Jesus and The Giving Tree

4 Mar

In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, after the infant Jesus tames a few dragons and befriends a pride of lions–you know, developmentally appropriate activities for his age bracket–Mary, Joseph, and Jesus encounter a palm tree in the desert. New-mother Mary wants to “rest a little in the shade” after three days of travel in the heat. Eager to ease her fatigue, baby Jesus commands their arboreal companion: “‘O tree, bend your branches and refresh my mother with your fruit.'” The tree bows to obey, and “they gathered from it fruit with which they all refreshed themselves.” The palm even stays bowed down until, at Jesus’ request for water, it rises up “immediately, and at its root there began to gush out a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling.” There’s a palpable The Giving Tree ambiguity here, somewhere between “how sweet and generous” and “this tree’s being abused!”

Unlike the boy in Silverstein’s book, however, Jesus doesn’t simply abandon his devoted tree once it’s offered up everything it’s got. Just when the family’s ready to move on the next day, Jesus addresses the generous-but-still-thriving tree: “‘This privilege I give you, O palm-tree, that one of your branches be carried away by my angels, and planted in the paradise of my Father.” After an angel flies up “to heaven with the branch in his hand,” we don’t hear of this tree again…

…until it shows up in a text, called the Narrative of Pseudo-Melito, which recounts the events at the end of Mary’s life. Before she shuffles off this mortal coil, an angel appears to her and says “‘Hail blessed of the Lord […] Behold this palm branch. I have brought it to you from the paradise of the Lord, and you shall cause it to be carried before your bier on the third day when you will be taken up out of the body. For behold, your Son with the thrones and the angels and all the powers of heaven awaits you.'”

An angel bring a palm branch to heaven; an angel brings one back to earth. The palm tree which refreshes Mary after three days’ journey in the desert becomes an emblem for her journey to the next life. Unlike the earthly palm tree in Pseudo-Matthew, though, this branch shines “with exceeding brightness,” reflecting its new heavenly locale.

There’s some sweet symmetry here. There must be more to this palm tree in heaven, some sort of deeper significance for it to appear (only?) in these two distinct Latin texts. It’s not just any palm symbolizing victory; this is a tree with a heavenly offshoot, and, stitching these texts together, it even prefigures Mary’s own angel-accompanied ascent. She’s traditionally terrified of facing the horrors of death; it seems sort of comforting that the palm made the trip.

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