It comes as a surprise in the painting of Jesus’ birth by the great contemporary Chinese artist He Qi (pronounced “huh chi”). The baby bears an apple.
Most of the features of the painting are to be expected, traditional if not biblical details common to many depictions of the nativity—Mary bending low, Joseph lifting his lantern, animals peering at the peculiar intruders, the manger with its golden straw, and the rosy-cheeked child staring straight into the onlookers’ eyes. The painting doubles as an annunciation—an angel soars, shepherds gaze skyward, sheep frolic in the foreground.
But there is a surprise. The baby is holding an apple.
He Qi is not the first artist to apply an apple to the canvas of a nativity. Apples appear in medieval ivory carvings, in Renaissance paintings, and in 20th-century art. It turns out that an apple in a nativity is not without precedent. But why? Why place an apple, not a pomegranate or a pear, in the fingers of the infant?
It all goes back to Genesis. Although Genesis does not name the forbidden fruit at the heart of the temptation story, some early Christians identified it as an apple. Apples often played a symbolic role in ancient mythology, and the Latin words for apple and evil are very similar. But what is a symbol of age-old evil doing in a painting about the birth of Jesus?
The angel’s annunciation answers our question: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). There is an apple in the painting because there is a Christ in the crèche, a Messiah in the manger, a divine deliverer who will rescue God’s people from their rebellion. There is a symbol of sin in the scene because there is a Savior who will save his people, all his people, including us, from their sins. It turns out that an apple in a nativity is not without purpose. The baby bears an apple because the Son bears our sin.
When we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we recall not only a birth, but a death, a death demanded by sin. So “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5)—to the baby who bore an apple—we offer our thanks at this time and this table.
Lee Magness teaches at Milligan College in Tennessee. He has published three collections of Communion meditations, including The Longest Table and In the Breaking of the Bread (both available from Standard Publishing).