This Christmas Tree Brings To Us Such Joy
The other day Tomas and I were driving somewhere when a new song came on the radio, “Centuries,” by Fallout Boy. The band began with a punk sound, but this song crosses over into a pop rock. The bravado of a young man seeking fame shapes the lyrics; as the name indicates, the song speaks to the longing to be immortalized, remembered for centuries. You can hear it in the words:
“Some legends are told, some turn to dust or to gold
But you will remember me, remember me for centuries”
Tomas and I turned up the radio because the words and beat are catchy. But it also contained a bit of shock for me. The band borrowed a riff from Suzanne Vega’s mid-80’s hit song, “Tom’s Diner.”
I was listening to a hit song with my son which featured an iconic bit of music from my own high school years. It was one of those odd moments that makes my forties seem ancient. And of course Fallout Boy’s song rang smack against the current of Suzanne Vega’s song. Where they sang of facing down fears, she spoke to the angst of an ordinary day. Where they promised “you will remember me for centuries,” she sedately sang, “I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner.” While I loved the new song, it felt strange to hear the way they used something so familiar to me as a teenager.
Of course we continually reuse musical riffs, iconic art, cultural symbols in new ways. And we’ve certainly done it with the Christmas Tree. Many theories abound as to the origin of the Christmas tree. One common idea is that ancient Germans and Norse decorated their homes with evergreens to ward off the evil eye and to bring promises of luck and good health around the solstice. But at some point the Christmas tree became a Christian symbol. Can’t you imagine some pagan who thought, “the Christians are using my solstice tree to celebrate their Jesus?”
Our Christmas Tree tradition probably does come out of some very ancient practices. Like any symbol used for a very long time, the Christmas tree can lose its meaning as it moves from sacred object to ordinary decoration. At this point, the Christmas tree has become an almost Pavlovian symbol of gifts. We see the tree, we think presents. But as I think about the tree here in our sanctuary and in our homes, I find it a powerful symbol of joy. The Christmas tree calls us to joy and teaches what it means to be joyous.
Probably since the first humans wandered into Europe’s northern forests, evergreens seemed magical. They remained green while all else seemed to die. As if possessed by a special magic, they shimmered with vibrancy on a dormant earth.
Rosemary Verey wrote my favorite gardening book, The Garden in Winter. Many gardeners design their gardens around the summertime bloom, but Verey pays attention to how plants look in wintertime because her garden lies dormant for so many months. The texture of the bark, the color of the dried foliage, the sway of dead grasses all become important elements to her. In that mix comes the evergreens, the plants who shine in the winter. Sturdy green shapes define her landscapes. She gardens on a great estate in England, I only have a small patch. But she inspired a favorite part of my garden, which looks its best now: chocolate colored dried sedum, dormant grasses turned a honey color, both set against boxwood. This spot in my garden wouldn’t work without the boxwood; the vitality of its green leaves turn it into a play of vibrancy and dormancy.
Evergreens bring beauty. But there is something else too. I don’t notice evergreens in the spring and summer. Then, it’s all about the delightful run of tulips, knockout roses, and hydrangea. But when all else dies back, I see the evergreens. I long for them, because they promise life.
These garden thoughts come to mind when I think of the Christmas tree. It beckons with beauty, promises life, speaks of the vitality which winter cannot overcome. We may face a dead end job, or a dead end marriage, finances which overwhelm, the loneliness of grief and loss, or the shock of a diagnosis; amid a season of dormancy the Christmas tree brings a sense of vibrancy.
When I relax at the end of the day, the Christmas tree reminds me God’s spirit will work in our lives to bring life even when all seems stark. The tree represents the joy which cannot be quenched.
Joy matters to our lives. And yet it’s something we don’t talk about much in church. A member of our church recently asked me to lift up more prayers of thanksgiving in my pastoral prayers. It got me thinking: I get more requests to name concerns in prayer than I do joys. I even looked back over a prayer journal Bridget and I keep; we hear more about concerns than joys. We’re more likely to be asked to pray for someone struggling with addiction then to rejoice over someone’s ten-year sobriety, more likely get a prayer request at a diagnosis then to offer thanksgiving for treatments completed. Why do we talk more about trial and tribulation than delivery and liberation? Is it midwestern humility? Or Christian seriousness? Regardless, the Christmas tree beckons us this season to embrace joy.
But here we might make a distinction between joy and happiness. It’s a bit like the difference between evergreens and summer flowers. Happiness has the flash, the bloom; it’s wonderful. But joy lasts while happiness can fade.
