Today’s reading was the 5th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he describes his concept of the origin of sin, and the grace of God that brings justification through Christ. Scholars much more versed than me in the intricacies of this argument have written volume upon volume about what this means, and how it works. For my part, I could only think about the image that is captured in mosaic above our altar here at St. Paul’s, and how it participates in the discussion through its bold imagery.
Edward Burne Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who conceived this mosaic, particularly cherished this work. In early sketches, he titled it “The Tree of Forgiveness,” but later on settled on the title, “The Tree of Life.” Writing to a friend about it, he said, “It’s a mystical thing-Christ hanging with outspread arms but not crucified: the cross is turned into a big tree all over leaves, and the stems of the tree are gold” (from Judith Rice Millon’s, St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome: A Building History and Guide, 1870-2000). For a church whose patron saint is St. Paul, in the city which bears the name of his most heady and hearty Epistle, this mosaic is an extraordinary gift.
Adam and Eve, dust and life (adam and havvah in the Hebrew) flank the tree in the midst of the garden of Eden. Instead of the snake coiled around the tree, like in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction across the river, we see Christ himself, gesturing in blessing to a redeemed humanity. The tree of forgiveness is really the tree of life, the axis mundi, and Paul’s vision in Romans 5 of the “free gift” humanity receives in Christ is realized in image.
My favorite aspect of this mosiac is that one only sees it during the liturgical service if coming forward for communion. The arch that holds the Annunciation obscures it until you actually get close enough to receive that gift intimately in the bread and wine.
The text from our reading today in Romans 5:17 is,
“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
I am an Episcopalian because I believe that our church is a good way to live into a life of blessing rather than cursing, of encouraging the world to receive this grace of God rather than imposing it unwillingly upon them. The latin below this mosaic reads from John 16:33 “In the world you will have tribulation, but trust me for I have overcome the world.” This is my daily struggle…to do what I can, with the gifts I have been given, but to finally rest in the grace and the security that the heavy lifting has already been done. Life has triumphed, and our job as the church is to proclaim its dominion over death, live the grace of the gift out through ministry, and celebrate it fully.
May you be so blessed today my friends!