Monday, October 15, 2007

Unchurch Week 5

Tonight our theme for Unchurch was the Tree of Life. It was a great evening. Sleeping Monday night is always a challenge! I've had a passion for the image of the Tree of Life for years. I've painted, drawn and created umpteen versions in all sorts of different media. So I was very excited to talk about it with them.

We looked at the passages in Genesis, Proverbs and Revelation concerning the Tree of Life and then some of the other 'tree' passages. In the Middle Ages the cross was interpreted as the tree of life (picking up on some of the Acts, Galatians, and 1 Peter passages that talk about Jesus dying on a tree). Legends developed about how Seth put a seed from the Tree of Life in the Adam's mouth as he lay dying. From Adam another tree grew and the wood from it eventually was used for the cross. A further legend said that the wood of the cross burst into leaves and flowers when Jesus was nailed to it. Now I understand why there are crucifixions in which the cross looks like it is made of branches or actually looks like a tree. Another variation on the tree image in the middle ages were Jesse trees. Based on the Isaiah passage about a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse, a Jesse tree is a picture of a dead or reclining Jesse with a tree growing out of him. At the crown of the tree is Mary holding an infant Jesus.

I love the way the images run through the Bible playing off each other like themes in a symphony. It is so neat watching the ways in which an image like the tree of life keeps generating new insights, new representations, new appreciations for the generous vitality of the life God gives us.

I ended my meditation by asking what difference it makes that so many of the central images of God and our relationship with Him are organic. We ended up talking about the devastation of the forests in BC by beetle infestation, Eugene Peterson's take on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, our experiences gardening, the possibilities of new life in the worst of devastations physical, emotional and spiritual, and a sermon by my friend Andrew on the Isaiah passage about the stump of Jesse. Afterwards we sang "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" twice because we knew two different tunes for it.

I'm loving the ways in which people are sharing insights, praying, singing, providing food.... Our liturgy is evolving slowly into something pretty loose. We sing, read scripture, preach, talk while we eat, sing, and pray. I love it!

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m wary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.


Tim Chesterton said...

Now that is a great song!!!

learnerpriest said...

I've always been intrigued by this too, since someone pointed out to me how the Tree features at the beginning and the end of the Bible. Thinking about it, it may have been this that got me interested in figurative exegesis, and so it may even have something to do with why I've spent so much of the last few years dabbling in patristics ...

Have you come across the Dream of the Rood?

Erin said...

It is a fabulous song - well worth singing twice!

I did read a bit about the Dream of the Rood in something I was reading about the medieval interpretation of the cross as a tree. Fascinating stuff. I am intrigued by the kind of exegesis the Fathers did. One of the problems I have with a lot of Biblical interpretation done by many moderns is that they seem to think that scripture has one meaning only - it is either true or false, historical or mythical, if it means this then it can't mean that. I find it so boring to read scripture that way. One of the joys of reading scripture as an internal conversation of interpretation (the prophets interpret torah, Jesus interprets the prophets, John interprets Jesus) and then reading the two thousand years of Christian (and Jewish) interpretation is that you get such an appreciation for the richness of scripture. It is also a good reason to read commentaries from across the ecclesial spectrum.

Hjördís said...

1.Everyone here needs to read Northrop Frye and Jay McPherson's Biblical and Classical Myths: The Mythological Framework of Western Culture.

2.Also, Erin, do you know about the Russian Orthodox traditions about the Cross? I wish I could find it, but I remember reading something (it was in a book about the Russian Orthodox Old Believers) that explained the symbolism of the 8-point cross they use. There was something about different pieces of wood from different trees in the different structural components of the cross. I think one of the pieces was supposed to have come from the Tree of Life, but I could be wrong ...

I can't find the stuff about the different woods anywhere on the internet, but check out for an explanation of most of the Orthodox Cross symbolism - pretty interesting.