The Axe Handle

(At a college dinner the other night, I read the following story with the title above.)

With his boots crunching the fallen leaves beneath him, and the early morning mist beginning to fade as the sun rose, the missionary walked determinedly toward the crowd that had gathered in the opening of the woods. The people, having been summoned from the surrounding villages the day before, stepped aside into huddled groups, some hiding behind the forest trees. They grew silent as they looked in horror at the missionary, who with clenched jaw and furrowed brow did not meet their stares. Instead, like a soldier marching into war he peered straight ahead to the object of his concern, his right hand tightening around the thin wooden handle of the axe he carried. Before him like a tower stood the great Oak of Thor, the tree of the god of Thunder, which had been worshipped for decades by the ancestors of the people now standing beneath its huge outstretched branches. As the missionary reached the base of the tree, he kicked aside the offerings of food and the crude, handmade artifacts made by this generation’s worshippers. He turned to face the crowd, the axe lifted high over head for all to see.

With the thunder of Elijah in his own voice, the missionary cried out, “People of Hesse, listen to me! The only true God of heaven and earth has sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, into this world as I have told you many times. Jesus died on a cross to take away your sins as you have heard, and from the grave in which He was laid God raised His Son up on the third day to grant a true power to live rightly for Him. He is not pleased with your veneration of this oak. His prophets mocked gods made out of wood and iron, and today I mock the god Thor. You live in ignorance and in the fear of the power of this false god. Today let it be known to you and all the tribes throughout this land that the true God, who created both trees and thunder, has defeated Thor through a lowly, simple servant. I dare Thor to stop me, and I laugh at my own dare, for like this tree he cannot hear me, and like this tree he will now fall.”

As the missionary turned to apply the blade of the axe to the thick trunk of the oak, the people cowered in fear. One brave soul, thinking he was showing compassion to the wayward missionary, called out, “Stop! Do not bring the lightening of Thor upon you!” Yet the warning only emboldened the missionary. He quickly pulled the axe back over his head, and with Gideon-like tenacity he swung, the sharpened blade of the axe digging deeply into the bark and flesh of the tree. Without pause, swiftly he jerked on the handle and drew the blade out again, and as fast as lightening chop after chop began to rain down on the unresisting tree. Chips from the tree began to form a small pile on the ground below an immerging v-shape cut in the trunk.

The longer the missionary swung the axe, the more tense and fearful the crowd grew. Any minute, they thought, and surely Thor would respond with a bolt of lightening from the sky. Yet the further into the tree the axe hacked, with more strength and fierceness did the missionary swing. Only once did he pause, removing his robe and wiping his perspiring face, then with new resilience he tore back into the work at hand. Where once small chips flew, now larger chunks were spit out by the hungry blade of the axe. As the morning wore on, the rays of sunlight from the strengthening globe above worked their way through the canopy of leaves above and seemed to cast radiance on the scene below. When the hollow space created by the axe passed by the halfway mark, and the tree began to creak its objections, a change came over the crowd. Still drawn back with fear, their curiosity transitioned from waiting to see the missionary struck from heaven to anticipation of the oak falling to the earth.

At last the missionary stopped, drawing great breaths as he leaned momentarily upon his axe. At least three –fourths of the trunk was now gone. With beads of sweat cascading down his face, he wiped his brow with his sleeve and, with a voice hoarse from the strain and emotion, he again spoke to the crowd. “Stand back and witness the fall of Thor! Glory be to the God of heaven and earth!” And with that, he approached the tree from the back side of the cut and again applied the axe with vigor. In a few moments the tree’s protests grew louder, as it groaned like an injured warrior and began to lean. Finally, a swing from the axe found the decisive chink in the tree’s armor, as a wedge flew out and the great tree started slowly its descent from above. Rather than running, the missionary merely took a step back and again rested on his blade’s handle, a growing smile beginning to cross his face. As the mighty oak leaned more and more earthward, it picked up speed. With a crack like thunder, the trunk broke. The tree roared one last time as it came to earth, its tremendous branches like a drowning man’s arms catching other limbs and small trees and bring them to their death with it.

The missionary, seizing the ensuing silence, leaped upon the remaining stump and for the third time lifted his voice. “Thor is dead! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved! Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins! Join me, for we will take this tree and make a house of worship to the true God! Help me, and here in the sanctuary of God’s forest you will have a chapel in which you can hear the great things of God.”

Over the next months, the missionary, with a growing band of newly baptized disciples, sawed and planed, hammered and fitted, the oaken wood to create a beautiful chapel. And set neatly upon the roof of the chapel was a wooden cross from the oak, a reminder to the gathered worshippers underneath what they heard from the missionary, that the only tree that can give life is the cross of Jesus Christ.

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This short story is a historical fiction account of the missionary Boniface (the details of the actual felling of the tree have not been preserved). Formerly Winfrith of southern England, Boniface was born in 675 A.D., raised and disciplined in an Augustine monastery, and ordained (and renamed) as a priest in 705. Boniface went to the Germanic tribes in central Europe, and spread the gospel in places such as Frisia, Hesse, and Bavaria. This story of his cutting down the oak of Thor near Geismar and Fritzlar occurred in 722-723, and marked the beginning of a time when thousands professed Christ and were baptized.

In my next blog, I’ll offer a modern application. But for now, answer two questions.
1) How is wood used as imagery in the story?
2) What two Old Testament figures are named, and what do they have in common with Boniface?

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