|Illumination of the Tree of Life and Death, Berthold Furtmeyer, 1481.|
It is a long held tradition to interpret Mary as the Tree of Life. After all, the fruit of Her womb was Jesus the saving Fruit of Eternal Life (Lk 1:42; 1 Cor 15:20). Tertullian (160-220 C.E.) speaks of Jesus being the fruit, sprung from the shoot of Mary – the shoot, we might say, of the Tree of Life:
In what sense, really, is Christ the fruit of her womb? Is it not because he is himself the flower from the stem which came forth from the root of Jesse, while the root of Jesse is the house of David, and the stem from the root is Mary, descended from David, that the flower from the stem, the Son of Mary, who is called Jesus Christ, must himself also be the fruit?
Now whereas the first Adam was barred from the tree of life because of his transgression, Jesus the second Adam opened the gate to Mary the Tree of Life. The “way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24) once shut to all, is now opened to all who abide in Christ as adopted sons of the Father. There is no one who eats of the Fruit of the Tree of Life – which involves having a personal relationship with Jesus – without plucking forth this Fruit, knowingly or unknowingly from Mary the Tree of Life the one through whom He willed and wills to come to men.
Mary as the Tree of Life
Concerning the Tree of Life, in ‘The Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) writes:
The Angel showed John "the tree of life, bearing its fruits every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations." The tree of life is Mary, the Mother of Life; or the tree of life is the tree of the Cross; or else the tree is Jesus Christ, the Author of Life, who is also the Fruit of Life. Those healing leaves are edifying words and deeds. If even the leaves are healing, how much more healing and life-giving is the fruit? Therefore, that we may be healed by this fruit, let us approach its tree; let us draw near, I say, to Mary. Let us pray with St. Anselm [1033-1109]: "Hear me, O Lady! Heal the soul of thy servant who is a sinner, by virtue of the blessed Fruit of thy womb, who sitteth at the right hand of his Almighty Father."
In contrast to an overly literalistic biblical perspective which disregards the spiritual senses of interpretation, Bonaventure employs the allegorical and typological method of biblical interpretation, illustrating how a single biblical image or symbol may serve as an allegory or type of more than one New Testament reality. For he acknowledges that the Tree of Life on one level is Jesus Christ, on another level the Cross, and on another level Mary.
We might refer to this as the hierarchy of allegorisation – where multiple meanings or truths are revealed by a single literal or symbolic biblical image, without either such truth conflicting with one another. If we were to speak holistically we might say the Tree of Life symbolises Mary in relation to the mystery of the Cross in Jesus Christ. Why indeed is Mary the Tree of Life – the source of the Fruit of Salvation? Because of the redemption wrought by Christ on the Tree of the Cross. A redemption which preveniently preserved Mary from contracting original sin – that is, which brought about Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
The Mystery of the Immaculate Conception Hidden in Genesis 3:24
Along the line of interpretation that Mary is the Tree of Life, when we read Genesis 3:24 we catch a glimpse into the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. The verse is as follows:
He drove out Adam; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
|Immaculate Conception, Francisco de Zurbará, 1660's.|
Allegorically speaking, Mary the Tree of Life was planted in the garden of the world in the soil of Anne’s once barren womb. The Lord had ordained that it would be on the boughs of this Tree that He would bloom in the flesh, becoming Incarnate. Thus He willed that this Tree would remain free from the taint of original sin. Why? Firstly, because He the All-Pure deserved pure flesh. Secondly, because He in His omnipotence could carry out such a deed; thirdly, because it was the greatest thing He could do; and fourthly because he could, and it was the greatest thing he could do, He willed as such because in no greater way could He fulfil the commandment: “To honour thy… mother.” Appropriating Pope Pius XII’s words in regards to the Assumption of Mary, and applying them to the Immaculate Conception:
Since our Redeemer is the Son of Mary, he could not do otherwise, as the perfect observer of God's law, than to honor, not only his eternal Father, but also his most beloved Mother. And, since it was within his power to grant her this great honor, to preserve her from the corruption [of original sin], we must believe that he really acted in this way.
So unrestrained in His generosity and in preparation for His earthly dwelling, He willed it and it came to be: that Mary, immediately as she was conceived, was guarded by the grace of God, the grace of Christ’s redemption. Which like a flaming sword prevented the tainted hand of Adam from reaching - through the ages by means of descent - Mary's blessed body and soul. Thus safeguarding this spotless Tree of Life, for which reason She was preserved from contracting Adam’s taint – original sin, and was thus conceived immaculately.
