The Christmas Tree

Matthew 2:1-14
December 20, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

This past Monday I finally decorated my house for Christmas, putting up my creches, my Santas, and hanging ornaments on my Christmas tree.  

Like most homes, the Christmas tree is the centerpiece of my Christmas decorations.  I rearrange my living room in order to fit a tree in my small house where trees usually don’t belong and during these darkest days of the year I find comfort in the blurring of the boundary between indoors and outdoors, between human and nature.  When I place my tree in its stand by my front picture window and look through its branches to the trees outside surrounding my house, it’s as if the walls disappear and the separation between outside and inside is only an illusion.  Creation is now seamless, unbroken, as it exists in the mind and heart of God.  This week I decorated my Christmas tree, the symbol of God’s perfected creation where God’s love binds all together in peace.  

The Christmas tree has its origin in the ancient celebrations of the winter solstice when people would bring greenery into their homes to remind them that spring would return; that the dark which threatens to swallow the earth on the longest day of the year would soon begin its retreat, beaten back again by light and sun and returning life.  Legend tells us that it was Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, who first brought the Christmas tree into use.  He converted the pagan custom of decorating with greenery into a Christian symbol associated with the birth of Christ.  The tree with its enduring needles reminds us that God’s love doesn’t fail in spite of winter storm and darkness.  It doesn’t die like the maple that loses its leaves when the earth becomes cold; God’s love doesn’t retreat and hibernate like the bulbs waiting for sunshine before showing their faces; God’s love isn’t a mere skeleton rattling mournfully in the frigid winds like the goldenrod and lilacs that were festooned so brightly when the wind blew warm.  God’s love is evergreen; it never fails no matter how bleak life may look.  Just as the firs and pine remain green in the barren landscape of winter, so God’s love brings color to our monochrome world and stands steadfast to protect us from the harsh winds of life. Luther, it is said, choose the evergreen to remind us that at Christmas time, God looked upon our broken hurting world and said, “This brokenness will not defeat you.  I love you so much I will send you my son, and my son will bring you the word of hope and comfort that will mend your broken hearts.” 

This week, I decorated my Christmas tree, and while I decorated, an American died every 33 seconds from Covid-19.  This week, while I decorated, Congress argued how best to help families and businesses devastated by the pandemic.  This week food banks across the world strained to meet rising needs.  This week climate scientists reported that 2020 was the hottest on record.  This week, somewhere, a man cried at his wife’s deathbed, a woman tried to quiet the cries of her hungry child, a teenager’s cheeks burned from the racial slurs falling on his ears.  This week the goodness of life was threatened as people hated and grieved and fought and hurt; and this week I decorated my Christmas tree, to declare in its evergreen branches the saving love of God that remains steadfast with us through it all.   

“This brokenness will not defeat you,” God says.  “I love you so much I will send you my son, and my son will bring you the word of hope and comfort that will mend your broken hearts.  He will teach the way of peace..”

The tree standing in my living room this year is a Frazier fir, cut fresh from a local tree farm, and it is a picture book tree, a perfect conical display of greenery, lights, and ornaments.  In other words, it is a typical Christmas tree but what looks like a typical Christmas tree to everyone else is still a novelty to me.  For most of my kids’ growing up years, our trees were cut from our property which produces scotch pine like Alfred gardens produce zucchinis.  We’d hike around our acreage eyeing the hundreds of trees for one that would fit in our living room and wasn’t too misshapen.  Every year I’d think, “This spring I’m going to prune some of these smaller pines so that they’ll grow into well-shaped trees for future Christmases,” and every spring I’d forget to prune, or I’d be too busy to prune, and so when Christmas came around again, we’d have to settle for nature’s idea of perfection instead of our own.  I’m not sure the kids ever really loved our home grown trees but I felt very sentimental about those scraggly Charlie Brown trees with their crooked trunks and spacious branches that grew quickly and freely toward the sun with no thought that one day they must hold a large box of ornaments.  In the last few years, however, my pine woods has turned into a mature pine forest and I finally had to admit that I could no longer find trees small enough to fit in my living room.  I reluctantly began buying my Christmas tree.  I have to admit that my bought tree has a few advantages over my home grown trees.  The wild scotch pine never fit as neatly into the corner of my room as my tame frasier fir does, and the pine’s branches always sported large gaps where the wire of the lights was impossible to hide.  The main difference I notice, however, since I have switched to the frasier fir is that I when I am finished decorating, I don’t have to wipe blood off of my hands. The needles of a scotch pine are sharp and preparing that wild tree for Christmas was always a dangerous task!

Which, when you think about it, (as I do, being a minister who thinks about such things) made those wild scotch pines a better symbol of Christmas than my tame soft frasier fir.  It is said that Martin Luther chose to place a tree in his home at Christmas not only to proclaim the evergreen love of God but also to remind him that the baby whose birth he celebrated would grow to a man who would be nailed to the wood of a cross; “hung on a tree to die,” the bible says, “hung on a tree to die.”  And did you know that the wreath you hang on your door to gaily cheer visitors in this season is actually a symbol of the crown of thorns shoved onto the head of Jesus by jeering Roman soldiers?  And there in our sentimental nativity scenes, we place three magi who carry not only gold and frankincense to welcome a newborn King but also myrrh, the ointment used to prepare the dead for burial, the same myrrh that one day would be carried by grieving women to the tomb of the crucified Christ.  Every Christmas, we decorate our houses not only with the symbols of Jesus’ birth, but also with the symbols of his death, because this baby would grow to be a man who gave everything for us, who died so that we might live. 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  We rejoice that God sent his son to us, and we gaze in adoration on the baby in the manger, but Christmas is not a sentimental lullaby sung over the birth of just any baby; it is our prayerful recognition that this baby would one day say to his followers, “Love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

God has given you a gift this Christmas to heal your hurting heart and to mend your tattered soul.  Take that baby in your arms and hold him; yes, sing your lullabies and marvel at the innocence of new life, but don’t leave him behind on December 26th.  Hold on to Jesus as he grows into a young man and takes you into the waters of baptism with him calling you to a life of purpose and service.  Don’t let go as he leads you among the poor, and the outcast, the friendless and the grieving, as he opens your eyes to others who hurt as you hurt, who hunger as you hunger for a peace that is deep and lasting.  Hold on to him even as he walks to the cross and dares the cruelty of the world to do its worst to him to test whether hate or love is stronger.  And then feel those hands lifting you up into new life again, in triumphant proclamation that there is nothing in the world that can keep you from the love of God.  No matter how dark the night, no matter how strong the forces arrayed against you, no matter how broken your heart, how exhausted your soul, no matter how deep your grief, you can take the hand of the one who has known your sorrow and pain intimately and yet still risen victorious from the grave.  He has walked this road before you and he will lead you to healing and peace.

This week the world churned and fought and hurt and grieved, and this week, I decorated my Christmas tree, a promise that in Christ we have been given a love that is stronger than it all, and he shall be our salvation.