The Flowering Tree
A man, a river, and a tree
Enamelled with the flowers of May.
Good Friday sky as blue as sea
A hill as green as Easter day.
A tree, a river, and a man
Who hangs from branches thick with flowers.
A love which flowed since time began
Is measured here in three long hours.
A man, a tree, a river flows
Down to the font and origin
Where man, tree, river all disclose
The Easter where our lives begin.
The tree of life and the river flowing out of Eden make their first appearance at the beginning of the Bible in the book of Genesis. Here they represent all that is at stake in the choice faced by humanity of whether or not to trust in God's goodness. 'The river of the water of life' and the tree of life 'whose leaves are for the healing of the nations' reappear at the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation where they are symbols of God's final act of redemption in which all the temporary triumphs of evil will be overcome.
In between these two images the New Testament writers see a third tree. The cross on which Jesus was crucified is itself sometimes referred to as 'the tree' where all human life can be forgiven and renewed.
In St Mary's Iffley, John Piper's nativity window, with the creatures heralding the birth of Christ arranged on a tree of life, stands to one side of the great font where generations of inhabitants of the parish have been dedicated to Christ through the symbol of baptism with water. As in many churches the font stands by the door (in this case by three doors â“ the third is now hidden behind the organ) a reminder of the promise and challenge that stands at the beginning of the Christian life.
When the new window was commissioned for the other side of the font, the only direction I was given was that the subject should relate to both these things. As members of the congregation contributed ideas, a strange and lyrical image began to emerge. It seemed to echo the New Testament idea that Jesus' crucifixion on 'the tree' somehow expresses a divine forgiveness in which the whole story of human redemption comes into focus.
For Jesus's first disciples it was his resurrection from the dead and the outpouring of his spirit on the day of Pentecost that transformed their despair after the crucifixion into an assurance that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself'. Thus in this new Iffley window, the tree of life is full of May blossom, and from its roots the river of life pours down to where the great font greets all who come through the doors of this ancient place of prayer with the same challenge and promise.
Gresham College lecture:
Sister Wendy Beckett's film: