Our homily in church this morning was on Jesus Christ as the tree of life as it is given back to us at Christmas. This idea that Jesus is the tree of life is among the most prominent images from the church’s oldest Nativity hymns and prayers. Here is one example:
Prepare, O Bethlehem, For Eden has been opened to all. Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the virgin in the cave. Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Fruit Divine; If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning.
I’m not qualified to teach theology or to accurately represent what our priest shared this morning, but here are a few of the key points as I recall them:
- The tree of life in Genesis represents God himself as God was present with Adam and Eve in Eden. God is shown to be the source of all life, with living water flowing in four rivers from the tree of life.
- Adam and Eve separate themselves from God when they turned away from the source of life to pursue the fruit of another tree, one from which they had been told not to eat because it would lead to death.
- This death was not a punishment by God. It was simply the result of turning away from God as the source of all life. This result was actually the grace of God, placing a limit on how much humans would be able to hurt themselves and each other in their blindness and separation form the source of life. Our priest asked us to imagine a world in which men such as Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin all were still alive and able to “do what they do.” By placing a guard of cherubim around the Tree of Life, God was putting a limit on the harm that we could do to each other in our sin. Finally, death was part of God’s gracious plan to give us a way back to him as Jesus Christ would unite himself with us in death itself and thereby “destroy death by death.”
- In Jesus Christ, we therefore have the Tree of Life from the Garden restored to us. Our priest told us that we would be coming up to that tree and eating its fruit near the end of our liturgy as we partook of the Eucharist. He told us that we should take this quite literally as the fruit from the tree of life.
If you are interested, you can look over a sampling of other old Nativity hymns that I once collected here. Finally, here are a few traditional images related to this old idea that Mary opens up Eden to us, removing the flaming swords of the cherubim and allowing us to eat from the Tree of Life once again:
Above: a traditional “Tree of Life” icon showing all the family of Jesus Christ joined together and offering Jesus to the world as the fruit of the tree of life. Left to right, top to bottom, the smaller figures are Jeremiah, Jacob, Malachi, Aaron, Zephaniah, Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Daniel, Elisha, David and Solomon.
Above: “Tree of the Cross” a panel form the Galleria dell’Accademia by Pacino di Bonaguida, 1302-1340. At the bottom, you see Adam and Eve being separated from the tree of life in contrast to the tree of life being given back to us as Jesus Christ offers himself as the bread of life from the cross.
Above: traditional “Our Lady of the Sign” icon (Russian in this case) showing Jesus carried by his mother Mary. This shows the Theotokos (mother of God) during the Annunciation at the moment of saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This icon shows Christ a the moment of conception but nonetheless with the face of a wise teacher (and often holding a scroll). His right hand is raised in blessing. This term “of the Sign” is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’].”