Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior whose birth we celebrate this night, Jesus Christ. Amen.
They’re Christmas trees. Not Hanukah trees. Not Kwanzaa trees. Not Ramadan trees. And certainly not “holiday trees” or “winter festival trees”, as the politically-correct, dare-not-give-offense crowd seems determined to re-name them. No, they are Christmas trees. Trees for Christ’s Mass, a vital, green symbol of life and hope amidst the seemingly lifeless brown landscape of winter.
Brightly lit and joyously decorated, they bring excitement and warmth into whatever setting we find them. Beneath them, we pile treasures and trinkets, hoping to leave or find some measure of temporary happiness in giving or receiving the fruits of worldly labors. It’s often a family ritual to decorate them in a certain unique way.
But after a few weeks, your cat or your toddler has batted a few of the delicate ornaments into fragments on the floor. In holiday fatigue you don’t even bother to plug it in every night. At that point, the tree has served its purpose, and it’s time for it to go. Out to the trash, or into the fireplace, or perhaps back into its box to be stashed in the attic or garage for another year.
As beautiful as that Christmas tree might have been, it’s not something that lasts forever. If it’s a real tree, it’ll dry up, turn brown, and drop its needles all over your floor. If it’s artificial, it’ll eventually bend, or break, or rust. It’s flawed, not perfect. No matter how much effort you put into maintaining it, that tree isn’t eternal. It’s a common, ordinary, perishable thing.
Trees are a common item throughout the Bible, too. They are mentioned frequently—from the creation story in Genesis right on through St. John’s description of his heavenly vision in the book of Revelation. Trees and wood, branches and roots, buds and leaves, fruit and seeds—they’re everywhere in Scripture. God has made His word a virtual forest, a lush landscape of trees that both literally and symbolically help us understand what He would have us know about Him, and His plans for us. Some of these real or symbolic trees we know well. Others are more obscure, but nevertheless are still important in conveying His word to us.
From the very beginning, trees were an important part of God’s creation and His intended dwelling place for mankind. They are so important that He gave our first human parents a garden paradise, a wooded grove in which He placed that man and woman, the crown of His creation. The garden was perfect; it was all they would need to live in comfort and in close fellowship with their Creator. And in the very middle of this paradise, this heaven-on-earth, God placed a couple of even more important trees. The Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And He gave our ancestors simple but critical instructions about them.
Yet because the devil constantly looks for opportunities to disrupt God’s plans, and because we as men and women, boys and girls constantly look for ways to make ourselves more important and more God-like than we ought, a tragic meeting took place near the trees. A meeting that brought sin. A meeting that caused pain. A meeting that initiated death.
The sin at the one tree required banishment from the other. Alienation from God meant separation from the Tree of Life. Eviction from paradise. A life of ongoing struggle and frequent torment—for Adam, for Eve, and for all their offspring to come.
That tree and that garden were later washed away in the torrents of a flood that temporarily cleansed the earth of mankind’s corruption. Even through that destruction, though, God preserved a remnant of humanity, a branch of Adam’s family tree—Noah and his offspring. He saved those eight people from a watery grave, lifting them up in a vessel fashioned from the wood of trees. Generations later, by a grove of oak trees, the Lord promised Abraham that his family tree would be preserved through the birth of a son. Upon an altar of wood, that promised son, Isaac, was spared from death by God’s provision of a substitute sacrifice, a ram caught by its horns in a shrub.
Branch after branch of that family tree would sprout and grow, blossom and die, without yielding much in the way of a good crop of fruit for God, the Creator and Gardener. Fires and droughts and pestilences of sin attacked this family tree, which withered its leaves and dried out its shoots. Yet through it all, God preserved it. He nourished and pruned and watered it with just what it needed to continue to live.
And, in the proper season, from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David, a shoot came forth. A new tree of life, a branch that would bear much fruit, began to grow. The seed of a woman, spoken into germination by the Word of God, sprouted in the fertile soil of a virgin’s womb. That seed which was at enmity with all things evil grew. It grew so that God might fulfill the promise He made back in the garden, when the old tree of life was taken away because in our human weakness we could not properly tend it.
And when that shoot, that branch, that new tree of life could no longer be contained in that seed bed, God Incarnate burst forth as the fruit of Mary’s womb. The carpenter’s wife became the Savior’s mother, and she laid Him in another vessel fashioned from the wood of trees. There He lay—the Bread of Life on a bed of animal feed.
You know well the angel part of this story, and you know well the shepherd part of this story. We have already sung of these things, and we will sing of them more shortly. And it is meet, right, and salutary that we should sing thusly, for the announcement and the spreading of the news about the birth of the Savior is an essential part of all Christmases. Now, you may think that I’ve carried the tree theme and its imagery far enough already. Maybe for you, I’ve reached the point of belaboring it. And, I’ll admit that every analogy has its limits.
But you know that there’s a bit more ground to cover yet. There are a few more tree references necessary to round out the story. A couple of scripture verses about trees that didn’t make it into our readings this Christmas Eve. From Galatians 3:13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
Likewise, from 1 Peter 2:24:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness;
This shoot from the stump of Jesse, this fruit-bearing Branch who became the new tree of life, He took the curse of your sin to the tree of death, the cross. And as marvelous and mysterious and wonderful as it is to celebrate this night the birth of God incarnate, the baby of Bethlehem, how marvelous and mysterious and wonderful it is also that we always remember that this same God became the cursed one of Calvary.
He is the One who died for us and for all mankind upon that tree, and in His death we are made new. It is in our drowning of our Old Adam in the font we are made God’s children, baptized into Christ and thus into His death. Those who ate from the wrong tree in the garden are redeemed by Him who died on the right tree on the hilltop.
One of the liturgies for Holy Communion for the season of Lent reads in part, paraphrased:
On the tree of the cross you gave salvation to mankind that, [from where] death arose, [from there] life might also rise again and that he who by a tree once overcame likewise by a tree might be overcome…
We often complain that God doesn’t fix what we want, when we want. But He does fix what’s truly important, forever.
You might find it interesting that there’s an old but unsubstantiated tradition in the Christian Church that Jesus was crucified on the very spot where the Tree of Life grew in the original Garden of Eden. Now, that’s an intriguing thought, and of course we have no way of knowing for sure one way or another until we get to heaven. Regardless of the exact locations of those trees, though, we do know with absolute certainty something very important that connects them. Satan once overcame mankind by tempting our first parents into sin and their deaths at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the evil tempter has in fact been overcome by the death of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, just as God promised to the first Adam and his mate. Their offspring, Our Savior, took the curse of their sin and yours upon Himself on that bloody tree outside Jerusalem, and an instrument of death became the tree of salvation. The evil serpent’s head was crushed for all time.
As you partake of all the blessings of our Lord’s birth, then, by all means enjoy the lush, green beauty of your pines and firs and spruces, whether they’re real or they’re artificial. But when the needles have fallen, when the tinsel and lights and ornaments and stars and angels are packed away for another year, when all your furniture is back in its normal place, gaze with awe and wonder and thanks at the Christmas tree which endures forever—the tree on Calvary.
Upon those rough-hewn beams hung an infinitely more precious treasure than anything you found under your tree this year, or any other year: The very life of the eternal Son of God, laid down for you. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s a lasting gift , one given in love beyond all comprehension.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and on earth, peace, goodwill to you, whom God has reconciled to Himself through the Babe of Bethlehem. Amen.