In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…
– John 1:1-18
My own cultural heritage is Swedish and German, and both sides of my family would want to lay claim on why we use greenery to decorate the monastery chapel in Christmastide, and why you probably have some Christmas greenery or a Christmas tree in your own home or apartment. The Christmas tree as we know it originated in the Middle Ages in what is now western Germany. The Christmas tree’s popularity grew out of a medieval play about Adam and Eve, the main prop being an evergreen tree called a “Paradise Tree,” decorated with apples. (Green and red. I’ll say more about that.) The notion of a “Paradise Tree” came from the Book of Revelation where we read of “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”[i] Paradise Trees symbolized hope for a restoration of the innocence of the garden of Eden. In time the Germanic people set up these “Paradise Trees” in their own homes on December 24th, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. The Germans had borrowed this symbol for the Paradise Tree from the ancient Scandinavians who – many centuries before they had been introduced to Christianity – worshipped the gods of the trees.
These northern Europeans, when they came under Christian influence, began to hang wafers on their Christmas trees, the wafers symbolizing the consecrated Communion bread from the altar. Why? Because the Communion wafers are a Christian sign of salvation and redemption, the hope of the old being made new… new in that we have a new baby, Jesus, our Savior. New, also, because in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice would be just passing. The days would be longer rather than shorter. New light, and more of it. In time, two things happened to these Christmas wafers: on the Christmas tree, the wafers were replaced by Christmas ornaments. (The English word “ornament” comes from the Latin ornare, to adore, and adorare, to pray. Ornament – to adore, to pray, like in our Christmas carol, “Oh come let us adore him…” Ornament.) The Christmas ornaments replaced the wafers on the tree, and the wafers – which originally came from the altar and were always meant to be eaten – eventually came from the kitchen as Christmas cookies. Now back to the Christmas tree. Candles were added to the Christmas tree as the symbol of Christ. As we hear in the Gospel lesson appointed for this morning, Christ is the light of the world.[ii] (Candles were eventually converted into lights, not because of tradition but through the prudent influence of the fire department.)
Two sets of colors came to symbolize Christmas. There is the color white, which symbolizes purity, innocence, and light, all pointing to the newborn Christ child and the Blessed Virgin Mary. And then there is this combination of green and red. The color green is about what is new, fresh, alive – the coming of Jesus. The evergreen came to symbolize what would be eventually green, the coming of spring. And the green with red – like with apples on the original Paradise Tree, and holly, with its thorny points and red berries – the red is blood red. The green with red became a symbol for the newborn Christ child, who would eventually be crowned with thorns (as sharp as holly!) and hung on a cross, shedding his blood for us. Poinsettias(either green and red, or white) have bright, star-like flowers, a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. And green mistletoe, which in pre-Christian times was thought to have healing powers, also became associated with the Christ child: the name “Christ” coming from the Greek, cristos, which means “the anointed one,” anointing, which is associated with healing ointment. The Christ child comes to heal us, symbolized by the anointing qualities of mistletoe. (You may have forgotten that mistletoe heals, but that’s why there’s the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, wishing one another well.)
There is so much tradition surrounding our Christmas celebrations, and it all comes from somewhere, and it is all important to us. Tradition helps us interpret the past, gives us a grounding and meaning for the present, and gives us hope for the future. Tradition also connects us with our surrounding world. So many of the Christmastide traditions we practice have their origins in pre-Christian times. Down through the centuries, Christianity has baptized many ancient religious and cultural traditions, reinterpreting them through Christian eyes and through the Christian experience… which is something we do and don’t share with the rest of the world. With the rest of the world we do share a reverence for religious tradition. But we don’t share the significance of our Christmas traditions with most of the world. Most of the world does not celebrate Christmastide. Only about one third of our world today calls itself Christian (ranging from Mennonites to the Russian Orthodox, and everything in between). Twenty-five percent of the world’s population today considers itself Muslim (also with great diversity); fifteen percent are Hindu; 0.7% Jewish; and then there are Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, and animists and practitioners of native religions, and many more…. All of these varied religions have their own revered traditions which are deeply valued and used to interpret the past, to give a grounding and meaning for the present, and to give hope for their future.
The vast majority of the citizens of the world need and seek much the same in life: to have clean water and adequate food; to belong to a place called home and to be loved; to know freedom from fear and oppression, to be well and to have hope for a better future. Where our traditions most strongly differ is in the name we respectively give to the creator of life; we differ in our understandings of the end for which this life has been created; we differ in how we worship and serve this ultimate reality in our lives; we differ in where we find the traces of authority for this ultimate source and end of life – the authority we derive from our various words and actions and symbols. Where we most differ, one with another around this world, is in our religious traditions: what we live and die for.
How do we as Christians face this diverse world, which God so loves? Two words come to mind: humility and hesitation. We remember humility in Jesus’ lowly birth as the babe of Bethlehem. And Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks as an adult of how we should enter his coming kingdom.[iii] He says to enter “as a little child.[iv] Those who exalt themselves, he says, shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.[v]To be humble is to be well grounded in our own tradition, but simultaneously to recognize we share the world with such a diverse panoply of other people, all created in the image of God and each with their own patterns, with their own traditions. A humble posture in life keeps us in our rightful place while giving others their own place on this earth.
Secondly, the practice of hesitation. Simone Weil, the French Christian mystic, a century ago extolled the virtue of “hesitation” in our relationship with others.[vi] We recognize their dignity, she said, “in the degree that we pause to look and to hear before we impose solutions, interpretations, condemnations, or whatever.”Her contemporary, the great English Jesuit, Cyril Martindale, said “one approaches these souls with infinite respect, affection, slow study, self-distrust, and, more than all else, prayer …”[vii]
The various peoples who populate our world – including the two-thirds who are not Christian – do have their own traditions which they reverence, which they will say – many of them will say – come from the revelation of the God whom they know. Our traditions are as familiar as they are foreign, one to another. Look upon the world with eyes of amazement, so diverse in its various traditions, and so longing for so much the same, all created by a God whom we as Christians know as love. Look on the world, with such splendid diversity, as a manifestation of God’s resplendent glory and populated by God’s children. Your practice of humility and hesitation will make space for the gift of God’s love to generously teem from your own heart, especially towards those whose traditions may seem least like our own. We have so much to learn from so many in our world, and we have so much to love.
[i] Revelation 22:2.
[ii] John 1:4.
[iii] The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” “near the ground,” from the Latin, humus, the earth.
[iv] See Mark 10:15f. See also Mark 12:38f, Luke 1:48, Luke 14:11.
[v] Luke 18:9-14.
[vi] Simone Weil (1909-1943), author of Gravity and Grace and other works.
[vii]Philip Caraman inC. C. Martindale, A Biography (Longmans, 1967).
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