What does the Virgin Mary have to do with the Tree of Life?
She is the Tree of Life (at least for a moment), according to the Book of Mormon!
If you missed that in your reading of the Book of Mormon, it’s OK. It’s easy to miss (unless, perhaps, if you’re Catholic).
After his famous dream, Lehi tells his children of a tree with fruit that is “white, to exceed all the whiteness” and that is “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8). After hearing his father tell about the dream, Nephi sees the same tree in a vision of his own (1 Nephi 11-14). Since a fruit tree is known by and valued for its fruit, Nephi uses the same type of language to describe the tree itself (1 Nephi 11), which he says was “precious above all,” and “the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.“ Nephi calls this beautiful tree the “tree of life.”
From Nephi’s record, we eventually learn that the tree symbolizes the “love of God” (1 Nephi 11:25) and that its precious fruit is the “greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:36). But when Nephi first sees the tree and asks for the “interpretation thereof,” the Spirit doesn’t answer in words; he provides the interpretation through visual images. So what does the “love of God” look like? What Nephi is immediately shown is “a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white” and “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” It is interesting that Nephi uses nearly the same language to describe the Virgin Mary as he uses to describe the Tree of Life—they are both exceedingly white and beautiful above all. It’s unlikely that the actual Mary was particularly white or that she was the most beautiful woman who ever existed. The Bible says nothing to that effect, and, indeed, the Savior himself had “no form nor comeliness; and…no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Mary’s whiteness and beauty could, of course, be merely symbolic, representing her purity and preciousness, but Nephi could have just as well used different words, or just said that she was “pure” and “precious.” The particular words and phrases he uses suggest that he is describing Mary in this way as a reference to the Tree of Life. Her connection with the tree which “bore the fruit” that was so precious (1 Nephi 11:7; 15:36) is reinforced when she vanishes and then reappears “bearing a child” in her arms (1 Nephi 11:20). She is, for the moment, the Tree of Life, and her fruit is Christ, the most precious of all the gifts of God (John 3:16) and the perfect manifestation of his love.
Perhaps due to our Protestant tendencies, we Mormons don’t tend to notice this connection that Nephi makes between the Tree of Life and the Virgin Mary. Catholics, on the other hand, would be more appreciative of Nephi’s imagery. (Whoever produced the language of Nephi’s vision must not have shared the anti-Catholicism that was prevalent in 19th century America.) Nephi’s imagery would have also probably been familiar to many early Christians and appeared logical to ancient Hebrews (see links and notes at bottom). In any case, when we get past whatever sectarian discomfort we may have, Nephi’s imagery is beautiful and worthy of inclusion in our discussions of Nephi’s Tree of Life vision. It’s also fascinating how Nephi doesn’t just say, “Mary is like the Tree of Life,” but instead uses similar phrases (call them “phrasal allusions”) to say the same thing in a more subtle, playful way.
A Coptic version of a record called the Apocalypse of Paul, probably from about the mid-third century, relates a vision that, in some details at least, resembles the vision of Nephi: “And he [the angel] showed me the Tree of Life, and by it was a revolving red-hot sword. And a Virgin appeared by the tree, and three angels who hymned her, and the angel told me that she was Mary, the Mother of Christ.” [see Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi & His Asherah,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies , FARMS, Vol. 9, Num. 2, 2000, pp. 16-18]. In his vision, Nephi also saw a flaming fire (1 Nephi 15:30) and a “sword of the justice of the eternal God” (1 Nephi 12:18, Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text) that together restricted access to the tree.
The Tree of Life as Mother, Son, and Love of God in 1 Nephi and The Tree of Life as Nurturing Mother, both by David Larsen
Mary and the Tree of Life by John A. Tvedtnes (BYU)