This was my first sight of a locust tree. It was growing along a
fencerow that my father was clearing that day at the back of our farm. Why God
would ever create so sinister a tree was beyond my reckoning.
The thorns on a locust tree can be six inches long, with smaller thorns
sprouting from the larger spikes. They grow in ghastly clusters all about the
trunk of the tree and singly along the branches and twigs.
In the years since then, I have had to contend, as a woodsman, with the
physical aspects of locust trees, but this first encounter was surpassingly
theological, for my father, noticing my stunned reaction, laid aside his axe and
pulled down a branch for my inspection. "These are dangerous thorns, "
he said protectively. Then he added, "They're the kind that were used on
They did indeed look like the pictures I had seen in our Bible. I nodded my
agreement. My father then took his axe to the tree. As he swung at the trunk, I
looked for a place to run when that wicked tree would give its final shudder and
fall to the earth. I was happy when its thorns veered for the ground beneath a
slow, creaking scream of defeat.
Since that time I have come to realize that the locust tree has some
utilitarian value: Its wood is resistant to moisture and makes durable fence
posts. I have also learned that the people of Appalachia call it the Jesus Tree.
This ability to evoke the Passion is, for me, its most valuable quality.
I encounter the locust again each spring, early in Holy Week, when I make a
trek to a wooded gully near my village to gather cedar for the Easter Vigil
Fire. The gully has become for me a Lenten chapel, providing a day of
recollection as the Triduum draws near.
This year I have come with a friend named Jake. His family owns the farm in
which the gully lies. He walks ahead of me with a chain saw in hand and a maul
over his shoulder. I carry an oilcan and a jug of fuel.
The outer edges of the gully are steep and crowded with locust trees. Soon
the thorny trunks give way to thick underbrush which, like Lent itself, is
difficult to negotiate. Finally, in the center, is the grove of cedars. Their
lower branches are dead, brittle and grey, and extend horizontally from the
trunks like hundreds of crosses. Along this journey, from thorns to crosses,
long strands of berry bushes arc red and smooth like streams of blood. Despite
my best efforts, stickers tear at my jeans and the skin on the backs of my
As we enter the grove, Jake is talking about an article he has read on near
death experiences. So we converse in serious tones. We speak about faith and
science, endorphins and Resurrection. I am somewhat distracted, however, as I
search for some wood that will ignite easily come Saturday night.
As we range among the fallen wood and living wood, the topic of death
persists. I find myself reluctantly thinking of my mother and her recent
She died in November, a few days before the Feast of Christ the King. As
always in that closing season of the year, the readings spoke of the Last Things
and of Christ Our Judge coming at the end of time.
For my mother, however, that final week was all mercy and grace. She
experienced very little pain. There was no struggle or fear. Despite her
peaceful death, the memories of that week continue to pierce me - the heaving of
her chest, the feather-like weight of her hand, her final breath, the sound of
our prayers for angels to greet her and martyrs to meet her - all of it as vivid
and sharp as this spring day amid thorns and thickets and theological tangles.
At last, Jake and I come to a clearing where his father felled a cedar last
summer. Jake says that the tree was dead when his father cut it down and should
by now be seasoned enough to burn well on the night of the Vigil. I start the
chain saw and begin trimming the branches. As I cut, the air fills with the
scent of the aromatic wood. I kick away sections of the tree with my boot. The
exposed core is a deep purple, like Lenten vestments, or in places a reddish
pink, as if stained with blood.
As my saw tears hungrily into the wood, Jake's ungloved hands - farmer hands
- pull the branches into a pile. He takes the maul and begins to split the
scattered pieces of trunk.
He continues to chop as I turn off the saw and stand in the sudden quiet. I
listen to the soothing knock of the maul against the wood, the crack of soft
cedar splitting. The fragrance rises like incense, its sacrifice like the
lifting up of hands, like the lifting up of the cross beam on Calvary.
I study my friend and admire his strength and his life. His friendship
strengthens my faith like no other. He is Simon of Cyrene coming in from the
fields. He is a carpenter and sower, a trapper and tiller, a husband and
provider. Always at hand, always at work.
I am his friend and his pastor and the pastor of many who are like him,
people of the country ? men, women, and children who are quiet and humble and
devoted to Christ: the Christ who, in this Holy Week, will shoulder his cross
and bleed in our liturgy, the gash in his side as red as opened cedar, his skin
purple as Lenten cloth, his head torn by locust thorns.
I know I am on holy ground in this woods and in this community. I move among
the people of my parish unworthily, washing their feet, anointing their hands
and heads with oil, baptizing their young, burying their dead. I am their
priest, their brother Abel, their tree-trimming Amos, their tent-making Paul.
Few priests are as privileged as I. I come from the same land as my
parishioners. From the same forests our homesteads were cleared, our towns
built, our churches constructed. My initials are carved in the beech trees here,
I swam in the creeks beneath the spreading sycamores, our farms were
interlocked, our families interrelated. Our hunting, our drinking, our fumbling
are all the same - so much am I one of them.
Yet, in this Holy Week, we are joined even closer, joined like the grains of
wood in the cross we touch and kiss on Good Friday. We will huddle together at
the Easter Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday. Faces will glow with the yellow
warmth of the Fire. There will be glances cast into the night sky, eyes of faith
that somehow know that the Fire outside our darkened church burns brighter than
all the stars of heaven. For on this night earth will exult and holy Church will
resound with joy at the rising of Christ from the darkness of the tomb.
Each year we gather for these transforming rites. Each year Christ's own
presence fills the holy night. Our souls are transfixed and our wounded Savior
is transfigured. He is jubilant and muscular and fierce; thorn-pierced scalp and
wood-scraped skin, his eyes reflecting the flames of our Fire.
I send up the cry, trembling, "Christ our Light!"
"Thanks be to God," they respond.
The crowd grows silent. The cedar crackles.
"Christ our Light!" I sing again.
"Thanks be to God!"
The chant rises to the trees and soon echoes in the church as we process
inside. It drifts to the vaults of the ceiling and settles in the niches of the
altars. In the night air inside the church it ruffles the cloak of the Risen
One. He rises above us, silent and strong, breathing like the stallion in Job,
his black eyes ablaze, a Champion.
The chanting caresses his wounds, and soon the ancient Scriptures are read,
stories of water and tears, death and redemption. Soon our fingers, brown with
blood, will reach for the water of the font, our eyes yearning to see eternal
life glinting on its surface, our minds grasping its power to cleanse and renew,
Christ's own power to bring forth from dead wood the ever-new, the
ever-breathing life of God.
These are the mysteries we celebrate on a spring night when clouds float blue
and grey across a full moon. The vigilant mysteries that press against our
windows in the dark of night, the quiet peace beneath the mournful wind we hear
in our trees.
For the Lord is here, risen indeed, risen in our land, in our towns, in our
sheds, in our history and in our love. In the smell of cedar and the fragrance
of incense. In the waters of baptism and rivers and lakes, in the relics of the
dead and the songs of the saints: this Woodsman and Fanner, this Neighbor and
Bridegroom, this Stallion, this Champion, this Priest, this Friend.
Fr. James Schmitmeyer is a priest of the Archdiocese of
Cincinnati and Pastor of St. Louis Church in North Star, Ohio, and St. Nicholas
Church in Osgood, Ohio.
Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with
permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA