The myrrh tree – commiphora myrrha – a native to the lands around the Arabian Sea, is a small tree growing to about 3m. It is grown for its resinous sap. When the tree is damaged its resin bleeds through the bark and quickly coagulates as gum. This hardens into a glossy, granular material. Myrrh has antiseptic properties – it can be found in toothpaste – as well as analgesic properties and is used in liniments for sprains and bruises, as incense and as an anointing oil. It has been used for these medicinal purposes by ancient cultures and features in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the New Testament myrrh is one of the gifts brought by the Magi, and is one of the spices used to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. Hymns often reference myrrh as a symbol of death, overlooking its healing properties.
Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, marks the day when Jesus’s body lay in the tomb, awaiting the day of Resurrection.
We must let go of the life we planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell
Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about or whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts. Elizabeth Elliot
Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord. Psalm 27:14
The holly – ilex aquifolium – can grow up to 15m and live for 300 years. It has white flowers and red berries, both providing food for wildlife, whilst its dense all-year round leaves provides welcome shelter. It has strong, white wood, much favoured for walking sticks and chess pieces. It also makes good firewood. Surprisingly its leaves can be fed to livestock as nutritious winter feed. In the depths of winter the holly provides warmth, sustenance and shelter, as well as the joy of its bright red berries.
The holly has long had a spiritual significance, originally linked to fertility. In Christian symbolism the red berries are a reminder of Christ’s blood, the white flowers of purity, and the spiny leaves his crown of thorns.
The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the tree that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown ….
The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good ….
(This Christmas Carol dates back in print to 1710 but is probably much older)
He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and a buckler. Psalm 91:4
The olive tree – olea europaea – is an evergreen tree growing to a height of 15m, and a life span of 1000 or even 2000 years! It is a native of the Mediterranean and surrounding areas and has been cultivated here since ancient times. It is grown for its fruit and for the oil that produces; the word oil itself derives from its name – oleum in Latin and elaia in Greek. Olive oil has many uses, for cooking, lighting, cleansing and medicinal purposes, for massage and for coating the bodies of athletes in Ancient Greece. It has long been used too for sacred purposes to annoying holy people and holy places. It symbolises abundance, prosperity and peace. Olive branches were given as tokens of benediction and victory, and wreathes of olives leaves crowned the victors. Olive oil is still used for anointing baptism candidates, priests and monarchs.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives to pray. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ Luke 23:34a
The three most powerful resources you have available to you: love, prayer and forgiveness.
The Judas tree – cercis siliquastrum – is a small tree, growing up to 12m whose ranges extends from Southern Europe to Western Asia. It was common in Israel, and its French name ‘arbre de Judée‘, may give rise to its English name. Other suggestions are that it is so named because Judas hung himself on this tree. It bears bright pink blossoms in spring which appear before its leaves, which are heart shaped. In the autumn it produces flat seed pods – the seeds themselves are poisonous. The pods are said to resemble a weaver’s shuttle, which in Greek is ‘kerkis’ which gives rise to its botanical name.
Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin again us. And do not let us yield to temptation.
For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been first trust. Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games
The terebinth tree – pistacia terebinthus – is also known as the turpentine tree. It grows to a height of 10m and is a tree of the Mediterranean region. It can love for up to 1000 years, if not disturbed. It is a deciduous tree with glossy leaves, purplish-red flowers and brownish-red pea-like fruits. The whole plant emits a strong odour variously described as bitter or medicinal. It certain,y has many medicinal uses including treating coughs and asthma. It is used to flavour spirits, oils, and bread. It’s leaves are edible and its fruits can be roasted like coffee beans. Turpentine can be produced from its resin, whilst a sweet gum can be made from its bark.
In Hebrew it is named ‘elah’ and ‘elot’ in the plural as opposed to the oak which is named ‘alon’. Often in English translations both words are translated as oak. Although the two types of tree are in many respects very different, the terebinth is, like the oak, said to symbolise strength and endurance.
