An Unbroken Chain

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
For a nation with such a long and illustrious history, not to mention a rich musical heritage, it seems odd that England has no official national anthem.
Major sporting events and national gatherings usually default to God Save the King (sung to the same tune as My Country Tis of Thee).  From time to time, members of Parliament have discussed the possibility of bestowing official status on an alternate song.  One of the regular candidates for that honor is Jerusalem, a hymn based on an 1804 poem by William Blake.  Here’s how it begins:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
The words were set to music during the darkest days of World War I, when an entire generation of young British soldiers never returned from the Front.  The song stirs a deep hope that one day the nation can be healed and restored.  It sounds a call not to give up “till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”
Why the overt references to biblical imagery?
Blake’s poem reflects some ancient British folklore.  Somehow the story got started that Jesus walked all the way from his home in Palestine, crossed the English Channel, and spent time wandering the English countryside.  He was apparently accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and respected member of the Sanhedrin who would ultimately offer his family tomb as Jesus’ final resting place – the very spot from which Jesus would rise from the dead on the first Easter. 
In the most famous version of the story, Joseph came to England by himself after the resurrection.  He carried with him the Holy Grail – the cup from which Jesus had drunk at the Last Supper, and which would later become the never-ending obsession of King Arthur and his knights. 
Joseph, tired when he reached the area known as Glastonbury in Somerset, stuck his wooden staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill and fell asleep.  That walking stick, it turns out, had been carved from the wood of the very plant that had yielded the thorns that pierced Christ’s brow on the day of his crucifixion. 
When Joseph awoke, he was amazed to discover that the staff had become a hawthorn tree.  He left it behind as the legacy of his visit.
Historians dismiss such details as pious folklore.  What no one disputes, however, is that an ancient, gnarled thorn tree growing at the top of Wearyall Hill gradually became a religious sensation.  Christian pilgrims from all over Europe came to visit the Glastonbury Thorn.  The tree’s sacred status was enhanced by the fact that it routinely flowered twice a year – once at Christmas, in the dead of winter, and also at Easter. 
When the Puritans seized power after Britian’s Civil War of the mid-1600s, they resolved to put an end to what they saw as a dangerous superstition.  They unceremoniously chopped down the tree. 
Local residents, however, had secretly made cuttings.  They planted them at various spots around the town.  One of those seedlings was transplanted to the top of Wearyall Hill.  Twentieth-century botanists ultimately identified the tree as Crategus Monogyna Bi Flora, which is native to the Middle East.  That only added to the mystery and excitement. 
Over time, the Glastonbury Thorn (as pictured above) was granted the honor of providing each year’s first royal Christmas decoration.  Every December, the tree’s initial bloom was cut and delivered to the queen, who kept it on her desk throughout Advent.
Then came December 2010.  The town’s residents awoke one morning to discover that some unidentified mischief-makers had chopped the tree to pieces.
People wept openly.  Katherine Gorbing, curator of the town’s abbey, said, “The mindless vandals who have hacked down this tree have struck at the heart of Christianity.”  Fortunately, cuttings from the tree still exist, and there is hope that a new hawthorn – one that true believers will be able to say can be traced all the way back to the time of Jesus – will grow once again in Glastonbury.
It’s a good and gracious thing to respect the religious sensitivities of others.
But we also need to affirm that no vandal has the capacity to disrupt the Way of Jesus.
It doesn’t really matter, in the end, whether a certain tree is connected to a certain character from a certain story whose origins are entirely unknown. 
Does that mean we’re just wasting our time by yearning to experience something that can be tracked all the way back to first century Galilee? 
Certainly not.  After all, any one of us can have such an experience.  If you have entrusted yourself, as best you can, to Jesus as your Leader and Forgiver, then the faith that burns inside of you can be traced all the way back to his first followers.  Through the power of God’s Spirit, there’s an unbroken chain that has gone from heart to heart to heart over the course of twenty centuries.
And you’re part of it.
Axes cannot strike at the heart of Christianity.
The only thing that can do that is our failure to keep true faith alive by giving it away to someone else.