The Dream of the Rood
The Dream of the Rood.
Sometime around the 7th to 8th century AD the most extraordinary poem was created in Old English. Its name is the Dream of the Rood from the Anglo-Saxon word for tree – and in this context specifically the tree of the crucifixion. The oldest surviving text is carved in runes on the huge and magnificent 8th century stone cross housed in the church of the town of Ruthwell, Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.
This unique poem – for nothing even close to this is found in any other literature, tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the stand point of – the Tree.
It opens with the tree describing how it was cut down in the forest, trimmed and then hauled off to the city. Then we encounter Christ. Remember, it is the tree talking:
“Men bore me on their shoulders and set me on a hill. Many enemies held me fast there. I saw the Lord of All coming swiftly and with such courage to climb upon me. I did not dare to bend or break then when I saw the surface of the earth tremble, for it was against my Lord’s desire. Tumbling I could have felled all my enemies, but I stood firm and true. Then the young warrior, God Almighty Himself, stripped, and stood firm and without flinching, bravely before the multitude He climbed upon the cross to save the world. I shivered when the hero clung to me, but I dared not bend to the ground, for fall to the earth. I had to stand firm. I was a rod raised up, I bore on high the mighty King, the Lord of Heaven. I dare not stoop. They drove nails into me – see these terrible injuries, the open wounds of malice. I dared not injure the enemies. They insulted us both and I was soaked in the blood that ran from the Man’s side after He set his spirit free. On that hill I saw and endured much. I saw the God of Hosts stretched on the rack. I saw darkness covering the lifeless body of the Ruler with clouds.
All creation wept, weeping and mourning for the death of the King. For Christ was on the cross.”
The poem goes on to tell the story through to the resurrection.
What an astonishing way to tell of the Passion and death of Christ! From the standpoint of another species. And European Christianity is full of stories about how Creation reacted to humanity’s killing of the Christ. Why does the donkey have the mark of a cross on its back? From carrying Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. How did the robin get its red breast? From trying to pull the crown of thorns from Christ’s head which resulted in a thorn piercing its breast. How did the crossbill get its crossed beak? From trying to pull the nails out of the hands and feet of Christ.
These stories are not important to ornithologists. We know that evolution as the instrument of God’s creative love created the robin’s red breast and the crossbill’s beak for reasons other those given above. But these stories have been told by storytellers wanting to find some way of expressing what they knew: that all of creation wept because Christ was on the Cross.
We used to dismiss these as just old-fashioned folk fables. But as we have learnt over the last hundred years or so, such stories contain profound wisdom and insights. These stories have kept alive the understanding that Christ’s Passion was a cosmic event – for all life not just us. And that at its heart is how we rebuild our relationship with the rest of Nature, which saw and understood the betrayal of God that humanity committed not just through the killing of Christ but through so much of our relationship with the rest of God’s Creation.
The Dream of the Rood challenges our anthropocentric view of not just the Passion of Christ, but frankly of our overall worldview. Some find it almost blasphemous to see the Crucifixion through the eyes and feelings of a tree. Yet those of the Anglo-Saxon tribes who first converted to Christianity saw it as utterly natural in the truest sense. This wonderful poem and insight has been largely forgotten until very recently. Perhaps it has re-emerged just when we needed its insights again.
According to Matthew 27: 51 and Mark 15: 38, at the moment of Christ’s death, “the veil of the Sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” The Sanctuary of course was the most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem. What we tend to forget is what that veil, which hid from sight the Holy of Holies depicted. It was the Six Days of Creation.
How does the Dream of the Rood make you feel?
Does it make you see the Crucifixion differently and if so how?
Try taking another species – the robin, the donkey, the darkening sky and lowering clouds – and retell the story from that point of view.
Why do you think that Matthew and Mark tell the story of the veil of the Sanctuary being torn in two?
When you have read the Dream of the Rood and the story of the veil being torn in two, what do you think Paul means in Colossians 1 verses 15 to 20?
The Lesson above comes from Finding hope for the whole of creation: CELEBRATIONEARTH!’s study pack for churches by Martin Palmer. You can download a copy here (if that doesn’t work, drop us an email: email@example.com. Every so often, someone can’t access the download.)
The Dream comes from a largely oral tradition so why not pause this evening and read the words aloud (even if you are the only audience)
Ruthwell Cross: photo is from Undiscovered Scotland
Tree photographs: G MacLellan.