So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the terebinths of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD. Genesis 13:18
To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great terebinths that the LORD has planted for his own glory. Isaiah 61:3
The almond tree – Prunus amygdalus – is native to the Levant. Its fruit (technically a drupe rather than a nut) is edible. It is said to have been one of the first fruit trees to be cultivated, possibly because it can be grown from seed – no skills in grafting are needed. The tree grows to a height of between 4 and 10m. Its is one of the first trees to produce blossom in the spring and is therefore also associated with new life.
In Hebrew the word for almond ‘shaqad’, also has the meaning of watchfulness. When Jeremiah sees the flowering almond, God says that it is a sign that God is watching, ready to fulfil his word. (Jeremiah 1:11-12)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23
In the Bible, the Lord says: I am like the flower of the almond. Why? Because that is the first flower to blossom in the spring. He is always the first! This is fundamental for us: God is always ahead of us! When we think about going far away, to an extreme outskirt, we may be a bit afraid, but in fact God is already there. Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy
In the UK the broom is considered a shrub rather than a tree and in its cultivated forms has decorative yellow and red blooms. Native to North Africa and the Middle East is another member of the broom family known as the retama broom. The retama raetam or white weeping broom, grows to a height of 3m and up to 6m in spread. As well as being able to photosynthesise through its leaves, it can also photosynthesise through its stem which enables it to grow in hot, dry conditions. Its fruits (pea-like) and flowers provide food for goats, and its branches have been used as fuel since ancient times. Its deep roots help stabilise sandy soils.
In the Jewish tradition, the tree under which Hagar leaves Ishmael to die, for they had run out of water, is said to be the broom tree. It is also the broom tree (although alternatively it is said to have been a juniper tree!) under which the despairing Elijah also lies down having fled from Jezebel’s murderous rage. Both Hagar and Elijah then receive refreshment from God. The broom tree is thus said to symbolise renewal.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Psalm 51:10
The date palm – phoenix dactylifera – has been cultivated since ancient times, possibly originated in what is now Iraq. They were and are grown for their fruit which are eaten fresh and dried or made into syrup, wine or vinegar. The date palm needs about 8 years before fruiting but once mature can produce 70kg of fruit or more. Date palms can live for up to 150 years.
The date palm has been used as a symbol of prosperity and triumph. Palm leaves were carried in the triumphal victory processions in Rome, by followers of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem, and are in art works are symbolically carried by martyrs.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people, he adorns the humble with victory. Psalm 149:4
It is the nature of the strong heart, that like the palm tree it strives ever upwards when it is most burdened. Philip Sidney
The willow – salix – is commonly found growing near water. The flexible branches, particularly of the osier willow, are used for weaving all manner of baskets from cribs to coffins. Willow can be woven into living sculptures, tunnels and play houses. It is used in encasements to protect river banks. Its flexibility is also out to use in the making of cricket bats.
The goat and green willows both have silky grey flowers that look like a cat’s paw and are commonly known as pussy willow. Across Europe willow branches are often carried in lieu of palms on Palm Sunday. Being one of the first to produce blooms in early spring, pussy willow is seen as a symbol of new life.
Willows are associated with both grief and joy.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it we hung our harps. Psalm 137:1-2
Remember to weave a bit of joy into your life each day. Joni T Ross
The sycamore – acer pseudoplananus – is a naturalised tree in Britain, introduced in the Middle Ages. Its Latin name, meaning like a plane, comes from the shape of it leaves which resemble those of a true plane tree. It grows to a height of 35m and has a life span of up to 400 years. Its leaves are attractive to aphids making the tree attractive to aphid predators such as ladybirds. Its single seeded seed pods – samara – are colloquially known as helicopter seeds because they have a spinning action like that of helicopter blades. The sycamore is tolerant of both wind and pollution. Its wood is used to make taint free kitchen utensils as well as furniture, and in Wales is carved to make love spoons.
In Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus the tax collector, being a short person, climbs a sycamore tree so as to gain a view of Jesus.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ Luke 19: 5, 9-10
When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future. Bernard Meltzer