Bread of Life. Living Water. Light of the World. Good Shepherd. The Vine. The Lamb. These are several well-known biblical metaphors for Jesus.
Here’s one you may be less familiar with: Jesus Christ the apple tree. It comes from Song of Solomon, a compilation of erotic love poetry traditionally read by Christian exegetes as an allegory of the love between Christ and his church: “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3).
In 1761 an anonymous poet teased out this apple tree metaphor and submitted the outcome to London’s Spiritual Magazine under the initials R.H. By 1784 the poem had been picked up by New England Baptist minister Joshua Smith and published in his popular compilation Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs. Since then several composers have set it to music: Elizabeth Poston’s 1967 setting is the most commonly performed today, but I prefer the more recent setting by Stanford Scriven (video below). Scriven, who was only twenty-one when his version premiered in 2009, said,
In my mind, the poet [who wrote “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”] is a simple, honest individual attempting to depict the wonder of the Son of God in a way that is understandable by all. Thus, I sought the same in composing this piece. I wanted to create a sense of peace and assurance in the music that could speak to everyone, even those who know nothing about music technically, because this is how I see the text.
It being the first day of fall—time for strolling those ripe apple orchards—“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is a fitting subject for meditation. The text by “R.H.” is as follows:
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
With great delight I’ll make my stay
There’s none shall fright my soul away
Among the sons of men I see
There’s none like Christ the apple tree
I’ll sit and eat this truth divine
It cheers my heart like spiritual wine
And now this fruit is sweet to me
That grows on Christ the apple tree
This fruit does 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
Now, since the early days of Christianity, Jesus has been thought to be the Tree of Life described in Revelation 22:2. So the image of Jesus as tree (or his cross as tree, he its fruit) has been developed by theologians and artists over the course of many centuries, especially in connection to the Crucifixion. We saw an example of this last week in Anthony Falbo’s It Is Finished, a painting in which Christ is shown crucified on—as it so happens—an apple tree.
This poem, however, makes no explicit reference to the Crucifixion, nor does it, despite its naming the species apple, mention the tree in the Garden of Eden that occasioned the fall of humanity. Though these associations will probably arise in the minds of Christian audiences and are not necessarily meant to be suppressed, the main emphasis here is on the speaker’s sensory engagement with this tree—beholding its magnificent stature and lushness, sitting in the coolness of its shade, indulging in its sweet, crisp fruit. It’s a love poem—not nearly as racy as the one that inspired it, but an ode, nonetheless, to Christ’s beauty, his glory, his truth, and to the pleasure he gives.
“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is traditionally sung as a Christmas carol, the reason probably being that Twelfth Night was when farmers in Britain, from medieval times up until the eighteenth century, would sing and drink to the health of their apple trees—a ritual known as wassailing. But to me this song is more appropriate for spring- or early falltime, when apple trees are full of life in the form of either blooms or fruit, corroborating the poet’s analogy. Choirs need not wait until December to dust off this piece for performance, for its lyrics are timely at present, when apple trees are in the public mind and are enjoyed to their fullest extent.
I cannot conclude without sharing a few paintings from the early modern period that interpret the glory of the apple tree. Now we have a new angle from which to look at them.