We brought our Christmas tree home this last week and set it in the large bay window in the family room. I poured hot water into the trunk’s basin, and stood back to look. The tree tilted, but I thought it would be fine once it was decorated. I opened boxes of last year’s decorations, and pulled out the mini-light string, trying to recall how it was that I had twirled them through the branches. Slowly, with the help of a ladder, I began at the top and laced the tree with the lights, moving the ladder in a circle. I plugged the two prongs of the cord into the wall socket.
I stood back and gazed at the colored lights, now lit, seeming so delicate against the heavy fir. The lights would shine brighter in the dark, I thought. They would light up the dark.
I pulled from another box a green and silver garland which was today’s version of the tinsel I painstakingly hung as a child. My mother would dole single strands of silver tinsel to my sister and me, and we would choose a spot to let it dangle like an icicle. One strand at a time. It seemed to take forever, I recall, but by the end of the tinsel hanging ceremony we and the tree were one.
Today’s garland that replaced the tinsel was much easier to handle, and again I circled the tree, moving the ladder and laying the long band of green and sparkles gently the bed of fragrant needles. I found the Styrofoam star from an old Christmas pageant – one we had covered with glittery paper and ribbon – and placed it gently at the top.
I stood back and gazed at the lights and the garland. So far so good. The rest of the decorations would be hung on Christmas Eve by the grandchildren.
The decoration of the Christmas tree, or trimming the tree as it was once called, marks the passage of time in our family. I think of other trees and other lights and other garlands. This year I had just finished writing our Christmas cards, and the names and faces lingered as I layered the lights through the greens. Babies had been born, elderly friends had died. Some of the names were new, some changed due to marriage or divorce. Children had graduated, gone to college, left home. Each name was a light on the tree, on its own journey. My list of names was ever-changing, forming new garlands weaving through my life. But the names that were removed from the list – those who had passed on to the next life, remained in my heart, enriching my memory as they had enriched my own passage through time. And with joy I added new names, babies born to these blessed friends and family.
The Christmas tree is the tree of life, an ancient evergreen symbol of Christ and his body. Christ is the star shining on top. He is the vine and we are the branches. It is a holy wood from the Tree of Life in Eden and a holy wood from the cross on Golgotha. The roots run deep. Life pulses through the greens.
And so Christmas is just such a celebration of life, new life today, new life to come in Heaven, for, of course, the greatest gift of life is the birth the holy child in Bethlehem, who will come to us in the Eucharist, and who will come to us in the future to judge the living and the dead. And as he gives himself to us, so we give to each other at Christmas. We light candles to light the dark, as God lights the darkness of our world, now in the dead of winter.
Advent. The advent of Our Lord among us. In church today the children told the great story of his coming. They processed slowly down the red-carpeted aisle and took their places to sing carols and read lessons. They told the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and the need for a Savior. They told of the prophesies of the coming Messiah. They told of Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear this child whom she would call Jesus, and of Joseph, and of the shepherds and the angels. As the last shepherd stepped slowly up the aisle to join the living crèche, the youngest babies, Izzy (six months) and Luisa (seventeen days), followed, cradled by grateful women. It was a joyous moment, a time when all the children and parents and congregation joined together to praise God for his great gifts, his gift of himself, and his gift of these children to us.
And soon we received him in the bread and wine, kneeling before the high altar, uniting, aged seventeen days to ninety-five years.
Incarnation. Birth. Eucharist. Miracles among us. Christmas!