December 20, 2009

The Christmas Tree

Christians know that many of the “traditions” we celebrate seem to have been “borrowed” from secular celebrations. However, what if the reverse were true? What if the pagan peoples of the world warped the symbolism God intended? Then instead of borrowing from them, they have robbed us of that which was intended to glorify God.

For instance, some say Christmas trees have their origins in the ancient celebrations of Saturnalia, mostly a time of wild revelry. The Romans decorated their temples with greenery and candles. Also, the Roman soldiers who conquered the British Isles found Druids who worshiped mistletoe and Saxons who used holly and ivy in religious ceremonies. All those things found their way into Christmas customs.

However, in the early 1500s, a man named Martin Luther  introduced the practice of putting candles on trees to celebrate Christmas. Luther was the father of the Protestant Reformation (protesting corrupt church practices and restoring more biblical faith and practices). Instead of copying the pagans, he said that Isaiah 60:13 was the biblical reason for this idea.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the pine, and the box tree together, to beautify the place of My sanctuary; and I will make the place of My feet glorious. (Isaiah 60:13)
Luther may have taken this passage out of context. However, sometimes when we ask God for direction, He gives us verses out of context, not so that we abuse a proper exegesis, but so we can see what He is like and how He thinks.

From that verse, Luther could have heard God say that the trees He created can be used to beautify places where we worship Him. If our homes at Christmas are places of worship, then the use of a tree could be a fitting symbol of that.

The danger of using any kind of object or icon as part of worship is that as sinful human beings, we tend to turn our focus from Whom the object represents or reminds us of, and begin to venerate the object. The Christmas tree might be glorious (and some of them are), and the place of worship may be beautiful, but the One we worship cannot be pushed from the scene.

Most of the people who put up a Christmas tree do it as a heart-warming ritual. The glory of a God-created tree has even been reduced to plastic instead of pine. (Actually, I’ve no problem with that. Even though real trees smell wonderful, an artificial tree has some practical merit.)

The issue is not the tree anyway. For me, it is what I think about when I see one. Does my heart turn toward the One spoken of by Isaiah? He talked about making the place of His feet glorious. Here is what the Bible says of Jesus:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.  (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
One day Jesus will reign and all things will be put under His feet. Isaiah says the place of His feet will also be glorious.

So when I look at a Christmas tree, I can be reminded that the Christ who came as a babe will eventually rule as King of Kings, and that those who are under His feet and submitted to Him will share in His glory. That makes a Christmas tree far more than a decoration during the holidays. It is also a reminder to worship the Lord of glory!

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