The Crucifixion Legend of the Dogwood Tree

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Photo: Dogwood flower, courtesy of Steve Karg
Photo: Dogwood flower, courtesy of Steve Karg

Billions of people around the globe will pause this weekend to remember the Cross of Calvary, as well the miracle of resurrection.  Celebrations have already begun and will continue until the last observations of Easter are concluded in the westernmost islands of the South Pacific late-Sunday evening.

For many, this Sunday will mark the most sacred date on the Christian calendar as it serves as a reminder of the tortuous death Christ endured in an effort to purchase lost souls in need of salvation, as well as death’s unconditional surrender to Christ, the Savior who arose three days later as a victor o’er the dark domain of hell.

Central to all observations this week, whether Protestant or Catholic, is the simple yet extraordinarily recognizable symbol of Christianity: The Roman Cross of Calvary.

Whether printed, trimmed in gold and worn as jewelry or affixed to a steeple, the cross is one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet and serves as a timeless reminder of Christianity.

Speaking of the cross long before his crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed to his followers, “he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me,” in Mark 10.38.

After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Apostle Paul mentioned the cross, stating, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”

There is no question that the cross is important to Christianity, but there is great debate as to what the cross was actually made from.

Today, many Biblical scholars believe there is evidence that it was constructed of a combination of cedar, pine and cypress, a nod to the prophecy of Isaiah which stated, “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree [cedar], the pine tree, and the box [cypress] together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.”

Despite these thoughts, there is an old tale not based in Biblical texts but instead in oral tradition that found its way to me when I was just a young child in the mountains of Appalachia.

One afternoon while walking through the woods alongside my father, we came upon an out of place dogwood tree, Virginia’s official State Tree.

Grabbing its limbs, my dad gave it a good tug and proclaimed to me, “This is the type of tree Jesus was hung on.”

“How do you know?” I asked inquisitively.

“That’s what all the old people have told me my entire life,” he answered, as we continued on our march through the woods.

A few days later, he brought me branch of the tree and recounted a legend I found strangely fascinating.

“Dogwoods used to be far bigger and stronger than they are today, but after one was cut down and made into the cross that Jesus died on, they became cursed to forever be small and weak.”

Handing me one of the blooms from the tree, he continued, “Take a look at the white flower — anytime you see this, you are to remember the cross. Do you see the nail marks in the flower?  Look at the red crown of thorns.  Break that red berry and see the blood…”

My father was not a particularly religious man while I was growing up, but holding that dogwood limb knee to knee with him revealed something I never before realized — despite his use of words my mother would wash my mouth out with soap for using, my father held a great respect for the Jesus my mother made sure my sister and me worshipped each Sunday at our local church.

As I’ve grown older and a bit more cynical in my adult life regarding the authenticity of legends and folklore, I can’t say that I still truly believe the story of the Dogwood as my father presented it to me — the Bible is mute when it comes to the type of tree Jesus was crucified upon so I guess I will be too — but I can say that I will forever cherish this precious memory of hearing my father talk about the Cross of Jesus.

Whether it was made from a Dogwood, Cedar, Pine or some other tree, the contents of the cross are not nearly as important as its message:

“And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.” — Colossians 1.20

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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