Redeemed by the Tree of the Cross
|Tree of the Cross, Panel Galleria dell'Accademia, Pacino di Bonaguida, 1302-1340 (active).|
We might ask, “Why the flaming sword?” The sword has strong connections to justice, and fire to love. It was God’s act of love by which He preveniently justified Mary – thus redeeming Her body and soul at the very instant She was conceived. How was this justification of love accomplished? We know it was on the Cross, because we “are justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9) and “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. [For as the Scripture states:] ‘By his wounds you have been healed’.” (1 Pet 2:24).
Mary was no exception – She was redeemed by Christ. Her redemption simply took place in time before the event of the Crucifixion, but nevertheless, She was redeemed by the Cross and by this single redeeming sacrifice, as it was the fiery sword of loving justification emanating from the Cross through eternity, which preserved Mary from contracting original sin. Pius IX, in defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus declares as such:
the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…
Genesis 3:24 highlights this fact: that Mary’s Immaculate Conception was wrought by the saving act of Christ on the Cross. For in the Septuagint the Greek word for tree used is not δενδρον (dendron) but ξυλον (xulon) which can mean cross, and is in fact the same word used in the New Testament, in addition to σταυρος (stauros/stafros) when speaking of the Cross (i.e. Acts 10:39). In fact, specifically, ξυλον refers to the vertical beam – the trunk – of the cross, and σταυρος to the horizontal beam placed at the top. Gen 3:24 could thus be read as follows:
He drove out Adam; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the cross of life.
Thus on the underside of the mystery as Mary being the Tree of Life, is the superior mystery of the Cross – revealing that Mary is the Tree of Life because of the Cross, through the Cross, in the Cross, who brings forth from Her womb the healing (or saving in Greek) fruit – Jesus Christ – for the nations (Rev 22:2).
Possessing the Tree of Life
How happy is the garden of the soul wherein this blessed Tree of Life is planted, for such a garden is an Eden in the eyes of the Lord, and such a soul shall reap a rich harvest of everlasting fruits borne by this Tree for the glory of the Father. The Scriptures speak of this, for it is written: “She [Wisdom personified in Mary] is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her: and he that shall retain her is blessed.” (Prov 3:18). The very Wisdom (Mary – the Tree of Life) whose Immaculate Conception is identified in the Book of Wisdom, where She is described as “the unblemished [ἀκηλίδωτον] mirror of the power of God” (7:26).
St. Louis de Montfort speaks in ‘True Devotion’ how it is only in possessing this Tree of Life, through a true devotion to Her, that the life of Christ comes to grow within one’s soul to the greatest possible extent.
If Mary, the Tree of Life, is well cultivated in our soul by fidelity to this devotion, she will in due time bring forth her fruit which is none other than Jesus… One reason why so few souls come to the fullness of the age of Jesus is that Mary who is still as much as ever his Mother and the fruitful spouse of the Holy Spirit is not formed well enough in their hearts. If we desire a ripe and perfectly formed fruit, we must possess the tree that bears it. If we desire the fruit of life, Jesus Christ, we must possess the tree of life which is Mary.
Sharing in the Fruitfulness of Mary
The Christian in and of themselves is a tree planted in the field of the Church that yields fruit of merits and good works to God – but an ordinary tree, concerning which it is written about in Nehemiah 10:35 where the first fruits of “trees” in the plural are referenced – fruit which such trees are to yield to God. Thus ordinarily the Christian is a tree which might yield thirty, sixty or a hundred fold (Mt 13:8).
Yet who can compare to Mary the Tree of Life, who did not yield a quantifiable thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, but a full fold beyond measure since the fruit of Her labour was Jesus the Infinite One in whom innumerable graces, merits and divine attributes abide: The Fruit in whom all fruits are contained. As Louis de Montfort states:
Mary amassed such a multitude of merits and graces during her sojourn on earth that it would be easier to count the stars in heaven, the drops of water in the ocean or the sands of the sea-shore than count her merits and graces. She thus gave more glory to God than all the angels and saints have given or will ever give him. Mary, wonder of God, when souls abandon themselves to you, you cannot but work wonders in them!
How fortunate then is the Christian soul who instead of relying on his own shrub of sanctity planted beside the river of the water of life, allows the very Tree of Life to be planted beside the River who is Christ Jesus that dwells in every baptised heart! Such a soul, like Joseph, possesses the Tree of Life – the Virgin Mary – within himself, and forfeits the imperfect fruits of his own toils, instead making his own, and offering to God, the yield of Mary Herself! This sublime favour, wrought by possession of the Tree of Life within, only belongs to those who practice a true devotion to Mary: which involves living a consecration to Mary out, not according to the letter of outward piety, but according to the spirit and truth in which outward piety is symptomatic.
This divine fecundity which is a sharing in the fullness of Mary’s grace, as a child shares in its mother’s treasures, and a spouse in its beloved’s goods, is described in Ezekiel where we read the promise of the Lord, who says:
I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the fruit of the field, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. (Ez 36:30).
