By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The basilica of San Clemente in Rome features a stunning apse mosaic depicting the cross of Christ as a tree trunk bearing immense fruit in the form of circling vines and flowers. The radiant colors and decorative forms make visible an idea cherished by the early theologians of the Church: that the cross is truly the tree of life, from which the first man and woman were barred after the original sin (see Genesis 2:9; 3:17, 22, 24). Beyond a variety of flora and fauna, the mosaic also illustrates the generative nature of the cross by presenting various members of the Church among the swirling vines, one of whom is a Cistercian monk!
St. Paul may be hinting at this understanding of the cross when he reflects, post-resurrection, on the divine logic at work in Jesus’ passion and death. Paul notes in Galatians 3:13 that Christ ransomed all humanity from the curse of death “by becoming a curse for us.” He then cites a passage from the Law of Moses, Deuteronomy 21:23, to prove his point: “…for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the logic (literally, the logos) of the cross, noting that the plan of God appears utterly foolish by the standards of worldly wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18). In that very foolishness, however, the wisdom of God is revealed, for Paul understands Christ crucified to be the ultimate proof of “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Christ does not conquer through the acquisition of human glory or military might, but rather by a humiliating display of weakness, and in doing so turns the cross, an instrument of shame, into the symbol of triumphant life.
If the cross of Christ truly manifests the wisdom of God, then it must be considered the tree of life, the source of a renewed and vivifying relationship with God. For wisdom, personified in the Old Testament as a lady to be pursued only by worthy suitors, is defined in the book of Proverbs as “a tree of life to those who grasp her, and happy is the one who holds her fast” (Proverbs 3:18). The very first Psalm sets the tone for the entire book when it describes the one who rejects the ways of sin and rejoices in the Law of the Lord as “a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in due time and whose leaves never fade” (Psalm 1:3). The most fitting application of this Psalm, as many fathers of the Church noted, is to Christ, exalted and triumphant, reigning even, upon the wooden throne of the cross.
The final mention of the tree of life is found in Revelation, the concluding book of the Bible. Borrowing imagery from a prophetic vision of the Jerusalem Temple in Ezekiel 47, John speaks of the tree of life rooted by the river of life-giving water which flows through the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 22:2). The leaves of this tree are “medicine for the nations,” and the waters nourish all life that comes to drink from its streams.
Our pursuit of wisdom, to return to the San Clemente mosaic, will be fruitful only if we live according to the logos of the cross. Whether in the monastery or the workplace, in the home or at school, the search for truth and happiness begins and ends at the foot of the cross. There we will find the river of life-giving water gushing from the pierced side of Christ; there we will learn how to glory not in our own prideful quest for fulfillment, but in the humble victory that our God has won for us by his death and resurrection.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.