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‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’
Revelation 22:1, 2
Revelation 22:1, 2
Detail: river of the water of life and tree of life, East Window, Sunderland Minster.
Here’s the (optional) long version:
In the Bible, trees are often a symbol representing the flourishing, or not, of human society. In our own day, facing global environmental crises, we would do well to rediscover this sophisticated ancient language.
The Bible begins with the mythic story of God establishing—or, restoring—order from chaos, and securing life on a world that had suffered a cataclysmic event (this has happened more than once, such as the re-emergence of life after whatever destroyed the dinosaurs). Within this context, God plants a garden full of trees, of which two are noteworthy: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now, all trees have properties. Fruit, which may be nourishing or poisonous to human beings. Leaves and bark which may possess medicinal qualities. The tree of life appears to have such healing power—remember, at a societal level—that goes beyond food. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is more complex. It has potential for good or ill, to heal or to harm. Symbolically, it may even extract poison out of the good-but-contested earth, so that—so long as the humans do not eat of the fruit of the tree—it is contained. A filter-system, if you will. Alternatively, this might be the kind of tree that requires an expert apothecary to unlock its properties: keep away from children. But, crucially, this God-created tree is not the origin or source of evil—and neither is the human action of eating of it.
Implicitly, much later in the Story, the Divine Gardener splices these two trees together in the cross on which the Romans executed Jesus.
For here is the experiential knowledge (in Hebrew thought, knowledge—such as the knowledge of good and evil—is experiential, not theoretical) of both good and evil: for on the cross, Jesus experiences both the fierce love of the women who defied occupying soldiers and the religious leaders of their own people to stand with him as he hung in a public death; and also the concentrated will to utterly destroy another human being, through maximum humiliation over a slow and painful death, by which men have historically exercised power over other men.
But here, also, is life: healing for the nation through the way a righteous person endures unjust and unjustifiable suffering. This is another biblical image: one in which injustice is shamed, and, faced with their own iniquity, the people turn back to God in repentance.
By the time we reach the end of the Bible, there is only one tree, albeit retaining two trunks. Evil itself has been fully extracted, and the experiential knowledge of evil has been neutralised. Suffering is taken-up by love, so that the tree may rightly be identified only as the tree of life. And its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Their property is to remedy enmity between peoples.
That is a vision to long for, as we live in the gap between its being promised and being fulfilled.
I love that in the depiction of the tree of life at Sunderland Minster, the leaves are autumn gold. Even in this season, they possess their healing quality. It mirrors the gathered leaves I posted under #Gather.