καὶ πληθυνῶ τὸν καρπὸν τοῦ ξύλου καὶ τὰ γενήματα τοῦ ἀγροῦ, ὅπως μὴ λάβητε ὀνειδισμὸν λιμοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν.
Here the word tree is in the singular, and in the Septuagint is the exact same word (ξύλος) used in Genesis in referral to the Tree of Life. “I will… multiply” in the Greek is καὶ πληθυνῶ and in the Hebrew is וְהִרְבֵּיתִי֙ and is the same very word used by God when He is promising Abraham that he will have more descendants than the stars (Gen 17:20; 26:4,24).
Through a Marian lens, what else is God promising but that those who possess the Tree of Life within the field of their souls, through a true devotion to Mary, will yield not simply thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, but with, in and through Mary, will yield more fruit than there are stars, and there are estimated to be over one billion trillion stars in the observable universe! For this reason, such a soul “may” – on the condition it perseveres along this way of the Cross/Tree of Life (ὁδον του ξύλου της ζωης) – “never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.” Which is to say such a soul shall never suffer spiritual fruitlessness, for it will be Mary within who’ll be bearing the fruit, and Mary’s fruitfulness is infallible.
Conceiving the Tree of Life Within One’s Soul
The Book of Revelation describes how this Tree is planted beside the river (22:2). A river which the Father’s and early ecclesial writes interpret as signifying Christ, baptism, and the graces that flow from the Trinity. All which find their fulfilment in the gift of living in the Divine Will, above all in beatitude, and secondarily in this life. Such a river flows through the heartland of every soul in the state of grace.
The simple manner in which the Tree of Life may be planted or immaculately conceived by the interior riverside of our souls, is simply by means of desire for this gift and reality. Since in Proverbs we read: “a good desire is a tree of life” with the Greek word for “tree” δενδρον being used (13:12). Thus if this is the case, we can extrapolate this principle to say that “the good desire is the tree of life”.
In other words, the desire to possess Mary within oneself, to dwell in Her and be one with Her, which is akin to desiring to live in the fullness of God’s Kingdom, of His Will; is in one sense synonymous with possessing this sublime gift. Not that the desire for the Tree of Life and the Tree Itself is synonymous, but such loving desire efficaciously plants the presence of Mary within the soul along with Her fullness of grace.
In one sense She is present already in the souls of all those in the state of grace insofar as where God dwells, Mary dwells – just as in the old covenant where wherever God’s Presence was, there – as the seat of such an especial presence – dwelt the Ark. However, in the soul in grace, Mary’s presence is somewhat potential, and is only actualised by means of a true devotion to Her. Such devotion causes the life of Mary within the soul to sprout and gestate.
As St. Ambrose [337-397 C.E.] says, "May the soul of Mary be in each one of us to glorify the Lord! May the spirit of Mary be in each one of us to rejoice in God!" "When will that happy day come," asks a saintly man of our own day whose life was completely wrapped up in Mary, "when God's Mother is enthroned in men's hearts as Queen, subjecting them to the dominion of her great and princely Son? When will souls breathe Mary as the body breathes air?" When that time comes wonderful things will happen on earth. The Holy Spirit, finding his dear Spouse present again in souls, will come down into them with great power. He will fill them with his gifts, especially wisdom, by which they will produce wonders of grace. My dear friend, when will that happy time come, that age of Mary, when many souls, chosen by Mary and given her by the most High God, will hide themselves completely in the depths of her soul, becoming living copies of her, loving and glorifying Jesus? That day will dawn only when the devotion I teach is understood and put into practice.
How privileged we are that we live on the threshold of such a time, which can nevertheless be today for ourselves by means of cultivating and tending to this most blessed of all trees that ever was and will grow in the field of the Church: the Virgin Mary, the Immaculate One, who was immaculately conceived and is the Immaculate Conception. That seed which can germinate and flourish within us spiritually, as it did physically in St. Anne, by means of our true devotion to Her. For yes, “If Mary, the Tree of Life, is well cultivated in our soul by fidelity to this devotion, she will in due time bring forth her fruit which is none other than Jesus.”
 Tertullian, De Carne Christi 21. Trans. and ed. by Ernest Evans, 1954, transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2002, available from http://www.tertullian.org
 Bonaventure, The Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Chapter XVIII.
 Pius XII, Munificentissimus-Deus, Apostolic Constitution, Defining the Dogma of the Assumption, November 1, 1950, 38.
 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution, Defining the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1854.
 Louis de Montfort, True Devotion, 218, 164.
 Louis de Montfort, True Devotion, 222.
 Louis de Montfort, True Devotion, 217.