(I wrote this in 2010. Since then we have moved to Warrandyte)
I don’t know if it is theological to image God as a gum tree but last Easter I did just that. Our home sits on the rim of the Maribyrnong valley. Steep sides run down to a sandy walking track and then flatten out to edge through the undergrowth to the placidly flowing river. The drought has not been kind to the valley and lots of dead trees stretch grey arms over ground littered with rocks, dead branches and occasional clusters of green that could be grass or maybe just weed.
A metre or two from the low chin link fence
that keeps the valley kangaroos out of our garden is a gum tree. It’s like any other smooth barked eucalyptus – lanky with sparse, leaf-tipped branches that are occasionally occupied by passing magpies or the odd kookaburra. The trunk is lovely shades of rusty orange and brown, broken here and there by splits and breaks that blotch the bark like scar tissue or the stretch marks left after giving birth. It balances precariously on an angle, a tribute to years of tenacity in a difficult location. It’s just one of the 700 species of eucalyptus trees, blending in with the all the other valley gums.
God has written a sacred story across our land – Uluru’s red heart, crumpled brown earth, now and again rivers, green paddocks, ancient purple mountains, cities that hug the coastline and blink- and- you’re- through- them towns – and gum trees. When the landscape of the northern hemisphere is throwing off the winter snow and breaking out into fresh spring colours, our gum trees are shedding their bark in what is possibly a more subtle, but no less spectacular yearly event. This is what caught my eye last year as summer gave way to autumn and I noticed the bark of that tree at the back fence peeling in papery strips from the trunk revealing a smooth creamy surface.
The old bark was peeling away, leaving behind smooth, creamy trunk. For a long time it had protected and nurtured the growth of the new skin, now its work was done and it fell, not to death but to a new beginning as a hiding place for minute insects and mulch for the parched ground. One particularly long bark peel hung, exposed and vulnerable, from an outstretched branch and I had a vivid awareness that God was writing a Holy Week story to me in Australian sign language.
My religious and spiritual journey, like yours, is set against a backdrop of Australian landscape. Every year, as the liturgy unfolds, I struggle with imagery that originates and resonates with the other side of the world. Imagery has the power to transform our lives, to move us into a broader and deeper understanding of mystery. Holy Week bombards us with images. While the shopping centres are telling us that it’s about chocolate eggs, rabbits, chickens and hot cross buns, the Church offers us the story of Jesus’ last week as it is written in the Gospels, pieces of cyprus tree, feet to be washed, bread and wine, blessed oil, a wooden cross to touch.
My gum tree knocked those images for six – yes, even the Church ones. All that twirling, shredding, dropping bark spoke to me of loss. It happened to Jesus and it scars every human life. I was reminded of loved ones who have died, of every injury or illness that was gradually limiting my physical possibilities, of relationships that have faded away with time. I watched the nightly news with its never-ending Holy Week story of physical pain, injustice, treachery, evil, grief, blackmail, indifference, misuse of power, humiliation, remorse, cowardice, mob rule, death, execution, suicide, violence and rejection. And as I looked at the lone bark strip hanging on that outstretched limb of the gum tree I recalled Jesus’ words: “Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” He tasted the anguish. He bled with worry.
The gum tree tells me that suffering and death are mysteries and they are not the end but just the beginning of new life, that the days of our lives are a constant movement between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It reminds me that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought to the world the unbelievable certainty of the newness of life and its possibilities.