This fall we dedicated a new set of paraments at Zion. Paraments are the fabric coverings on the altar, pulpit, and lectern–where the scripture is read. For the long church season following Pentecost (Pentecost is 50 days after Easter) the liturgical color is green. Green symbolizes the growth of the church in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We selected this beautiful set which uses the imagery of the Tree of Life because it seems so appropriate for the place in which we do ministry. The unusual form of this altar parament also allows us to see the wonderful carvings on our altar frontpiece, typically hidden by the altar cloth. So our tree of life is flanked on either side by the carved symbols “alpha” and “omega”…the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.
What does this imagery mean and why do we even bother with this sort of thing? Simply put, paraments are used because they tell the Christian story. Since ancient times in the church, visual imagery has been used to help worshipers grasp the significance of Bible teachings.
A tree is a metaphor for so much. Here in Adams County it symbolizes a way of life for so many of our orchard farming families. I only need to close my eyes and think of our beloved countryside and the rows of fruit trees dominate the landscape of my mind’s eye. A tree sinks roots deep into the earth and returns to us nourishment, oxygen, and transpired water. There is no life on earth without green plants for they are the only life form capable of drawing energy from the sun and returning it to the earth as food. Our seasons, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, are defined by the changing garb of the trees. Even at the end of its life cycle, a tree returns to the earth and provides the medium for more life to sprout forth. So, life, death,and renewal are all tied up in the symbol of a tree.
The tree of life is the most universal of all religious symbols and associated with nearly all cultures. It typically represents an upright, moral way of life and is also associated with healing and peace. In Christian scripture the tree of life appears twice (except for metaphorical references in Proverbs), in Genesis 2:9 and Revelation 22:1-2. So this powerful metaphor anchors scripture as the image of loss in the Garden of Eden to which we look back, and the image of hope to which we look forward in the renewed heaven and earth. The tree of life is both alpha and omega, beginning and end.
It is said that civilization began with the felling of the first tree and will end with the felling of the last. The story of salvation also begins and ends with a tree. And in the middle of that salvation story is the cross. Our savior hung on a tree, but that tree becomes for us the tree of life. The cross is a tree of life that is both judgment and healing; death-dealing and death-destroying. In the tree of life we are both lost and found.
Proverbs 3:18 says that Torah, divine instruction, is a tree of life. The Proverbs verse is repeated in a Jewish prayer each time the sacred scrolls are returned to the ark after scripture is read. “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and its precepts are right. Its paths are paths of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace, Return us to thee, O Lord, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.”
We pray that these paraments will serve as a reminder of all that is good and true of a life lived in God. And we pray that the tree of life will become part of our sacred story here at Zion.