O CHRISTMAS TREE
I have been a member of two churches at the time that they were making the decision to put a Christmas tree in the sanctuary. It wasn't pretty. And I have been in other churches who have told me about the controversies there when they were making the same decision. Because the Christmas tree began as a pagan symbol, there are a number of people who have trouble accepting its presence in a Christian sanctuary. And I can appreciate that concern.
But I want to make the case tonight for the Christmas tree in church. Whatever you think about it, the Christmas tree has become a primary symbol for the holiday and I hate to see a wonderful symbol go to waste. Charles Wesley, who wrote literally thousands of hymns, felt that way about the wonderful tunes that were sung in the taverns, and he took the drinking songs, gave them new words and brought them into the church. You have sung more bar songs than you perhaps realized. Well, I feel the same way about the Christmas tree. It's a great symbol. Why not give it new meaning and put it to work in the church?
This is not a new idea. At our Hanging of the Greens service at the beginning of Advent, I told you the story of how the evergreen tree first became associated with Christianity. It was back in the eighth century, when a St. Boniface, working as a missionary among the Hessians, came upon a pagan ritual of human sacrifice to Thor, the thunder God. They believed the presence of Thor was in a large oak tree and were preparing the sacrifice underneath the tree.
Boniface apparently was a large man with a commanding presence, and just as the youth was about to be killed he stormed into the gathering and ordered the ceremony stopped. As the group stood in fear of the large stranger he challenged their god and ordered the tree chopped down, which they did. As the majestic tree fell to the ground, legend says it revealed for the first time a young fir tree growing between the broken branches of the fallen oak.. The people were awed by the presence of the young tree inside the old one and before they could claim the miracle for Thor, Boniface claimed it for Christ.
He said to them, "This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of fir. It is the sign of endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points straight to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child; gather about it, not in the wild woods but in your homes. There it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness."
I don't know how much of that legend is based in fact. But I do know that the attitude of Boniface in the story represents the true attitude of faith. Faith is not learning which symbols are sacred and truly represent God. Faith is looking at everything in a new way and seeing God everywhere you look. Faith is looking at your dining room table and seeing an altar spread with the love of God. Faith is looking at a dirty, smelly drunk and seeing in him the possibilities for beauty and restoration. Faith is receiving a hug from a friend and feeling the arms of God. Faith is not seeing different things...faith is seeing things differently.
The Christmas tree is a symbol of joy to people both inside and outside the church. Entire cities gather for the lighting of the town tree, and children in homes across the world take delight in the sparkling lights and bright decorations. The Christmas tree is no respecter of persons. All nations, races, classes...even all faiths often put up a tree. And to me, that's what the Christian faith is all about.
From the very beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures when God called Abraham, the intent was that the Word of God be spread to all people and be a blessing to all nations. God is the God of all and the salvation we proclaim in Jesus is offered to all. The Christmas tree may well be the only symbol we have left that can represent the faith to the world, exactly because it is common to our experience. Isn't that what Jesus did so often? What did Jesus choose as the symbols for himself? Bread and wine...nothing exclusive to this group or that...but things that were common and fundamental to the experience of everyone -- basic food...a loaf of bread, a cup of wine.
The Christmas tree in the church is a reminder that our calling is not to be separated from the world, but simply to live in it and look at it differently. It's the same physical world...out there and in here. This is not the place to see different things. This is the place to see things differently. This is the place where drunks and drug addicts are seen as children of God. This is the place where death is seen as the beginning of life, where giving is seen to be receiving, and where becoming a servant of others is proclaimed to be the true foundation of leadership. This is the place where the common is seen as a miracle and where ordinary people realize that they are capable of the most extraordinary things. It is here that water becomes wine, and that wine becomes the life of Christ poured out for us. This is not the place to see different things. This is the place to see things differently. It is the place of transformation.
Once a year, evergreen trees across the globe are transformed. They sparkle with lights and shelter gifts of love beneath their branches. Everybody understands it, everyone has access to it. The Christmas tree turns no one away. So it is with the God we proclaim. God is the God of all. God is the light that shines in the darkness, sheltering gifts of love beneath ever-living branches. The tree stands here, reminding us that our God transforms the ordinary. God takes the secular and makes it sacred...the meaningless suddenly has purpose, the aimless have vision, the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to new life.
Don't come to Christ expecting to see different things. Come expecting to see things differently.
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson
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