Archive for December 16th, 2013

imageJesus Christ the Apple Tree

Ours was the only home in the neighborhood to have an apple tree.  Actually, we had two; and my father babied them as if they were part of the family.

It wasn’t that our neighbors disliked apple trees.  Rather, Oklahoma City did not provide the optimal conditions for these poor creatures.  Red clay and the intense heat of summer made life tough for any tree.  Then there was the daily battle against birds and insects and drought.  No, it was a real chore to keep these trees going; and it was a war that our neighbors were unwilling to wage.  To them it just wasn’t worth the effort.

Given the investment of work, my father was not about to waste one bit of the hard-won fruit.  These certainly were not the perfect and unblemished apples that you found in the stores.  But they were my father’s apples.  And perhaps as a reward for the struggle, these apples had a flavor that the imports from Washington State could only dream of.

imageSo it was that each autumn we ate apples until we grew tired of them.  And when it was clear that we’d eat no more, he turned to pies.  Late into the night, night after night, he peeled apples relentlessly, while my bemused mother baked on and on.  Our kitchen became a pie factory, and by the end of the season there could be eighty or a hundred pies in the freezer.

In time all this became the stuff of legend in our family.  We still joke about it, and the pie that hid for three years in the back of the freezer has become a symbol of stubborn survival.  Small wonder that these unpretentious trees in our back yard still hold a special place in our family memory.

All that figured mightily when I got my first taste of English choral music.  I found the voices hauntingly beautiful, very unlike those in the churches of my youth.  And the lyrics seemed to have substance and solemnity quite unlike anything I had experienced before.  But nothing except family history prepared me for the carol that became my immediate hands-down favorite.  How could I not like Jesus Christ the Apple Tree?

We’ve attached many images to the figure of Jesus Christ, and among them we speak of Jesus as an offshoot of the rootstock of Jesse.  But unless I’m mistaken, you’ll search the Bible in vain for any explicit reference to Jesus as an apple tree — which is too bad.  It’s wonderfully evocative, and I’m a little surprised that early Christian writers didn’t latch on to it.  Then again, they didn’t live in England, where apples figure prominently in the diet and in the landscape.

imageThere are two strands of thought that make the apple tree so apt a description for Jesus.  First, in biblical language the messiah will come specifically to undo the sin of Adam and Eve.  For better and for worse, and for centuries, we’ve assumed that Adam and Eve picked and ate an apple.  But the really important point to be had from the Genesis story is that they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Needless to say, the whole experience was not what the serpent had led Adam and Eve to expect.  They did indeed learn an awful lot, but it was hard-won knowledge; and it didn’t transform them into the equals of God, as they had expected.  Instead, they reaped lives of toil, conflict, suffering and death.  So far from being the tree of transformation, it became the tree of death.  Thus it is that the wood of the cross is cast as the tree of redemption.  Quite appropriately, the English carol borrows and transforms this image, and it labels the apple tree as the “tree of life.”

imageThe carol also speaks of our life-long search for meaning and focus.  “For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought,” it reads.  It gently pokes fun at our planet-wide search for a glimpse of truth, while we never for a minute notice the beauty that is right under our noses.  In just the same way the humble apple tree pales beside the majesty of an oak.  It lacks the grace of an elm and the vibrant colors of a maple.  But its small stature offers shade and shelter, and its simple but abundant harvest of fruit offers sustenance deep into the winter.

My favorite line comes in the last stanza of the carol, and it proffers a message of hope.  “This fruit doth make my soul to thrive; it keeps my dying faith alive….”  In Christian parlance, the apple tree becomes the symbol of the resurrection.  In the dead of winter, on the darkest of days, all may seem lifeless and lost.  But the buds of the apple tree are only dormant, and they are just waiting for the chance to burst into flower come spring.

imageSo what are the lessons to glean from Jesus Christ the Apple Tree?  First, it strikes me that we ought to have a clear, well-thought-out focus in our lives.  All of us waste prodigious amounts of our lives searching the horizon, looking for greener and more spectacular pastures.  In fact, the source of real meaning in our lives is generally right in front of us.  It is in the people with whom we rub elbows where we find meaning.  It’s in the chance to serve the poor and suffering where true life is to be found.  To ignore this is to miss out on life.

The second take-away is the initiative that Jesus takes in our lives.  Life has struggles enough, but it is a common mistake to assume that we have to do all the work when we look for God.  It should come as no small comfort to know that the job description for Jesus is simple enough.  He’s the one who comes to us.  He’s the one who searches us out.   He’s the one who does the heavy lifting, and we should stand back and let him do his work in us. That, it seems to me, is the real message of Christmas.

So the next time faith seems too much to carry, or too much to bear, remember why Jesus came at Christmas.  He’s the one who gives that little spark that keeps our dying faith alive.

[For a fine musical interpretation, listen to the choir of King’s College Cambridge, as it sings Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.]


+On December 11th I spoke to the faculty of the graduate School of Theology of Azusa Pacific University.  The occasion was their end-of-term Christmas party, and you can imagine the pressure I felt to keep them entertained and on focus.

+On December 12th I attended the annual Christmas celebration, hosted in Saint Paul by the presidents of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On December 15th the Abbey hosted a Mass in celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  This was a first for us, and it is a sign of the growth of the Spanish-speaking community in central Minnesota.  Bishop Donald Kettler was the celebrant, while Abbot John preached — in English.  Brother Dennis Beach translated.

image+Also on December 15th I celebrated Mass for two dear friends and a small gathering of their friends.  At that Mass they repeated their wedding vows, as did several other couples in attendance.

+The times have not been good to many inner city and rural churches across the country during the past few years.  Still, there are on occasion nice endings to counter the stories of decay, and last week we celebrated one at Saint John’s.  Ages ago Alphonse John Mich, Sr., a member of the class of 1911 at Saint John’s University, donated a stained glass window to his parish church in Donnelly, MN.  The ravages of time were not kind to the church of Saint Therese, and it had an appointment with the wrecking ball as it teetered on the verge of collapse.  However, just before the demolition, two of his daughters rescued the window.  Last week, in a ceremony attended by President Michael Hemesath and Abbot John Klassen, the window got a new home at Saint John’s.  Besides Mr. Mich’s two daughters, their second-cousin Brother Nick Kleespie joined the group, as did Mr. Mich’s great-grandson, Adam.  Adam is a sophomore at Saint John’s, and in him the long relationship between the Mich family and Saint John’s continues.

image+Advent is a time for spiritual preparation, but also a time of musical preparation and decoration, as several of the pictures in this post attest.    The singers and musicians make it all seem so effortless, but that is due to the long hours of practice that they put in ahead of time.  We sometimes fail to appreciate their dedication and sacrifice of personal time, despite the fact that they likely enjoy the entire experience.  They help to make Christmas such a memorable season.

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