Happy are those who find wisdom… She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.
“… for they have not understood that the tree of life which Paradise once bore, now again the Church has produced for all, even the ripe and comely fruit of faith. Such fruit it is necessary that we bring when we come to the judgment-seat of Christ, on the first day of the feast; for if we are without it we shall not be able to feast with God, nor to have part, according to John, in the first resurrection. For the tree of life is wisdom first begotten of all.” (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 2365-2370)
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)
In a previous post, When Death Wept, I mentioned that early Christian writers were far more interested in how Death reacted to Christ then they were in what it is like to be dead or to traverse through the place of the dead. Their interest in Hades was because it is a place Christ has conquered and filled – it is a place where we will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, not be separated from Him.
These same writers were also very interested in what Paradise, the garden God prepared for His first human creatures, must have been like. This was of greater interest to these early writers than taking a sojourn through circles of hell or through purgatory or toll houses. They focused often on where God is, which turns out to be everywhere including Hades, rather than in concocting places where God is not. St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373AD) poetically describes Paradise in his volumes of poems.
Perhaps that blessed tree,
the Tree of Life,
is, by its rays,
the sun of Paradise;
its leaves glisten
and on them are impressed
the spiritual graces
of that Garden.
In the breezes the other trees
bow down in worship
before that sovereign
and leader of the trees.
In the very midst He planted
the Tree of Knowledge
endowing it with awe,
hedging it in with dread,
so that it might straightaway serve
as a boundary to the inner region of Paradise.
St. Ephrem describes Paradise to be God’s temple, like the Temple in Jerusalem. Or rather, as we know, the Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the Temple which was revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44). Paradise had different regions according to St. Ephrem which had boundaries marking that some regions were even more holy than other regions. Those who could enter each region were limited, which is the pattern which the Jerusalem Temple followed with its outer courts and the inner Holy of Holies.
Two things did Adam hear
in that single decree:
that they should not eat of it
and that, by shrinking from it,
they should perceive that it was not lawful
to penetrate further, beyond that Tree.
While Genesis portrays the Tree being in the middle of the Garden, St. Ephrem sees the Tree as a boundary which Adam was not permitted to trespass beyond. The serpent was not even allowed in the Garden, but craftily learned about the inner structure of the Garden by inquiring about it from Eve. To talk to the serpent, Eve and Adam had to intentionally leave the inner sanctuary. The serpent didn’t really have Eve and Adam’s ear – they had to go out of their way to listen to the serpent, according to St. Ephrem.
The serpent could not
for neither animal
was permitted to approach
the outer region of Paradise,
and Adam had to go out
to meet them,
so the serpent cunningly learned
through questioning Eve,
the character of Paradise
what it was and how it was arranged.
According to St. Ephrem, the serpent’s goal all along was to learn about the design of the Garden – of God’s Temple. His discussion in Genesis 3 with Eve is really his crafty way to learn the layout of the Temple. The serpent wanted to know what was in the midst of the Garden. Once the serpent had that knowledge he hatched his plan to get Adam and Eve to turn away from God.
The serpent couldn’t harm Adam or Eve, but he was able to figure out a fatal flaw in them! Once he surmised that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the key, the serpent suggested to Eve that there would be no harm in eating the fruit, that the fruit like everything in the garden was good to be had. Wisdom says there is a time for everything. It was not yet Eve and Adam’s time to partake of the fruit, but they bit on the serpent’s temptation, and the rest is history, so to speak.
There were two spiritually significant trees mentioned in Genesis 2 standing in the middle of the Garden of Eden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Tree of Life was not off limits to Adam and Eve, yet they did not eat the fruit of that Tree, but rather grasped the forbidden fruit. Thus they rejected life and the Giver of Life – they rejected what was rightfully theirs, grasping instead after something not given to them. By following their own self wills, they rejected what God willed for them. The tree of life reemerges, at least in Orthodox Holy Week Hymns, in the Tree of the Cross upon which Christ is crucified. The Tree of the Cross seemingly brings about death, but turns out to be life-giving.
“If animals have no consciousness of death, they experience life. In this light, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden is the universal experience of life. The tree of life, after being introduced at Genesis 2:9, almost vanishes from the Paradise account, and the tree of knowledge occupies center stage. God refers again to the tree of life at the end of the Paradise account, implying that the fruit of the tree of life grants eternal life (Gen. 3:22). For this reason, some Fathers, such as Ephrem the Syrian, attach considerable importance to the tree of life, since it imparts the acquisition of an essential divine quality, immortality, for which Adam and Eve were unprepared.” (Paul Ladouceur in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 57: Number 2, p 165)
The Tree of Life – the Tree of the Cross – is the giver of immortality.
Liturgically we make the events of Christ’s last week on earth part of our own spiritual sojourn. We walk with the Lord. We welcome Christ into our lives, recognizing that He comes to correct all of the troubles that have plagued humanity since Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree.
Eating that fruit caused us to go astray, to miss the mark of what it is to be human. St. Ephrem the Syrian connects the eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve to the entirety of the Christian spiritual life. Eating of that forbidden fruit opens our eyes to see what it is like to live apart from God. We live in a world which can never satisfy our needs, but this is to create a longing in our heart for God. This is the purpose of Great Lent and Holy Week as well – to help us understand how life on earth is an exile from God, but we can also experience God on earth if we seek God with our heart, soul and mind.
“Who is there who can expound concerning that Tree which caused those who sought it to go astray?
It is an invisible target, hidden from the eyes, which wearies those who shoot at it.
It is both the Tree of Knowledge, and of ignorance:
it is the cause of knowledge, for by it a person knows
what is the gift that was lost, and the punishment that took place.
Blessed is that Fruit which has mingled a knowledge
Lent reminds us of the exile we live in on earth. It reminds us that this life is not the totality of existence, but rather there is a greater reality awaits all those who seek union with the Living God.
Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.
He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water,
That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
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“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” —
therefore the LORD God
sent him forth from the garden of Eden,
to till the ground from which he was taken.
He drove out the man;
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.
Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Abel.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.
And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”