I'm sitting here looking at the Christmas tree in our room, a 7-foot Noble Fir, still aromatic and alive, glistening with lights and glittery ornaments. Part forest and part carnival, a natural and cultural creation, it stands as a shy but stately symbol of so much more than just holiday cheer. Its triangular, evergreen shape and prickly, shedding branches tell a much bigger story. Trees are significant in the story God is telling in this world. It's a story that begins and ends with a "Tree of Life." It shows up in Eden (Gen. 2:9) in the beginning and then in New Jerusalem in the end (Rev. 22:14,19). Paradise lost and Paradise found.
In many ways the story of the Bible, and the meaning of the Christian gospel, is bound up within this narrative. What can restore Paradise? What can allow humanity to enter into that perfect presence with God again, symbolized in this mysterious "Tree of Life"?
Turns out the answer was a tree of death.
In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross, those banned from the garden can now return. Separated from the "Tree of Life" presence of God since Adam and Eve's original sin, humans now have access again, through Christ.
Like the healthy Noble Fir sitting across from me in my living room now, Jesus Christ was cut down in the prime of his life, for me. For us. The cross of Christ, doubtless made of wood formed from some other cut-down trees, was a tree of death that held the Tree of Life.
Our Christmas trees are icons of it: trees of death that point to the Tree of Life. In their evergreen nature, they point to the resilience of hope. When all else dies or is dying, the evergreen bears the mark of something alive. As "O Christmas Tree" reminds us: In beauty green will always grow, Through summer sun and winter snow. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are your branches!
Trees are harbingers of hope. When they're cut down or destroyed in fires, a new forest is never far behind. In their Oxygen production they (literally) breathe life into this world. And while they may seemingly die, losing leaves or branches, shriveling in drought or uprooted by storms, their scattered seeds proclaim resurrection hope: they will rise again.
But the tension of the hope of trees is that they are gone for a time. In the Jerusalem tomb, Jesus was gone for a time between death and life. A time of great mourning and anguish for his friends, family and followers. In a sense he is gone now too. Gone from this earth in between his first and second comings. Advent is about celebrating the first advent and waiting, hoping, believing in the second.
Like the Christmas trees that are in our living rooms just for a time and then gone, the presence of Jesus can feel painfully intermittent. We feel him strongly one moment, and then he's gone. Sometimes it's hard to believe he was ever here. Like the long-gone Christmas tree that may leave needles on a dirty carpet or exist in the backgrounds of family photos, there are subtle hints and spectral evidences that Jesus walked this earth. In the Holy Spirit he resides in believers all the time, of course, but that can be hard to feel sometimes. Sometimes it's full, bright, aromatic and glowing, like the tree in our living room. Other times it feels like the dirty needles and crunchy curbside greenery of Christmas's aftermath.
This is the melancholy and tension of Advent. It's captured beautifully in the new film Christmas, Again, about a lonely man who works the night shift at a Christmas tree lot in New York City. It's a film about the Christmas tree as a symbol of the ephemerality of love and the tenuous nature of hope. It's also a film about the intersection of darkness (night) and light (day), past and future, brokenness and healing. Though ostensibly secular, it's an Advent meditation if I ever saw one.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,Your beauty green will teach meThat hope and love will ever beThe way to joy and peace for me.
Indeed, there is much to learn from these Christmas trees of life. They reverently point the way heavenward even as their branches give thanks for the pleasures of this life. In their here-and-gone ephemerality they teach us the tension of the now-and-not-yet. Like the Savior over whose birth they hold vigil, they bring life and hope through their life, and death.