Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Let all the trees of the forest rejoice,
For their nature is sanctified by Christ who planted
them in the beginning,
And who was Himself outstretched on the Tree.
At its exaltation today we worship Him and glorify
- Canon hymn from the Matins of the Feast.
The Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross raises a myriad of themes—Biblical, historical, theological, etc.—upon which to meditate. One such theme is what we call a typological reading of the Scriptures. This is a profound way of discovering the inner connection between persons, events, and places of the Old Testament—what we would call “types”—with their fulfillment as “antitypes” in the New Testament. Thus, Adam is a type of which Christ—the last Adam—is the antitype: “Adam… was the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14).
Through typology, we learn that the Old Testament can now be read as anticipating the Person of Christ and the saving events recorded in the New Testament, without undermining the integrity of the historical path of ancient Israel as the People of God, entrusted by God with a messianic destiny.
One such typological application is expressed in an intriguing and paradoxical manner through one of the hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. As we sing in one of the verses from the festal Great Vespers,
“For it is fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the suffering of him who was condemned because of wood.”
What a truly wonderful phrase: “wood should be healed by wood!” Yet, what is this “wood” to which the hymn refers? How does wood “heal” wood?
In both instances, the wood is clearly the wood of two trees—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as found in Genesis 2, and the wood of the Tree of the Cross. In disobedience to the command of God, the man and woman of Genesis 2—Adam and Eve—ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was the one tree, the fruit of which it was not safe for them to eat: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).
The freedom and self-determination of the first man and woman were tested by this divine commandment. In a celebrated interpretation of this passage, Saint Gregory the Theologian (+395) draws out the meaning of this command and its consequences. “[God gave Adam] a law as a material for his free will to act on,” he writes.
“This law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of and which one he might not touch. This latter was the tree of knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us—let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction or imitate the serpent. But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time. The tree was, according to my theory, contemplation, which is safe only for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy, just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk” (Second Oration on Easter, 8).
Saint Athanasius the Great (+373) express this in similar terms.
“Knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation God secured the grace given to them by a command and by the place where He put them. For He brought them into His own garden and gave them a law so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care, besides having the promise or incorruption in heaven. But if they transgressed and turned back and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death that was theirs by nature, no longer to live in paradise but cast out of it from that time forth to die and abide in death and corruption” (On The Incarnation, 3.4).
The theme of the initial innocence of Adam and Eve—their lack of maturity and their need for spiritual growth and maturation—was quite characteristic of the Church Fathers, being found as early as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (+c. 200). “Therefore, the ‘wood’ of this tree proved to be death-dealing, not because God made it such ‘in the beginning,’ but because it was partaken of in a forbidden manner and not ‘at the proper time,’” he wrote.
Nothing created by God is evil by nature; rather, all is “very good.” But misdirected free will can pervert the good into something that is evil. The gift of the promise of deification is a God-sourced gift, not a self-sourced gift.
On the other hand, the Tree of the Cross is precisely the wood through which the first disobedience was undone by the One Who died on it in obedience to the will of the Father. The Tree of Life that was in the Garden was the actual “type” of the Tree of the Cross on Golgotha. The last Adam—Christ—healed us of the sin of the first Adam. (As early as Saint Justin the Martyr, it was taught that the Virgin Mary was the “new Eve” also because of her obedience to the Word of God).
The Cross is therefore “the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam is by the Cross himself deceived, and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is overthrown in headlong fall” (Sticheron, Great Vespers).
Obedience is hardly a virtue that is found attractive or worthy of pursuit in today's world; but a great virtue nevertheless due to the Lord's obedience to the will of his heavenly Father when he willingly - obediently - ascended the Cross for our salvation.
According to a pious tradition, the place of the skull—Golgotha—is the place where Adam was buried when he died. The blood that flowed from Christ “baptized” that skull as symbolic of the sons of Adam (and Eve) being given renewed and eternal life by the blood shed by Christ on the Cross—the Tree of Life. As we sing in one of the Litiya hymns for the feast, “The Tree of true life was planted in the place of the skull, and upon it hast Thou, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth. Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world.” (We might note here that it is in this light that in icons of the crucifixion, we generally see the Cross of Christ “planted” on the skull of Adam, with an inscription that reads “the Grave of Adam.”)
“Wood is healed by Wood!” This is the good news revealed in the typological interpretation found in the liturgical hymns of the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, together with the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers. This is why we honor and venerate the Cross by literally bowing down before it in adoration. The Cross was at the heart of the proclamation of the Gospel, though an instrument of shame in the ancient world. But this did not deter the Apostle Paul from proclaiming that Gospel is the power of God. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). And we also cannot be “ashamed” of the Tree of the Cross through which “joy has come into the world.”