Growing up in Kerala, an Indian state with a substantial Christian population, Christmas was a special time of the year. Preparations would begin weeks in advance. Most homes in my neighbourhood would hang a star and make a nativity scene. There would also be Christmas tree, adorned with lights and glitter.
Now as I revisit those days, I can’t help but wonder - how did a decked up tree end up becoming part of the Christmas tradition?
Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remain green all year had a special meaning for people. In the Northern hemisphere, people believed that the sun fell ‘sick’ during winter and recovered its ‘health’ during spring. So as winter set in, people held festive dances around trees that defied the cold and stayed green, hoping for the sunny days to be back again. This practice crept into the church when Europe became Christian with new meanings and symbolisms. So even though trees have nothing to with Christmas, this tradition has stayed on to this day.
But if we look into the Bible we can in fact find three trees that do have a connection with the first Christmas night.
To meet our first tree we need to go back to the start, to the garden of Eden. God created the first man Adam in his own image. Together with Eve, he was given authority over all of God’s creation and was commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Right in the middle of the garden God planted a tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, from which he forbade them to eat. Adam and Eve had a choice - they could trust God and obey him or they could play god and decide for themselves. When they chose to eat of the fruit, they declared independence from the good reign of God.
Ever since that fateful day, the human race has spiraled down into the depths of perversion and selfishness. The first tree wrecked havoc!
God’s image in man was now tarnished forever and he became separated from his Creator. As the sin of man grew darker, the heart of God grew heavier. He continued to speak to his own chosen people, the Israelites, through his prophets but they failed to listen. The heart of the human problem was the problem of the human heart. God knew it was time to step in. You see, Christmas was never God’s afterthought; it was his plan all through.
The little baby Jesus born in Bethlehem was the infinite, immortal, almighty, eternal God entering our little world.
While on earth, Jesus was an obedient son, a hard working carpenter, an erudite teacher, a miraculous healer, a faithful friend. He showed us what it meant to live a life reflecting the image of God. But above all, Jesus was born to die. His death on a cross was God’s way of undoing the curse of the first tree. As apostle Paul writes later, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’.” The second tree, the one on the cross, opened a new way for us to be restored to God!
But has Jesus dying on the cross solved the problem of evil? It seems that evil continues to remain unchallenged. Corruption, wars, crimes and hatred are ever on the rise. Despite all this bad news, the story of Christmas offers us hope.
If God sent his Son to die for us, it means that he is not done with humanity yet! He is still at work - through his faithful. God today empowers his church to be the salt and light in a dark and decaying world.
God is patiently setting the stage for the grand finale. The book of Revelation gives us a sneak peek into the glorious future. It is a time when heaven and earth will become one. God will finally judge evil and remove it forever. There will be no more sorrows, no more pain, no more death nor fear. He will live with his children forever. God will restore all of creation and right in the centre of this new world will be a tree - the tree of life! This third tree represents the endless and abundant life that God offers his children.
So as we celebrate Christmas, it’s worth reflecting on these three trees - one tree that brought death, one that brought redemption and one that represents life eternal. Only the tree of the cross can lead us to the tree of life.
May not the gifts, the cakes and a lit up Christmas tree take centre stage this season (and for goodness sake not Santa!), but may we like those wise men bow down and worship the King of kings, patiently looking forward to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.