In the spot where a front fence would be if we had one, stands a towering ghost gum. This beautiful tree, written in God’s sign language, has been my Lenten prayer, writes Judith Scully.
BY Judith Scully
In the spot where a front fence would be if we had one, stands a towering ghost gum. At least 20 metres tall, it stands out among the masses of slender eucalypts that crowd the outer suburban valley where we live.
The trunk is a merging palate of rusty orange, cream, grey and a blacky-brown. Splits and breaks blotch it like scar tissue or stretch marks left after giving birth.
Lorikeets used to nest in a precariously balanced hollow branch before they were evicted by noisy miners. Passing cockatoos suss out the pros and cons of nesting in a particularly deep hole just under the top fork.
All summer the tree has been shedding its bark, long dry strips peeling away, leaving the creamy smoothness of new skin. This beautiful tree, written in God’s sign language, has been my Lenten prayer.
Every year as Lent rolls round, I struggle to find a relevant way to mark the weeks that lead up to the liturgical celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. The shopping centres call it Easter week and would have me believe that Easter is about chocolate eggs, rabbits, chickens and hot cross buns. My adult children look forward to a four-day holiday and neighbours are planning one last beach break before winter.
The Church offers me 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 and a cross to touch. I’m caught up in conflicting possibilities that come under the heading of Easter.
While the northern hemisphere landscape is throwing off the winter snow and breaking out into fresh spring colours, our gum trees are shedding their bark in a more subtle yearly event. Its work of nurturing the growth of new skin done, the discarded bark falls to the ground, providing a hiding place for minute insects.
My gum tree tells me an Easter story of layer upon layer of bark letting go when the time was right. It reminds me of my husband, knowing he would never play golf again, bravely giving away his beloved clubs to a nephew not long before he succumbed to motor neuron disease. He died as he lived, accepting the disease that gradually stripped him of all movement.
Letting go is as earthy and painful as sweat and blood. In one part of our land a lifetime of memorabilia is swept away in swirling flood water while in another a bushfire reduces dreams, to rubble and ashes. A loved one dies and we can’t believe we will ever laugh freely again. A marriage ends in divorce and children are hurt and confused. Age catches up and with it comes the realisation that what once seemed to be entirely possible is not going to happen. Across the planet greed disturbs the ecological balance, stripping the land and a nuclear disaster shatters the lives of countless families.
All the twirling, shredding, dropping bark on my tree speaks of loss. Newspapers shout their daily headlines of injustice, the misuse of power, murder and violence. In a few lines the obituary pages tell stories of love and grief. Night after night TV presenters wrap words around the pain that ripples through the world. As followers of Jesus crucified we pray these people stories, sometimes in a church building, cupped into words and actions that are centuries old, sometimes in a silent time and place.
And we remember a Friday, on a hill outside Jerusalem, when a mother watched as her son surrendered his life to the Father and all the pain and suffering of the world had somewhere to go.
There is a dignity about my gum tree that is intensified by the scars written deep into its trunk. They speak of experience, of hot summers when fires loomed and occasionally licked at its base, of freaky storms that tossed aside younger, frailer branches. Deep inside the trunk, through rain and drought, the sap ran strong and new life flowed through the spreading canopy to the furthest tips of the longest and oldest branches.
That’s Easter – if we let it. We say Easter because there’s something awkward about resurrection. Death we understand but the resurrection is outside our experience. Yet we live surrounded by claims that stretch the bounds of belief, if not possibility. I watch the ads for cosmetics or buy a lottery ticket… rejuvenated skin… dreams come true? So what keeps me buying new cosmetics and lottery tickets? Maybe it’s hope.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr says that hope is not logical. The Gospel writers piled the Easter stories one on top of the other as the early Christian communities struggled with the awkwardness of resurrection. Mary of Magdala, the women at the tomb, the travellers to Emmaus, Thomas, Peter and John, fish for breakfast, a taste of honeycomb. All these stories challenged their lived experience and at the same time flooded them with the unbelievable possibility that is hope.
Even if St Augustine did say that with all this hope on offer “the Christian should be an alleluia person from head to foot”, I don’t always feel that way, and neither, I suspect, did he. But I only have to look outside my study window and there it is – my alleluia tree. Such beauty gives me a surge of joy. It has a transcendence that touches me with joy. That’s the alleluia feeling.
I don’t know how long it has been proclaiming its joy in the presence of God, but I suspect it was here when gold was first discovered a few kilometres away. Its roots stretch deep into the stony soil, its trunk is still straight and slender, which is more than I can say for my shape.
Now we have a new pope and he’s called himself Francis. All I know about him I have read in the media. I like what I’ve read, so far. People like myself live out Jesus’ message in brick veneers and shopping centres, school committees and sporting clubs. Our days are a constant movement between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I have a suspicion that Pope Francis knows what that is like.
Outside my workroom window my Alleluia gum tree is tipped with sunshine and it feels like hope.
That’s the story God writes for me in Australian sign language.