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December 2022 - O Christmas Tree

This article was originally preached as a midweek Advent sermon on December 9, 2009. It seems good to share this again as we anticipate the Christmas celebration of our Savior’s birth.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!
Not only green in summer’s heat,
But also winter’s snow and sleet.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches!

Here in America, perhaps the chief symbol of the Christmas season is the Christmas tree. Whether that tree is freshly cut or artificial, with its evergreen branches, glowing lights, and beautiful decorations, the Christmas tree is a thing of beauty and joy, conjuring up deep-seated childhood memories. For many children, the Christmas tree is real and alive. They talk to it and sit under it because it is a special place; even a holy place. Children are much better at understanding this than adults.

If we look at Scripture in the first and last books of the Bible (see Genesis 2:15-17, 3:22-24 and Revelation 22:1-5), we are reminded of the importance of trees in God’s plan of salvation. In the first book of Scripture from Genesis, our first parents, Adam and Eve, having abused God’s gift of freedom in eating the forbidden fruit from a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – brought sin into the world. We still feel the effects of this original sin in our own lives today. But God is gracious and merciful, and prevented Adam and Eve from perpetuating that sin for all eternity by banishing them from the Garden of Eden so that they would not eat of the tree of life and live forever. In the final book of Scripture from Revelation, John sees in his heavenly vision that tree of life “with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). These bookends of Scripture remind us of God’s providential care not just for people, but for all of his creation – even trees.

The origins of our modern-day Christmas trees are shadowy and uncertain at best. The evergreen is firmly rooted in pre-Christian traditions, which have come down to us today. In the medieval miracle plays which were presented inside or outside of churches on the day before Christmas, December 24 was known as “Adam and Eve’s Day.” The miracle play depicted the events of the Garden of Eden, with a “Paradise tree,” an evergreen tree decorated with apples. This was the only prop in the play; a bare platform with that decorated tree standing alone on the stage. This surely must have left a lasting impression on people, associating the evergreen tree with Christmas – something which remains with us to this day. Tradition tells us that Martin Luther introduced the first indoor Christmas tree. It is said that Luther, returning home on a wintry December night, stopped and marveled at the beauty of the evergreen trees covered in snow. He was so struck with this that he cut a small tree, brought it into his own home, and decorated it for his family’s celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. From Europe, the tradition of the Christmas tree has come to us, pointing us back to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and pointing us ahead to God’s creation redeemed and restored through Christ with the tree of life. And the bridge between these two trees is the tree of the cross on which the Lord of life suffered and died for us and for our salvation.

For some – perhaps many – the Christmas tree is no longer a Christmas tree, but a holiday tree. The religious truth of this holy day has been reduced to a generic winter holiday. The birth of Jesus as the central meaning of Christmas is not observed by many, and yet the tree remains – a silent witness of God’s gracious and loving plan of salvation for all mankind in the gift of his Son. In the commercialized, politically correct world that we live in today, how do we as believers reclaim the Christ-centered tradition of the Christmas tree that is so engrained in our culture? Perhaps it begins with something as simple as a prayer – simple, and yet profound. As we put up our Christmas trees and decorate them, gather your family members, friends, and loved ones together around that beautifully decorated tree and offer this prayer:

God of Adam and Eve, God of all our ancestors, we praise you for this Christmas tree. It stirs in us a memory of paradise, and it brings us a glimpse of heaven. Send your Son Jesus, the shoot from the root of Jesse, to restore your good earth to the freshness of Eden. On the day of his coming, every tree of the forest will clap its hands in joy, and all creation will bless you from these shining branches: Glory in heaven and peace on earth, both now and forever. Amen.  (“Welcome Yule!” Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 1996)

 

A blessed Christmas to you in Christ Jesus our Savior.