Catholic fine art - The Tree of Life
In the Bible, we learn the names of two trees in Paradise. One is the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which had fruit pleasing to the eye, but which also led to mankind’s downfall by partaking of it. The other tree we know as the tree of life, which had fruit on it that led to eternal life. God said in Genesis 3:22 that if man eats of this tree, he shall never die. In the future, this same tree of life is also mentioned in Revelation 2:7, when God says, “To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God.”
This concept of eating something from a tree and never dying is a biblical reference to the cross and the Eucharist as well. Peter says in Acts 5:30 that “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.” The cross, then, becomes the New Testament tree of life, because the great sacrifice of Jesus on that tree leads to eternal life for us all. In Matthew 26:26-28, Jesus gave us the Eucharist, or Himself, to eat of, so that we will never die (which counteracts Satan, who roams throughout the world seeking someone to devour). Therefore, the Eucharist is the fruit of the tree known as the cross. This is a kind of “bookend theology,” where mankind in the New Testament is saved by the exact same method as mankind fell in the Old Testament – by eating something from a tree.
Pruning and Suffering
But there are still other comparisons to be made with life and trees. Fruit trees always need to be pruned in order to be strengthened and to bear more fruit. When a fruit tree is pruned, it undergoes great stress. But the stress produces more shoots, which leads to more fruit. The stress also makes the tree trunk grow stronger faster. Tree pruning is directly analogous to human suffering, which also makes us grow in God’s ways stronger and faster. In this world, we all suffer greatly in one way or the other. This is all part of God’s plan for us, because if we don’t suffer, then we begin to think worldly thoughts like “Who needs God anyway? I’m rich and have a big house and I get lots of pleasure out of life, and this world is my playground!” We all know people like that, who seem to have found their niche in this world. Yet in reality, this world has found its niche in them! Intense suffering is the way that God chastises His own. Why? Because He knows us better than we know ourselves, since he made us after all, and He knows that suffering will draw us closer to Him. If we daily unite our small sufferings with His holy Passion (Romans 8:17), then we are on the fast track to being saved.
What about all of those dry, depressed periods we go through, when we don’t feel that our prayers are working, that no one really loves us, and that the rat race of making money and chasing promotions at work is useless? Well, trees undergo periodic droughts, as well. When a tree is stressed out by hot, dry weather for months on end, the roots of the tree get bigger, and they go deeper into the soil, looking for life-giving water. Trees basically go into survival mode during this dry period, but when the rains finally do come again, the larger and deeper roots now have extra capacity to provide more water and nutrients to the tree. And again, this results in the tree trunk getting stronger faster.
A stronger tree trunk means that the tree will last longer, grow taller, provide more shade, and produce more fruit. Humans who undergo temporary suffering (contrary to popular opinion, all suffering on earth is temporary!) do exactly the same thing. Jesus said in John 15:8 that we must bear much fruit. Colossians 1:10 says that our good works are the fruit of our faith. Suffering leads to increased faith, which in turn leads to more trust in God and increased good works as fruits of our faith. A strong soul in Christ who totally trusts in God is the devil’s worst enemy, because the devil is the ruler of this world, according to John 14:30, and he wants everyone to think that this world is all there is and to live for today’s pleasures, not for eternal life in heaven. Enduring suffering while praising God is the key to becoming holy, and it is the best way that we can attain heaven one day.
How Trees Grow
All trees basically need four things to grow – Good soil, water, sunlight, and nutrients. Planting a tree in rocky ground (bad soil) or never watering it is a sure fire way to make sure that the tree will die. Christians should always plant themselves in the Church, with its good soil of Christian love, sacred scripture, the Magisterium, and sacred Tradition. We plow this soil with our humility and our love of God and neighbor. The Church also provides life giving water at Baptism, as well as free holy water as a sacramental, which protects us from the evil one, as well as reminding us of our Baptismal promises. The Church provides much sunlight as well, as Jesus Himself is the light of the world, shining brightly in each one of us after partaking of the Eucharist and after going to Confession. The Eucharist provides us with sanctifying grace, which is the finest nutrient on earth, providing eternal life to those who partake of it in the state of Grace. And if weeds (our sins) start to choke our roots out, so that we can’t grow in holiness, Holy Mother Church provides us with the great sacrament of Confession, from John 20:21-23, which cultivates our souls so as to remove the weeds.
Sadly, there is also the bad fruit of many trees of knowledge of good and evil in this world, which may lead us away from Christ. People put all kind of things into their mouths which could kill their souls – illegal drugs, too much alcohol, excess food, etc. While the saying “all things in moderation” is great, sometimes, what we stuff into our faces can lead us away from Christ over time, through addictions. And when we become addicted to what goes into our mouths, usually what comes out of our mouths is hardly ever good either, like cursing, bad jokes, gossip, slander, etc. It’s important to remember that the same tongue we curse and slander with during the week is the exact same tongue we use to receive Jesus in the Eucharist on Sundays.
The Fig Tree
One tree that isn’t mentioned as being in paradise, but is mentioned as being in Israel, is the fig tree. Jesus cursed the fig tree in Matthew 21:19 because it didn’t bear any fruit, and it suddenly withered up and died. The lesson here is that we need to please Jesus with our good fruit (good works, from Colossians 1:10), or we run the possibility of being cursed by Him at the end of our life. Of course, no good works will save us in the end unless we do them as a result of our faith in Christ. James 2:17 says that faith without works is dead, which means that faith is like a two-sided coin, with a belief in Jesus Christ on one side, and our resultant good works on the other. As James 2:26 says, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
The Olive Tree
Another biblical tree is the olive tree. In Romans 11, Paul compares the Jews and the Gentiles to olive trees. He says that the Jews have been cut off from the natural olive tree (being God’s people), while we, the Gentiles, have been grafted into it through the Church. But, in the end, the Jews themselves will be grafted back into the inheritance of God, eternal life in Christ.
In Revelation 11:4, St. John compares the two witnesses of God at the end of time, who will be killed and then resurrected, to two olive trees.