The Tree of Life

A reflection on Our Lady

All the Church’s teachings about our Lady have Christ as their reference point, and so are really doctrines about Christ and his power in sanctifying creation. For example, that the Virgin Mary is called the Mother of God is first a teaching about who Jesus is: God. Mary is hailed as the Mother of God in reference to whom she is the mother of; therefore, Christ’s divinity is the primary teaching of this doctrine. Likewise, this does not take away from the glory of the Mother of God herself, it in fact increases it. There is no dichotomy of praise between the two people involved in this teaching. God’s goodness is so infinite that his great power causes us to be glorified. In this case, Mary, once an ordinary Jewish girl with extraordinary holiness, is elevated in status by God; God is glorified in revealing his power to raise human nature, and an ordinary Jewish girl is glorified in her elevation by God. Praising one does not take praise away from the other.

The Chaldean liturgy is keen on this idea and does not shy from showering her Mother with the highest praises. Today is the Commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the liturgical calendar, and one of the prayers unique to this day is the following: “The daughter of man became the Tree of Life for the whole mortal race, for the Glorious Fruit which dawned from her pours forth and grants all benefits. Come, O mortals, let us be brought near to the sweetness of his words, and sing praise to him!”

The Tree of Life is the counterpart of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (from which Adam and Eve ate and died to the life of God) in Eden. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, recounts God’s actions regarding the Tree of Life: “Then theLordGod said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’…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” (Genesis 3:22-24). If eaten, the fruit of this tree gives eternal life. But as extravagant as this tree is, it is not mentioned again in Scripture until the very last chapter of the Bible, in Revelation 22 where St. John is being shown a vision of heaven: “Then he showed me…on either side of the river, the tree of life” (vv. 1-2). Therefore, this tree is a heavenly tree and its fruit gives eternal life.

For the Chaldean Church, Mary is the Tree of Life for the whole mortal race because she bears the Blessed Fruit in her womb (Luke 1:42), and in this Fruit is life (John 1:4). Mary, an ordinary Jewish girl, takes on the persona of a heavenly figure because God has made her such a large and blatant part of his divine plan of salvation, in which heaven breaks into earth in her womb; the Holy Spirit comes upon her and the power of God overshadows her (Luke 1:35).

Interestingly, Mary is not the only one called the Tree of Life in the Chaldean liturgy. The Cross of Christ is given this same reference: “The holy cross resembles the tree of life in the Church, whose fruits are suitable for eating, and whose leaves are fitting for healing” (from the Seasonal Propers on the Feast of the Adorable Cross). What, then, is the relation between Mary and the Cross? A peculiar image from our Lord’s crucifixion is related by St. John, who was present: “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). The Church Fathers have traditionally interpreted this as the birth of the Church. Here, blood represents our Lord’s precious Blood which he gives us to drink in the Eucharist, the heart of the Church, and water represents the waters of baptism, the spiritual womb from which every person is reborn a citizen of heaven.

Thus, both the Virgin Mary and the Cross of Christ, in some way, give birth: from the womb of Mary, Christ is born; from the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the Church is born. Both of these are trees of life, and their fruit is common: our Lord, who is the Fruit which is consumed in the Eucharist, the source of eternal life (John 6:27, 50, 54, 58).

During this blessed season, then, and especially during this day of our Lady, we sing praises to the Mother of God and her divine Child, and with the whole Chaldean Church we exclaim: “Through your pleading, O revered Mary, may peace reign in creation. And by your supplication, O full of hope, may the children of the Church be guarded. Come, O mortals, let us take refuge in the wings of the Blessed Mother, that we may be made worthy of forgiveness” (from the Seasonal Propers on theCommemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary).