Lessons of the Trees #6: Under the Fig Tree

Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?"  Jesus answered him, "I saw you under the fig tree"      (Jn. 1:48).

Have you ever been noticed across a crowded room?  Has anyone ever paid attention to you unexpectedly?  Has someone noticed something special about you – something small or something you didn’t think anyone knew, or something you didn’t even know yourself?  Has anyone ever looked at you in such a way that pages of words and thoughts were communicated in a moment?

And how did that make you feel?  How did being connected with that person make you feel?  Alive?  Like the best version of yourself?  Not alone?

We live in a constant state of tension between two extreme opinions of ourselves.  On the one hand we are utterly enamored with ourselves – this is the side of us that subconsciously thanks God that we are not like the rest of humanity (cf. Lk. 18:11).  On the other hand, we doubt and even despise ourselves to the point of believing ourselves unlovable (“If they really knew me, they would not love me”).

But what if there was someone whose gaze alone could penetrate us with such clarity that we moved away from this exaggerated tension into the peaceful middle, where we could see ourselves as we truly are – genuinely flawed but entirely lovable?  What if there was someone whose gaze expressed such love to us that we believed once and for all that we are the beloved?  What if there was someone who could simply say “I saw you” – and in those words communicate to us that he knows all the little things about us, all the special things, all the things no one else ever noticed before?  How would we respond to that remarkable person?

Nathanael responded:  “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (Jn. 1:49).  And then he followed him.

I suppose one who noticed us across a crowded room and loved us so would be irresistible. I suppose that is what Nathanael felt.  Jesus saw Nathanael – saw him, knew him, and loved him.  And as one of his disciples, he taught him, nurtured him, challenged him, called him friend, encouraged him, died for him.  He made promises to him and kept them.  Then he went and prepared a place for him.

Under the fig tree, you too have been seen.  Loved, taught, nurtured, befriended.  Everything about you.  Seen, known, and loved beneath the fig tree.

  Nathanael Under the Fig Tree  by James Tissot    “Standing before him with open hearts, letting him look at us, we see that gaze of love which Nathanael glimpsed on the day when Jesus said to him:  ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ (Jn. 1:48)” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 264).

Nathanael Under the Fig Tree by James Tissot

“Standing before him with open hearts, letting him look at us, we see that gaze of love which Nathanael glimpsed on the day when Jesus said to him:  ‘I saw you under the fig tree’ (Jn. 1:48)” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 264).

Lessons of the Trees #5: O Tannenbaum!

In the U.S., the definitive sign that your household has entered into the Christmas spirit is that the tree is up and decorated.  Although there is great variety in the ways we celebrate, decorate and commemorate the season, the tree is a common, unifying symbol.

As you can imagine, the history of the Christmas tree is long and complicated.  Trees have symbolized many things through the ages, and with good reason.  They are strong and dignified, living and resilient.  Their wood is used to build things (including mangers and crosses) and their branches and leaves protect small animals and birds.  In some cultures, trees are thought to have their own spirits, and to be worthy of worship.  And certainly they do point to and reach toward the heavens!

The conifers we use as Christmas trees have the added symbolism of a triangle shape (Trinity, anyone?).  And of course they stay green through the long winter, symbolizing the hope we always have in Christ, as fresh as the day he rose from the dead.  I can certainly attest to this effect of the evergreen; one reason I don’t mind the long winters in Connecticut is because of the gorgeous view of five stately green conifers in my back yard.  I am not a fan of snow, but snow settling on pines is one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

Despite these symbolic tidbits, the most interesting thing I’ve read about the history of the Christmas tree is a tradition that is really more of a precursor.  It comes from the medieval European tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve as “Adam and Eve Day.”   Evergreens, symbolizing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were decorated with apples, symbolizing the forbidden fruit.  At some point, white wafers, symbolizing the Eucharist, were also hung on the trees.  And so two foods decorated the medieval “Paradise Tree” – one which brought down the human race, and another which is an “antidote”, a sign of our redemption. 

