I must confess that I sometimes find more inspiration from the lines of a hymn than from familiar passages of Scripture. At a recent service we sang W. Chalmers Smith’s great classic “Immortal, invisible…” with the lines “we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish…” As one well into the withering stage of life’s journey these lines grabbed me with their particularly personal relevance. I will return to the “perishing” in a moment but first let’s consider the image of a tree as a metaphor for the history of the human race.
Trees have a prominent role in Scripture. Our earliest forebears saw the source of all our misery and wretchedness in the fruit of a tree; and John exiled on the Island of Patmos dreamed of a tree whose leaves would be for the healing of the nations. In between, the Book of Psalms opens with an image of the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water; Daniel saw Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare of the destruction of a great tree as presaging the downfall of his kingdom; while. Jesus likened the growth of God’s kingdom to that of a great tree growing from a tiny seed.
The lines from our hymn conjure up a beautiful image of human history as a tree made up of billions of individuals each a leaf, playing its part. I like to trace my family tree but it is salutary to remember that it is indeed no more than a tiny twig on a branch of that great tree. Each of the members of my family are leaves from that twig. Many have flourished and fallen some are flourishing today and others will burst out tomorrow. All my friends and neighbours, all the people I meet or pass by on my daily round, all the people living in the world today are leaves of different branches and different boughs, but we are all of that one great tree: all will wither and fall as surely as spring gives way to summer, summer to autumn and autumn to winter: and new generations will follow as surely as winter gives way to spring.
But what of the “perishing”? There’s the rub. But leaves don’t perish do they? They decay and become part of the soil and their nutrients feed the tree and the leaves yet to come. In the Bible, as in contemporary thought “perishing” has negative connotations. There is a finality about it, a sense of nothingness beyond, and it smacks of judgement and judgement implies division, and division implies inclusion and exclusion. In the New Testament perishing is ultimate exclusion from the blessings of God’s kingdom But that cannot be the sense which the hymn-writer has in mind here. The “we” is inclusive and includes the “perishing”. But if they are perishing in the Biblical sense there could not possibly be a place for such a hymn in a Christian act of worship. Perhaps Walter Chalmers Smith was just desperate for a word to rhyme with “flourish” but I prefer to think that he has in mind the process by which the decaying leaf feeds its nutrients back into its parent tree.
What becomes of the real “me” when autumn gives way to winter and flesh and bone are turned to ashes is a mystery. But if this withering leaf can give back to the tree of history for its next spring something of the nourishment with which it has fed the blossoming and flourishing of my spring and summer I shall be content.