As we draw near to Holy Week, and on this Friday when many of us pray the Stations of the Cross, we do well to meditate on the wood of the cross. For it is a fascinating fact that, when saving His people, God often had recourse to wood. Indeed, one of the great themes of the Old Testament and into the New Testament is that “God Works Wonders With Wood.”
Consider with me a number of places in the Scriptures where God uses wood to save:
1. Ark of Safety– One of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world is the flood. The world had grown so wicked, and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literally wash it clean. (And you think its bad now!) God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. He was instructed to build an ark of Gopher wood. Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. God then, troubled the waters and the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. Through the wood of the ark God saved Noah and his family from the flood waters. (cf Gen 6-9) An old Latin Hymn says, Arbor una nobilis (One and only noble tree)! By this wood, God saved his people.
2. Victory at the Red Sea– Pharaoh had finally relented and the Jewish People were leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. Yet, God would win through for them. How?! God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21). And God brought them through those troubled waters, and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? Wood works wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!
3. Water in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. But notice again how God uses wood to bring forth saving water: And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet! (Ex 15:23) So once again, God saves through wood and brings forth water. The wood of the tree made sweet the water: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!
4. Saving Stream – But yet again, as they journeyed further, more thirst. And once again God used wood to save them: God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6). With God’s power the wood works wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!
5. Down by the Riverside – After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross! But once again God had a plan and it involved wood. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. The also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today. And when those who bore that wooden Ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests touched the water the waters, those waters rose up in a heap far off, and the people passed over opposite Jericho (cf Joshua 3:15) So again, with God, wood works wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land. Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!
Now all of these prefigure the noblest tree of all: the Cross of our Lord. For as we have amply seen, God works wonders with wood.
It is said that Jesus was a carpenter. Actually the Greek calls him a teckton (builder). But surely carpentry was among his skills. But more truly he was the greatest carpenter of all, not merely for any table or chair he built, but for the salvation he won us through the wood of his cross: Arbor una nobilis (One and only Noble Tree)!
Jesus, master carpenter among all master carpenters! Wood alone cannot save, but God works wonders with wood, and by his power, and his grace he wills to use wood to save us: Wood Works Wonders!
Please consider these beautiful lines from the 6th Century Hymn Crux Fidelis:
above all other,
one and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peers may be;
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee!
Lofty tree, bend down thy branches,
to embrace thy sacred load;
oh, relax the native tension
of that all too rigid wood;
gently, gently bear the members
of thy dying King and God.
Tree, which solely wast found worthy
the world’s Victim to sustain.
harbor from the raging tempest!
ark, that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
of the Lamb for sinners slain.
The full hymn by Venantius Fortunatus is here: PANGE LINGUA – CRUX FIDELIS
Never forget what your Master Carpenter, Jesus has done for you.
Here is a sung version of the hymn Crux Fidelis: