The Land of the Walking Trees

The Church is the land of the walking trees.

In Mark’s Gospel, the identity of Jesus is slowly and progressively revealed. Though St. Mark announces at the beginning of his narrative that Jesus Christ is “the Son of God” (1:1), this is a reality that must be spoon-fed to His disciples and, therefore, all Christian readers. At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus seems to be intent on keeping His identity hidden. When He first encounters a demon, who addresses Him as “the Holy One of God,” Jesus commands him to be silent (1:24-25). We are told, in fact, that “He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him” (1:34). Similarly, after healing a leper, Jesus orders him to “say nothing to anyone” (1:44). The man disobeys, with the unfortunate result that “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” due to the crowds (1:45).

These very “crowds” function throughout the Gospel as an antagonist to Jesus and His mission. Mark is certainly intent to show Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, healing all who come to Him as well as casting out demons (3:10-11). Nevertheless, He is almost crushed by them and is prevented from eating (3:9, 20). The crowds are displayed clearly as an obstacle to Jesus’ mission in chapter 5. On His way to heal Jairus’ daughter, Jesus is surrounded by great crowds. A woman who has suffered from “a discharge of blood” must make her way through the swarm of people in order to touch Jesus’ garment (5:25-27). Ultimately, when Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, they are too late. His daughter has died. Yet Jesus raises her from the dead and proves Himself victorious. The point is still clear, however. The crowds are a chaotic force that must, in some way, be overcome. It is no surprise, then, that the climactic action of “the crowd” in the Gospel of Mark is to cry out, “Crucify Him” (15:13).

Jesus’ secrecy and the antagonistic nature of “the crowds” are, therefore, related. There is something about who He is that they simply cannot handle. New wine bursts old wine skins, wasting both the wine and the skins (2:22). After Jesus has taught the parable of the sower, the disciples ask Him its interpretation. Jesus’ answer is telling. He says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables” (4:11, emphasis added). This is so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (4:12). Echoing Isaiah, Jesus declares a judgment upon the people, upon “the very large crowd gathered about Him” (4:1). So has Jesus come to start a cult, a secret club of few initiates? Were the Gnostics right? Not quite, for Jesus says immediately after this that “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (4:22-23). It’s not a whether, but a when. Jesus has given His disciples the secret of the kingdom of God, but every secret will be spoken.

So, we might ask, when? When will what is hidden be brought to light? The answer is made clear at the pivotal moment within the Gospel. In chapter 8, things take a turn. Jesus begins to tell His disciples more of who He is and what He came to do. He begins to peel back the veil under which His glory shines. But first, He heals a blind man.

 At this point, Jesus has fed five thousand men with just five loaves and two fish, testing the faith of His disciples and proving Himself able (6:30-44). Now, most recently, He has fed four thousand (8:1-10). When reading, we might think that we forgot to flip the page, that we have already read this part. This is on purpose. The disciples repeat their faithlessness. In fact, afterwards, they sit in the boat discussing the fact that they do not have any bread. Jesus exclaims, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” (8:18). This sounds familiar. They are acting like the crowds, who “see but [do] not perceive” and “hear but [do] not understand” (4:12). Ears, in particular, should be very familiar since Jesus had just healed a deaf man (8:31-37). But what about eyes? As Jesus says at the very end of this pericope, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21).

When the blind man is brought to Jesus, He spits on his eyes and lays His hands on him. “Do you see anything?” He asks (8:23). The man replies, “I see human beings (anthrōpous), but they look like trees, walking” (8:24). Jesus again lays His hands on the man’s eyes and his vision is perfectly restored. This is a two-stage miracle, a unique occurrence in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus can transform our vision, but He does so progressively.

Immediately, the story turns to Jesus’ confrontation of His disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). The healing of the blind man was no empty sign or mere magic trick. Jesus wants to give His disciples ears to hear and eyes to see; they need to understand who He is. Peter answers, correctly, that Jesus is “the Christ” (8:30). So, Jesus begins to teach them that He “must suffer many things . . .  and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Peter reacts with shock and rebukes Jesus. Jesus in turn reprimands Peter, addressing him as Satan and claiming that he is “not setting [his] mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (8:33). Peter isn’t seeing clearly, but neither is he totally blind. He knows Jesus to be Christ, but the picture is fuzzy. This, too, is a two-stage healing.

Jesus turns the tables on Peter. “Not only will I have to suffer, but so will you!” “If anyone would come after me,” He says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). He explains that His followers will have to be willing to lose the whole world in order to gain their very lives, lest in trying to preserve their lives they lose them altogether. What appears to the blind as defeat is known as victory by those with eyes to see. The self-denial of voluntary crucifixion is paradoxically the very means to life itself. Disciples of Christ must pick up their crosses and walk.

In other words, what first appears to be trees walking is revealed as true and living human beings. For those still blinded, the ones who carry their wooden crosses seem only to be walking trees. For the ones with sight, the walking trees are sons of God and, therefore, truly sons of Man. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. “Become a walking tree.”

Thus, it is immediately after revealing who He is, namely, the Crucified One, that Jesus shows His disciples who they are as well. This means that the revelation of Christ is not merely an external phenomenon for His disciples, one which neatly preserves a rigid subject/object distinction. Rather, it changes them. As He transfigures Himself before them on the mount (9:2-13), Jesus shows them what they are meant to be, for in His light they see light (Psalm 36:9). “We shall be like Him,” says St. John, son of thunder made son of God, “for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

The true identity of Jesus Christ, therefore, will not be fully disclosed until the cross. It is at His prophesied death that the picture will become clear. This is stage two of the restoration of vision. This is the part that’s hardest to swallow. The secret of the kingdom is in the hands of the disciples, but on the cross it will be brought to light.

We noted above that St. Mark begins his Gospel with this appellation of “Son of God” for Jesus (1:1). It is interesting that this title appears very few times throughout the rest of the book. God addresses Jesus as His Son when He speaks from heaven at both His baptism and transfiguration (1:11; 9:7). At two different points, demons address Him as God’s Son (3:11; 5:7). Finally, Jesus identifies Himself as such towards the end of the Gospel, first in His parable of the tenants (12:6), and then before the high priest (14:61-62). So, Jesus is only known to be the Son of God by Himself, His Father, and demonic powers. Interestingly, Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ” is missing the added title “the Son of the living God” which is found in Matthew’s Gospel (16:16). In the Gospel of Mark, no mere human being acknowledges Jesus to be God’s very Son.

That is, until the very end.

Upon the cross, Jesus’ final moments are described. After breathing His last, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38). When the nearby centurion, “who stood facing Him,” sees Him die in this way, he declares, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39, emphasis added). At last, a human being sees the reality for what it is and acknowledges it as so: this man, this crucified criminal, is the very Son of God. Finally, someone has eyes to see.

This passage has striking parallels with Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospel. In the baptismal narrative, the heavens are “torn apart” (schidzomenous), the Spirit (pneuma) descends upon Him, and He is proclaimed to be the Son of God (1:10-11). In Jesus’ last moments on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn (eschidzthē) from top to bottom, Jesus dies (lit. expires; exepneusen), and He is proclaimed to be the Son of God (15:38-39).

In this way, the end is joined to the beginning. In light of the cross, the baptism of Jesus takes on new meaning. The secret that had been hidden is now brought to light. It is by descending into the watery abyss of the death, the womb of the earth, that Jesus emerges as the true and perfect human being, born unto God as man in a way that mirrors His eternal birth from the Father. He receives the Holy Spirit by giving up His mere human breath. The deadly cross has become the tree of life. And as we, His followers, take up the cross, we appear to the blind as merely trees walking. But God looks down upon the baptized, those who share daily in the baptism and Eucharistic cup of Christ Himself (10:38-39), and sees His beloved sons, in whom He is well pleased. The identity of the Church is bound up with the identity of Christ.

St. Irenaeus writes that the Word of God, who “was hidden from us” because of sin, was manifested “by the economy of the tree” (Against Heresies, 5.17.4). This Word of God, who was “made the Son of Man” (AH 5.17.3), was revealed once again to humanity by His death on the cross. “For as we lost [the Word of God] by means of a tree [in Eden], by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all,” that which was hidden at the beginning being brought to light in these latter days (AH 5.17.3). Since we had so thoroughly obscured our own vision, the Son of God patiently and gently revealed His face to us once again. And He did so by a tree.

The very object by means of which we initially turned away from God has been drawn up into the Lord’s cosmic recapitulation and transformed into the path of restoration. So now, “the Church has been planted as a garden (paradisus) in this world” (AH 5.20.2). And in this garden, there are many trees, not dead but living, as the crosses laid on upon the backs of the faithful refashion humanity into a cruciform shape.

The Church is the land of the walking trees. Cross-shaped lives are true lives, the lives of those who know God as Father. To be treelike is to be Godlike, conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, the Crucified Victor.

Jackson Shepard is an MTS student at Duke Divinity School studying Patristics. You can follow his writings at

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