Did you plant a tree this week? April 24 is Arbor Day. While the first U.S. Arbor Day was on April 10, 1872 — when one million trees were planted in Nebraska — Arbor Day worldwide traces back to a priest in Spain. In 1805, Fr. Ramón Vacas Roxo convinced people in Villanueva de la Sierra to begin replacing the trees Napoleon’s armies had destroyed.
According to North Carolina State University, one large tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and give back up to one 100 gallons of water vapor a day. It can also supply enough oxygen each day for four people. Trees give life.
We first hear of trees in the Bible in Genesis with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because Adam and Eve eat from this tree, they are expelled from Eden.
Sometimes, in remembering Adam and Eve, we forget that there were two important trees in that garden. Along with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there was “every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden” (Gen. 2:9).
Right there, near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was the tree of life. Not much is said about this tree — except that God expels Adam and Eve before they can lay hands on it. God said nothing about eating from this tree until Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Then God said, “Now, what if he (man) also reaches out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life, and eats of it and lives forever? The Lord God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3: 22-23).
In fact, God is so concerned about Adam and Eve not getting back into Eden that he stations “cherubim and the fiery revolving sword … to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Why would God — who hadn’t forbidden the tree of life in the first place — protect it so carefully from humans now?
One common explanation is explained by Archbishop Denis J. Hart of Melbourne, Australia: “God hastened to evict Adam and Eve from the garden — not as a punishment, but because he feared ‘lest the man put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever’ (Gen 3:22). The effect of this would have been to make sinners (and thus also sin) immortal.”
Imagine being immortal, but always being subject to sin and the evils that come from it.
Catholic apologist Melinda Selmys expands on this idea noting that, “When Adam and Eve eat (of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) they interiorize that potential and make it real. … Suddenly, all of the things that were ‘good’ in the beginning have potential for evil.”
Unlike the first days of creation, not all things are good. We quickly learned about evil from that first tree.
So what to do? Before you say it, Selmys notes that the tree of life was not the immediate answer.
“The second tree is the antidote to this problem,” she wrote, “but it is also dangerous. When God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and the tree of life, bodily immortality is no longer possible.” Instead, Selmys noted, God was merciful to kick us out. Imagine having eternal life, but living it in forever in an imperfect world. Imagine living eternally with evil.
In other words, the tree of life doesn’t offer an easy way out of the mess of good and evil unleashed. Things had to be set right first — good and evil had to be dealt with in this imperfect world before we could return to Eden’s perfection.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of how dangerous that forbidden tree had been: “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust.” (n. 396).
That’s the part we missed when we grabbed the forbidden fruit. We short-circuited the path of knowledge: we didn’t want to learn to grow to love God better, we wanted to know everything and know it right away.
So, how could we return to the garden safely?
The tree of life does hold the answer — just not right away. When God separated us from it, he never meant to forbid it to us forever. Only until the proper time.
That tree of life appears again in the Bible: in the last book. There John receives a vision of “the river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … On either side of the river grew the tree of life that produces fruit 12 times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations” (Rev 22:1-3).
We see Eden restored and accessible again. Fruit is abundant and always available. But why? Because of the Lamb, the slain Lamb, whose throne produces the water to nourish the tree of life.
We now call Christ’s cross, an instrument of death, the tree of life. Christ’s body and blood are its fruit, food for everlasting life.
“The Triumph of the Cross is therefore the expulsion from Eden reversed,” Archbishop Hart wrote. “Through the Tree of the Cross, sin is forgiven, death is defeated and life is restored.”
The obedience of Jesus reversed Adam’s disobedience and allowed all of us to return to Eden.
On the Easter Vigil, the ancient triumphal prayer of the church — the Exsultet — was proclaimed: “This is the night when Jesus Christ, broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”
Now we can see why God planted two trees — one had the potential to lead us out of Eden, if we disobeyed; the other, when the proper hour of salvation had come, could lead us back to the good life with God, because of Jesus’ obedience.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; arborday.org; Hartbeat at cam.org.au; “The Two Trees” at catholic.com; and ncstate.edu.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” and “Making Sense of Saints,” both published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.