Thursday, February 08, 2007

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time C: "Like a Tree"

Arucaria trees guard the Arnoldus Library

Here's a reflection on the Old Testament reading of this coming Sunday's liturgy, from Jeremiah 17:5-8).

The Text:
Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.

Milenyo, that awful typhoon that ravaged Metro Manila and Southern Luzon last year, proved its name right, "thousand". Milenyo had felled thousands of trees. In the seminary, a number of fruit bearing trees like the Lanzones, Rambutan, Pili, failed to withstand storm signal no. 4. But among the trees that were standing tall and unbowed by Milenyo were the Arucarias (Araucaria columnaris) , a surprise, since these trees look lean and too tall not to snap at the whisk of a storm.

Among the many retreat houses, religious institutions, hotels, and restaurants in the city, what makes Divine Word Seminary unique is the thousand amazing columnar Arucaria trees guarding and towering over the compound. Nowhere can you find in Tagaytay such imposing trees except in this seminary. Beholding these trees alone, their unstoppable height, their strength, their evergreen pines forming a pyramid pointing towards heaven, one cannot but raise one’s mind and heart to their Creator. I wonder why not so many retreatants of the seminary come back to witness this miracle.

Arucaria crowd waiting for a tennis game
In the Old Testament, trees are more than what they are. The narrative of two trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden tells us how significant trees can be to the relationship of the human and the Divine (Genesis 2-3).

Some are sacred trees. For instance, whenever the oak tree is mentioned, it is always in connection with holy places and cultic activities. If you would like to be near to God, live among the trees. So Abraham pitched his tent by the oaks of Mamre (Hebron) and even built an altar of the Lord under those holy trees (Gen 13:18).

There is an interesting verse in the book of the prophet Hosea where God likens himself with an "evergreen cypress tree" (Hos 14:8). With this image of God as a tree, what would those who attack the Catholics for venerating wooden images have to say?

Trees symbolize also the life of a country. When trees bear fruit, the country is under Yahweh's blessing; if the fruit harvest fails, it represents a curse. It is no irony then that even if more than half of the land of Israel is desert, it is a "land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (Deut 8:6)". In Ezekiel, the image of a better future in which human beings can hope for is a place where there is a river making grow all kinds of trees for food. "Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ezekiel 47:12).

In Psalm 1, a tree, planted by near streams of water, whose leaves do not wither and yields its fruit in season, is an image of righteous person who studies (“meditates” in some translations), the Torah of the Lord day and night.

So when Jeremiah, in the first reading of this Sunday, wants to illustrate the person "who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord", at once, he uses the image of a tree transplanted beside the waters, its root stretching out to the stream, whose leaves are evergreen and, despite the heat, bears fruit. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, the Beatitudes (Gospel Reading, Luke 6:17, 20-26), such a tree becomes the "kingdom of heaven".

For a quick introduction to the Book of Jeremiah, click on this.
One of the best English commentaries on Jeremiah is Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986).

For further reading of the different meanings of trees in the Bible, see K. Nielsen, There Is Hope for a Tree: The Tree as Metaphor in Isaiah (Sheffield, 1989).

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