Vegetation of all different sorts makes frequent appearances in the scriptures; between the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Tree of Life in Revelation, there are mustard plants, vines, lilies, grass, oaks, palms, wheat and corn, olives and the fig tree, as in today's Gospel. Given that the natural world shows God's creative, loving power, it is fitting that it plays a part in the drama of sin and redemption. Beautifully, the leaves of the Tree of Life in Revelation are 'for the healing of the nations.'
The first reading today reminds us of another very important type of plant in the history of salvation, the thorn. Although our text doesn't specify that the bush from which God speaks to Moses is a thorn bush, by the time Jesus was born this was an accepted fact in the story. The burning bush was a thorn bush, and it was from this lowly and harsh plant that God spoke to Moses, to reveal nothing less than his Name, and to begin the process of liberating his people from Egypt. God in the midst of the thorns.
This has tremendous resonance, of course. After Adam transgressed and was evicted from Eden, part of the punishment was that thorns and thistles would cover the ground and that he would earn his bread in the sweat of his face (Gen 3). Thorns were the result of Adam's sin and a sign of God's punishment, but with Moses the same plant becomes a vehicle of God's saving revelation. As one version of the story from about the time of Jesus puts it:
And when the First-formed Man was judged guilty of death, the earth was condemned to bring forth thorns and thistles. And when the truth enlightened Moses, it enlightened him by means of a thicket of thorns.
In another, equally vital, moment in history, thorns make an appearance. When Abraham is about to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the ram which is sacrificed in place of Isaac is caught by its head in a thicket of thorns (Gen 22). The saving victim amongst the thorns. So this unlikely sort of plant is involved at the crucial moments, moments of judgement, revelation, salvation and sacrifice.
For Christians, especially in this time of Lent, another appearance of thorns comes to mind: 'And the soldiers, platting a crown of thorns, put it upon his head.' In this apparently unimportant detail of the Passion, the whole of salvation history is embodied, the Fall, God's self-revelation, the Exodus, the foreshadowing of the true Lamb who is now offered in sacrifice. Jesus bears the weight and pain of our history on his head, in the mocking crown of thorns. Like the burning bush, the reality, the thorniness, of Jesus's humanity is joined to the fire of his divinity, but is not consumed by it. On the Cross, from amidst the thorns, Jesus bears the results of the Fall; he is the judge who takes the sentence upon himself. He reveals himself as the God Man who suffers and forgives, he speaks words of comfort to a dying thief, words of hope to his mother and disciple, and words of loving obedience to the Father.
From the earliest times of Christian tradition, it was thought that it was Christ who spoke to Moses from the burning thorn bush, and in this wonderful act of fulfilment, he appears again amongst the thorns in his Passion, 'that he might show that all was the work of the same one power. He is one, and his Father is one, the eternal beginning and the end' (Clement of Alexandria).
But we must remember too, of course, that the thorns are not the end of the story. Just as the wood of the Cross becomes the Tree of Life for us, so does the crown of thorns become the crown of glory at the Resurrection. The Father raises Jesus and crowns him with glory and honour, and puts all things under his feet. A crown of glory awaits us too, if we accept the grace of perseverance. In the meantime, much of life has the harshness of thorns, but we know that it is among the thorns that God reveals himself and saves us.