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The Trees of Holy Week

April 2, 2012

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree is in full bloom. Dogwood flowers are beginning to open, and the redbuds have burst into their pinkish-purple glory.

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted with an array of blossoms. Purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, nodding golden jonquils, spreading white and pink Lenten roses, and spikes of pale blue scillia compose a multicolored carpet beneath the flowering trees.

Yellow pollen already covers my truck and the porch furniture. My eyes are itching, and my sinuses are congested. Spring has arrived.

The nonstop procession of blossoming trees of springtime is a wonder to behold. Bradford pears, Sergeant Crabapples, and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. Flowering peach and apple trees across the Upstate promise that, in the summer months ahead, abundant fruit will be available at roadside stands. Some trees, like the sassafras that grows beside our home, have a less conspicuous green flower that adds its own subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring.

Among the most eagerly awaited blossoms in our yard and throughout the Piedmont are those of the dogwoods and the redbuds, two trees that are closely connected in several ways. The dogwood is the most common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid to late spring. Described as America’s most beloved flowering tree, it has been designated the official tree of several states.

The redbuds, in full bloom by mid-March, are covered with a profusion of purplish-pink flowers all along its branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the blooms.

Dogwoods and redbuds have several common characteristics beyond their sheer beauty.  Both are small understory trees that grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Both are suitable as ornamental trees for home gardens. Both are quite hardy. Each tree will reseed readily, redbuds from distinctive seedpods, and dogwoods from bright red berries.

More significant perhaps is the connection to Holy Week by way of folklore.

The legend of the dogwood holds that until the time of the crucifixion of Christ, dogwoods grew to reach the size of oaks. Its strong wood was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. Once used for such a cruel death, the Creator declared that the tree would never again be used as a cross. From that time forth, the dogwood has been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment but as a blessing.

In sympathy to the suffering of Christ, the dogwood bore white blossoms in the shape of a cross.  Each of the two long and two short petals bears, on the outer edge, the print of a rusty nail. At the center of each flower is a crown of thorns, red, as if stained with blood. The flowers themselves serve as a reminder of the death of Jesus.

Even as the dogwood tree’s blooming coincides with Good Friday, the redbud tree flowers near the Ides of March, the infamous date of Brutus’ betrayal of Julius Caesar. The redbud tree represents betrayal, not by Brutus, but by Judas Iscariot. People of the southern Appalachian Mountains have long referred to the redbud as the Judas tree.

Legend states that Judas hanged himself from the branches of the tree. Rather than cursing the redbud as a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves.  In full display by Good Friday, the leaves remind us of the loving heart of God.

When my family lived in another city, our neighbors were avowed agnostics. Both a dogwood and a redbud grew in their yard.

“Should we cut the trees down because of their legends?” the husband asked rhetorically.

“Absolutely not!” his wife answered. “We’ll keep them because they are so beautiful.”

During Holy Week, these flowering trees of spring are evidence of the mystery and majesty of a divine creative hand.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2012



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