Decorating “Paradise Trees” is a tradition that persisted but evolved.  Fresh apples were replaced with – you guessed it – bright red balls.  Now sure, I’ve thought vaguely before about the relationship between the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of the Cross, and the Christmas Tree.  But this year, when those bright red balls go on, I might just see old Tannenbaum in a whole new light!

 The lovely pines in my back yard were my landlord's kids' Christmas trees.

The lovely pines in my back yard were my landlord's kids' Christmas trees.

Lessons of the Trees #4: Think of the Beauty of Autumn

I used to live down the street from a church that always had wit and wisdom to share on its marquee sign.  If I’d kept a record, I would have regular, clever quips to share with you!  But only one has stayed with me through the years.  Driving home one day, minding my own business and thinking my own thoughts, the sign caught my eye: 

“Afraid to change?  Think of the beauty of autumn.”

How many of our intra- and inter-personal problems derive from this human condition of “afraid to change”?  Is the hardest prayer of all:  “Change me”?  Trees do not resist the natural processes that change them – make them beautiful, strip them of leaves, renew them in spring.  But we?  Resist every step of the way.

Yes, God loves me just the way I am.  But I can turn more beautiful colors! 

 Thinking of the beauty of autumn in Connecticut!

Thinking of the beauty of autumn in Connecticut!

Lessons of the Trees #3: Trust

There is a passage in the book of the prophet Jeremiah that once you’ve read or heard it, you never forget.  It has that kind of imagery.  It is an image of a tree that grows near enough to a river that its roots grow and stretch toward the life-giving waters, receiving all the sustenance it needs to weather any drought and bear fruit in any season.  Jeremiah personifies the tree – it “does not fear” and “it is not anxious.” 

 

The tree is a metaphor for those who trust God.  Like the tree, they are well-placed.  They need only “send out their roots” to reap the benefits of the waters, which flow unceasingly from the One who refreshes the soul.  Reaching out for those waters – it stretches us – it is uncomfortable.  We are tentative at first.  But when we begin to feel the cooling effects of the river, we are soothed and encouraged.  Our roots reach ever farther, deeper into the soil where there is always plenty of water in reserve, farther toward the river where waters flow freely.

 

This is the nature of trust.  It is a slow growth which roots us deeply in the one we depend on.  At first we are unsure, but when we discover that our reaching out never leaves us dry or parched, then, when the drought comes and the heat pelts us, we can stand tall and stoic, our roots soaking up the life-saving waters.  We discover that we not only weather hostile conditions – but that in the end we may even flourish. 

 

The Cross of Jesus was one of these well-placed trees.  Here trust played out between a Father and Son, between human and divine, between a dying thing and the Author of all life.  Faced with drought and ruin, roots reached deeply into fertile soil and drank abundantly from the river of God.  And in the fertile conditions of trust, the dead wood of the Cross again sprouted green leaves, and bore the first-fruits of eternal life!


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 (Jer. 17:7-8).

Lessons of the Trees #2: Salvation

I’ve been thinking a lot about Zacchaeus lately.  I’ve always related to the story of his encounter with Jesus, knowing that I too would have had to climb a tree to have the slightest hope of seeing Jesus over a crowd!  It’s a great story for kids – that’s when I remember first hearing it.  I loved to climb trees, and I could just imagine climbing up a tree, and looking down to find Jesus looking up at me.

It’s a bit of an upside-down situation.  We usually look up into the skies to find Jesus.  Even though we know Heaven isn’t in the clouds, and the presence of Jesus is much more complex (or simple) than up or down, the orientation in our minds is Jesus above, ourselves below.  But Zacchaeus, in all of his shortness, and in all of his determination to see Jesus, to figure out who he was, did something that usually only children do.  He climbed a tree, to see over the crowds, to look down and see the face of Jesus for himself.

The real surprise in the story comes when Jesus – cutting through the crowd – hones in on Zacchaeus.  He calls him down from the tree.  He wants to be a guest at Zacchaeus’ house.  And Zacchaeus is utterly transformed by the attention, by Jesus’ desire, by the brief encounter with the man passing through Jericho.

You can bet Zacchaeus scrambled down from that tree.  I don’t know how tall Jesus was, but when they stood together under the sycamore tree, they looked at one another, eye to eye.  And salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:9).