The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.
-Anonymous, 18th century
I have served a few churches that have had the famous setting by Elizabeth Poston of the above poem buried somewhere in the depths of their choral libraries, and yet, I must confess, I have never felt particularly drawn to it. Perhaps it’s the title, which seemingly is of a somewhat childish, nursery-rhyme ilk. When I think of the “apple tree” used as a metaphor, I think of one of two things: the tale of Johnny Appleseed, or, my childhood spent eating mealy Red Delicious apples, which were indeed red, but not at all delicious.
The apple seems to be a bit of a utilitarian fruit, necessary, but not exceedingly glamorous or exotic. All hybrids and “luxe” cultivars aside, apples are really quite basic (and not in the current slang meaning of “basic”). They sit unassumingly in bowls on our tables and hide out in our children’s lunch sacks. They have a good flavor, but often are used in tandem with other ingredients when it comes to using them for serious cooking. The common apple is somewhat of a staple fruit that is not subject to fads or trends like its produce aisle neighbor, the pomegranate, and while I am a lover of apples, it seems to me that we need something less saccharine and less mundane to describe the intrinsic yet complex beauty of God the Son.
At face value, it seems as trite as saying “Jesus Christ, the Potato Plant.”
All issues with produce aside, if we are to take this eighteenth century poet seriously (which I think we should), then we need to decipher probable reasons for using an apple tree. While there are many ways to go about looking at this metaphor, the one I would lift up today uses the apple tree to show that Christ is a “staple” or constant necessity in our lives, not just for reasons of salvation, but also for life in and of itself.
I have found that most days, faith in Christ must be simple and is essential. No doubt, stunningly intricate Christologies (theological studies, theories, etc. pertaining to Christ’s identity) have great meaning and offer essential insight to the personhood of Christ, but what do these ideas look like in day to day living? I do not carry a copy of Norris’ The Christological Controversy in my pocket, nor would I necessarily exhort every church member to sit down and do a cold reading of the various arguments for and against certain Christologies. So, how do we interpret and incorporate elements of these dense pieces of theological work into something attainable for even the newest Christian?
We do it through art, that’s how.
Whatever the medium, we distill these ideas into beautiful, easily communicated nuggets of information. In this case, using a simple apple tree.
The first several verses of this poem deal with admiring the beauty and fullness of the tree, what makes it so grand and wonderful. It is always green and weighed down with luscious fruit, something that run-of-the-mill apple trees cannot do year-round. The sight of this tree is so beautiful that words escape the poet, and we learn why in the next stanza: he or she is exhausted from their toil.
They are full-fledged participants in the rat-race, running after happiness, whether that be in extravagance or ambition. They desire rest, but cannot seem to find a good place to settle. They must sit for a while and feed their soul, something that the tree provides. The shade is comforting, the fruit a necessity for life. It is a place where the poet will return over and over again “with haste.”
It is in this metaphor that we glean many things: Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is beautiful beyond description and beyond compare. Words are not sufficient to describe him. He is fruitful; abounding in the various fruits of the Spirit, and no one, no thing can compare to his fruitfulness. He is the fount and source of joy and fulfillment (Logos, or “The Word” who is God). This life and joy is offered at no cost other than faith. He is providential, providing strength, wisdom, and discernment for those who draw near. The core of Christ’s goodness, the stability and constancy of God’s goodness, is so perfectly encapsulated in a simple metaphor using a utilitarian albeit tasty fruit tree.
In this metaphor, the apple becomes the most-desired fruit in the eye of the poet, not for its exotic or intoxicating properties, but for its necessity: the tree gives shade, the fruit gives nourishment, and it is inherently beautiful. Likewise, Christ must become the most-desired person in our eyes, not for his loftiness or the theological hoops that we so often enjoy jumping through (myself included), but for his necessity: he gives our soul rest, he nourishes our spirit, and he is inherently beautiful beyond words.