Thursday, 29 November 2012

Wisdom from the Yew Tree

Yew tree, maybe 2000 years old, in Surrey
Almost Advent... Earlier this week I heard on the radio about a yew tree believed to be 4,000 years old: mind-boggling that something can be so ancient and still living. It was perhaps 2,000 years old already at the birth of Christ (and the relative youngster in the picture above might have been a tiny sapling). Fancifully, I wondered if among the age-rings in its trunk there was any sign of that unique year of growth - could we trace with our fingers in the patterns of the tree's life the moment of Incarnation, when eternity and history intersected?

The fact that trees alive then are still alive now makes the Incarnation feel somehow very recent - within living memory, literally. The aeons of creation's waiting for the "dispensation of the fulness of times [when] he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him." (Ephesians 1:10) God's good time! And we know now scientifically what our ancestors knew intuitively, that we are made of the same stuff as all the rest of creation: we, and the yew tree, and the stars and the dust are all made of the "flesh" which the Word of God became. The love and longing of God (the "oomph" of God, as James Alison puts it) effervescing out from the silence before the Big Bang to meet our longing... All gathered together in Christ. Was there (indulge my imagination!) a shiver of the branches of that already-ancient yew on these northern shores at the moment of the birth in Bethlehem? Even the yew tree had waited 2,000 years.

In the Spiritual Exercises, when Ignatius invites us to contemplate the Incarnation, he doesn't begin with Jesus' birth or even the Annunciation. He starts with that time of God's waiting and longing. He asks us to consider the Trinity gazing on the world in all its fragility: people of all races being born, living their lives and dying; rejoicing, mourning, fighting, feasting, laughing and weeping. All held in God's loving gaze, as God chooses not simply to love us from afar.

David Fleming paraphrases what comes next:

The leap of divine joy; God knows the time has come when the mystery of salvation, hidden from the beginning of the world, will shine into human darkness and confusion.  It is as if I can hear the Divine Persons saying, ‘Let us work the redemption of the whole human race; let us respond to the groaning of all creation.’

Yew trees have long been held sacred, perhaps because of their great age; like other evergreens they hold out hope in the dark of winter when other trees seem to lose their life until spring. I've read about early Christian missionaries in Britain preaching under these holy trees, and building their new churches there. That's why many of our most ancient yews are found in churchyards. Those first British Christians saw the yew as a symbol of resurrection: branches were brought into church at Easter and sprigs of yew placed into the shrouds of the dead as a token of hope of eternal life.


  1. These ancient trees astound me too. When I walked among the redwoods in California, I also was moved to wonder if the trees knew the moment Christ was born. I love to meditate among the trees!

  2. Thank you, Barbara. Trees have so much to teach us. I'd love to see the Californian redwoods!


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