A pastor named Cathy Young once played out this difference between joy and happiness. Happiness comes from the root word hap, which means ‘chance’ as in happenstance. Young explained, “happiness is a mood, an emotion that changes as circumstances around us change.” She compared happiness to a thermometer - it measures the changing temperature.
Joy is something else. You can feel joy even in the midst of trying circumstances. It’s more an orientation of the soul, a perspective on life. Young called joy a thermostat - it sets our internal temperature.
I found this distinction very helpful. Happiness comes and goes; joy remains. The trees are bare, the earth dormant, but the evergreen remains joyously vibrant.
Scripture often talks about this joy which remains, this joy which sustains. We heard it in our reading from Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” At first blush, it sounds like Paul set up an impossible standard - pray every single second. But that’s not really what he meant. Instead he was speaking of joy, prayer, thanksgiving welling up as an unrestrainable action, something which completely and wholly shapes our lives.
The joy Paul wants us to cultivate in our souls is well represented by the Christmas tree. Every year there are very tired admonitions about keeping the Christ in Christmas, and dustups about saying Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, and rather joyless commentaries on the spiritual importance of the season vs. our crass culture. But I think the Bible better understood joy. Scripture does not divide spiritual joy from earthly happiness, does not imagine some split between sacred and secular. No: Jesus compared heaven to a joyful wedding celebration, God’s pleasure to a woman finding a lost treasure, the grace of God to a welcome home.
Too often religion acts as if God had a list of negatives - don’t do that, don’t enjoy this, a list of rules and regulations. But as someone once said, “holiness is nothing like a building code.” Instead of a building code, holiness is much like joy. Here’s one picture of joy I hold: a woman in her eighties lovingly crafting a pie.
It’s not just a metaphor: I’m thinking of a particular pie maker I know, a fantastic pie maker, with crusts so perfect they are what God intended every pie to be. I once took a pie making lesson from her. I couldn’t get the trick. I pushed too hard when rolling it out; I couldn’t match her well practiced hands. One recent thanksgiving this pie maker made her signature dessert: pumpkin pie, a dessert eagerly awaited by her family. All sat down with anticipation as it was cut and passed around. But on the first bite one tasted trouble - she’d forgotten to add the sugar, making it a rather earnest pumpkin pie. Her laughter at herself in that moment; holy joy.
Christmas trees remind me of such holy joy. Of course the Christmas tree has been ridiculously taken over by our culture, used to sell material goods more than to remember Jesus. But it’s joyous. And I think Jesus - whose heart was set to joy - would love it. Because joy can’t be split between heaven and earth, between holy and profane, spiritual and crass.
A friend went through a difficult year. The particulars don’t matter. We’ve all had them. Normally he doesn’t put up a tree. Too much hassle when living alone. My friend felt like the oak and maple trees we see around town. Worn down to the limbs, exposed. Yet in the midst of a hard year, he put up a tree. It reminds him of a different reality: joy can come in every season of our lives.
This is a central truth in our faith. We’ll remember it on Christmas Eve when we read again the famous words of the Gospel of John: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
It’s a central promise God makes to us. But the Gospel didn’t promise every day would be sunshine; but that holy joy could sustain us even in the midst of tragedy.
In 2011, a tsunami struck northern Japan, devastating cities and killing over 15,000 people and releasing radioactive material from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. A high school baseball team from the region survived because they were on their ballfield above the town when disaster hit. Their families lost so much - loved ones, homes, and the tools of their trades.
After the tsunami the team rallied to help in their town. They worked in a refugee center: hauling water, making food, searching.
As more help came, the team decided to continue playing in the national tournament. They had to head off to a town far from home in order to have a ballfield. Their team captain opened the ceremonies with a speech in which he noted how he and his teammates were born the same year as an earthquake which had devastated Kobe City and now they mourned the losses in their own region. Their short lives bracketed by devastating quakes.
The team didn’t make it far in the national competition but they’re the team everyone remembers from the games. Not because they won, but because they couldn’t be defeated.
The father of one of the players explained, “Our family, we lost everything. We lost three cars, two fishing boats, all the machinery to cultivate rice. Assets, they mean nothing now. But for my son, baseball still matters. Joy is more important than materials.”
Christmas trees can remind us of the same lesson - vibrancy will triumph even in our most dormant seasons. It’s a message central to our faith. Seek out a joyous life. Alleluia and Amen.