I had never heard this 18th-century Christmas carol until very recently but it has since been playing in my mind, at once familiar & fresh. Penned by Richard Hutchins in 1761, it has inspired music by, among many others, Elizabeth Poston in the last century and another performed by Lee Nelson & the Wartburg Choir in 2013. (I’ve posted both versions below.)
The metaphor of the apple tree appears in the Song of Songs, when the bride says of her Beloved: “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” (Song 2:3).
In comparing Christ to an apple tree, the lyricist also no doubt borrowed from the festive Old English custom of wassailing where drinks of hot apple cider greeted Christmas guests and carolers who came to visit. In Western culture generally, the apple has come to signify forbidden fruit which is why it seems a jarring image for Christ our Savior who came to undo the curse of our human race’s first transgression in the Garden of Eden.
But in turning the imagery of transgression on its head by employing it for One who saves us from our transgressions, the writer unfolds the profound paradox of our present life in Christ. We are sinners saved by the sinless Savior.
The first stanza begins, “The tree of life my soul hath seen/ Laden with fruit and always green,” and immediately passages in Scripture leap to mind from Genesis 2-3 to Psalm 1 & Luke 13: 18-19 to Revelation 22: 1-2, and with them the story of God’s people, from Creation to Fall to Redemption and finally to Consummation when Jesus will come again. Hope breathes in every line of this story and love testifies to its truth as we look on Him, God’s Son who came down to set us free from sin & death, “to destroy the works of the devil”(1 John 3:8). “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
What a treat to have a Christmas carol as a heart-song that places the birth of Christ into the big picture of life in an eternal way, a way of life everlasting begun here in the mean manger of our lives, even in their winters, where we can adore at once and forever Jesus Christ who sits enthroned in heaven and makes our life flourish with His, like an apple tree!
1 John 4:16-17 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. This fruit doth 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.
Composer: Elizabeth Poston