Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
If you are a historian, tracing the roots (no pun intended) of the Christmas tree can be a frustrating endeavor. On the other hand, if, like me, you are a lover of folklore, the traditions and tales about the tree are rich and bountiful. The origin of the Christmas tree may forever remain a mystery. It is commonly believed that our use of evergreens as symbols of Christmas came from the custom in Germany several centuries ago. Many traditions trace it directly to Martin Luther.
In “The Customs of Mankind,” Lillian Eichler shares one of the more popular tales. According to this tradition, Luther was “attempting to explain to his wife and children the beauty of the snow-covered forest under the glittering star-besprinkled sky. Suddenly an idea suggested itself. He went into the garden, cut off a little fir tree, dragged it into the house, put some candles on its branches and lighted them.” The tale attempts to explain the origins of both the tree and the Christmas candles. There is little doubt that German immigrants brought the custom of decorating an evergreen with candles and gifts to the United States. Along with many other customs, the tree was adopted and adapted to become an American tradition.
The meaning of the tree is widely interpreted. Some see its ever-green quality as a sign of hope. Certainly, the gifts hanging on the tree, and placed like fallen fruit beneath it, are reminders of God’s providential and gracious love. They are symbolic of God’s gift of the Christ child–an unmistakable expression of His undeserved love for the world. This symbolism is enhanced by the following folk-tale from “Christmas and Christmas Lore”:
On a stormy Christmas Eve a forester and his household had made fast the door and gathered around a cheerful fire. By and by knocking was heard from outside, and the father, opening the door, saw a little child–cold, hungry and all but exhausted. The father kindly welcomed him, warmed and fed him, and little Hans insisted on giving up his bed to the stranger. In the morning the family was awakened by the singing of a choir of angels. Looking at their unbidden guest, they saw Him transfigured for He was none other than the Christ Child. He broke off a branch from a fir tree, and set it in the earth. “See,” said He, “I have gladly received your gifts, and this is my gift to you. Henceforth this tree shall always bear its fruit at Christmas, and you shall always have abundance.”
Other legends link the Christmas tree to the Biblical Tree of Life, to the cross or to the family tree of Judaism–from Adam and Eve through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Jesse, David and Mary. Two of these “branches” are the subjects of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.
Still marveling at the news of her own pregnancy, Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Their conversation reminds me of one I heard a few years ago. A radio station in St. Louis, in cooperation with a long distance company, provided a free, 10-minute call as a Christmas gift to a listener. The young woman whose postcard was drawn decided to call her mother in sunny Arizona.
The disc jockey allowed them more than 10 minutes of private conversation before he broke in. He asked if there were any final words they wanted to share, something they could share publicly over the air. The young woman said, “I love you, Mommy!” The older woman responded, “I love you, too, baby.” That was touching enough, but then the mother continued, revealing a reason for two adult women to use the words “Mommy” and “baby.” She said, “give my love to (husband’s name) and be sure to tell me what the doctor says.” Then, suddenly, her voice changed. It was filled with youthful glee as she spoke again, obviously not to her daughter but to the disc jockey: “I’m going to be a grandma!”
I would guess that a similar youthful glee could be heard when Elizabeth talked to Mary. First of all, there must have been some mild amazement on both their parts when they discovered they were both pregnant–especially since one was too old and the other lacked the normally-necessary experience. Luke’s account of their meeting is beautiful: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.'”
Catch that phrase again: “Leaped for joy.” I love the earthy humanness of this story. There can be no doubt about the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, but the leaping little one warms my heart. Before little John ever saw a hair shirt or ate a locust lunch, he was loaded with enthusiasm.
Of course the central characters of the story are the two women. I may not be as generous as Will Rogers, but I think I can honestly say I never met a pregnant woman I didn’t like. Every one is special! These two are extra-special. A few years ago I read the results of the research someone had done on various ways wives had informed their husbands of an upcoming birth. Accounts of couples sharing the news with their parents and relatives were equally clever and touching.
One couple, whose child was due December 25, sent Christmas packages to their parents in June. Inside each package was a note: “We O U one grandchild!” These announcements excite people. One woman said she wanted to go out and shout to the world: “All is well; there is life in me!” Mary and Elizabeth had some disadvantages. On the human side, Mary’s announcement was likely met with mixed emotions. If she told the whole story, some skeptics probably said, “Sure…sure.” Elizabeth probably needed to talk to someone. She could hardly have an animated conversation with her muted husband. It makes sense that they would want to get together and share their glad tidings of great joy.
Mary and Elizabeth understood the deeper meaning of Christmas gifts. At their best they are totally other-directed, with no thought of a return, and no prerequisites. The gifts on and under our trees ought to be genuine fruits of love, reflecting the gracious gifts of God’s love to these women and to all of us.
Feddersen’s Fables has a tale about a young girl who ran away to get married. Her father was very angry and said he would never forgive her. She was sorry to have grieved him so and wrote long letters begging his forgiveness, but he never responded. By and by she had a little son. When the boy was old enough to run about on his own, she said to herself, “I will write no more letters. I will send a living letter to my father. He will know what I want to say when he sees his grandson. He will know that I still love him and want his forgiveness.”
She took the boy to his grandfather’s house and sent him in alone. Her simple instructions were to put his arms around his grandfather’s neck and kiss him. When the little fellow did this, the old man’s heart melted. He sent the boy at once for his mother and forgave her.
Paul Sherer said, “God walked down the stairs of heaven with a baby in His arms.” In contrast to the tale, the Son whose coming melts our hearts–who stretched out His arms to embrace an angry world–was sent by a Father who wants very much to forgive us! Mary was pregnant not only with a son, but with hope and expectation, joy and peace and love. It is no wonder she sought out Elizabeth so that the message could come out. We are called to be pregnant with that same message. Our trees are burdened down with undeserved gifts from our gracious God to be freely spread wherever we go.
My final story is about a church where the members sang with such enthusiasm and joy that their music was downright loud. A so-called fashionable family, who lived nearby, drew up a petition to present to the city council, citing the church for disturbing the peace. Thinking that a neighboring, very influential, Jewish man would be quick to sign, they approached him first. His reply was, “I cannot sign it. If I believed, as these Christians, that my Messiah had come, I would shout it from the housetop and on every street in this city with all the enthusiasm I could command and nobody could stop me!”
I believe that my Messiah has come. Do you believe? Do you shout it from the housetop and on every street in your city? Do you pray for and help support financially those who “shout” it in Ghana, Thailand, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan … wherever?
The Savior of the world has come and is coming. He is Jesus. He is my Savior. He is your Savior. Blessed Christmas!