Saturday, December 15, 2007

O Christmas Tree

I put up my Christmas tree the other night. It's the first tree I've had since 2002, and I wasted no time in getting the lights on and the decorations up. If you check out the posting below about the "Musical Rebels", you'll know there's been an estrangement with my kids over the past few years, so that's made Christmas a bit difficult. But thanks to the events of that weekend, I'm in the mood to celebrate, so the tree symbolizes that.

The Christmas tree symbolizes a lot of things, actually, and it's one of a number of symbols Satan has been trying to pervert in our celebration of the birth of our Lord.

Take Santa Claus. With the Christmercialization going on in our world today, you'd think Santa had supplanted Jesus as the reason for the season. In fact, some people take a cue from Dana Carvey's "Church Lady", who noted that "SANTA" and "SATAN" are anagrams. But I don't buy into that. After all, the true spirit that Santa Claus represents cannot exist satanically. When my children would ask, "Is Santa Claus real?", we’d always tell them, "The spirit he represents is real". It’s a spirit of selfless giving, of caring for children, and of believing for miracles.

But all of that exists not because Santa Claus – or the original Saint Nicholas – is a "good guy". Unless giving, is motivated by Christ – the anointing – it's invariably dictated by convenience. We’ll give so long as it’s convenient – or makes us look good. True selflessness in giving is motivated by "Christ in us": the same motivation which drags us out of bed at an unseemly hour to see someone, take someone someplace, or help in a disaster.

That motivation necessarily drives out Satan, and Satan cannot cast out Satan. So if Santa has been given a position in which he is the object of worship at this time of year, that’s our problem – not Santa’s. Same with the part of this legend that encourages parents to lie to their kids: how many children have had the trust they had in their parents shattered when they found out that all those cookie crumbs, footprints in ash in the carpet by the fireplace and "if you don't go to bed, Santa won't come", were all part of an elaborate lie?
Of course, we can change that. Santa Claus, indeed, should symbolize a mortal man whose life and deeds exemplify "Christ in us". That, I think, is really where Christian parents should go when their kids ask that inevitable question.

Another Christmas symbol under attack is the practice of saying "Merry Christmas". Some people take offense -- and get downright rude -- if someone tells them, "Merry Christmas". It’s deemed to be "exclusive" and therefore offensive to people who may not believe in Jesus. Instead, we’re encouraged to say, "Season’s Greetings" and "Happy Holidays", even though (a) aside from being the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, there’s nothing particularly special about this season over others that would require "greetings", and (b) what other "holiday", exactly, would there be which one would wish to be "happy"? So for the "inclusionists" out there, even saying those two alternatives is self-defeating.

(Some "official" functions are now referred to as "Winter Festivals", to eliminate Christian references. But the only religion I can think of which has a "Winter Festival" is paganism, so that name actually excludes a whole lot more faiths than just Christianity, thereby making it even more "exclusionary".)

But "Merry Christmas" should be for everybody, because Jesus came for everybody. If everyone were believers, He wouldn’t have needed to come to earth, right? So by saying "Merry Christmas", we’re actually wishing the blessing of the knowledge and salvation of Christ on everyone we meet, regardless – as it was with Jesus – of the current state of their faith or beliefs. (There was a time when I wasn’t really a Christian, and if it wasn’t for people wishing me "Merry Christmas", reminding me what the season was about, who’s to say whether I would have come around, myself?)

So let’s not allow our concern for other people’s opinions (John 12:42-43) to affect whether we say "Merry Christmas" as often as we want: it’s a blessing, not a secret-society password.

And then there’s the Christmas tree.

Some people sanctimoniously remind us that the tree was originally a pagan symbol, and co-opted by Christians to attract pagans to the faith. Some feel it, like Santa, has become an idol, supplanting God as an object of worship. But regardless of its origins, a symbol is what we make it and to me, the Christmas tree symbolizes what God did on that day, just over 2005 years ago.

Indeed, the Christmas tree is hardly alone as an "adopted" symbol. It's similar to St Patrick, using the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity. And the very first Canadian Christmas Carol, the hauntingly beautiful "Huron Carol", sings of the "Mighty Gitchi Manitou" sending angel choirs during the "moon of wintertime". (Or, for that matter, Larry Norman using rock 'n' roll to reach young people with the message of Jesus.)

Here's what the Christmas tree means to me. It's an evergreen: its colour never changes – just as God’s Word is eternal. (Isaiah used the image of a cedar -- an evergreen -- in Chapter 5 to describe the coming of the Messiah.) It stands, rooted to the spot, immobile, just as God Word stays planted and firm. We’re the ones who go traipsing off in all directions, following our whims and lusts of the world, and it's up to us to come back to the tree. In fact, in Ezekiel, the cedar tree is described as a place of protection (Eze. 17:23), just as we can take refuge in God’s love.

The tree reaches up to Heaven, and its branches reach out – which is what God did when He sent His son to be with us.

God couldn’t come to earth Himself. That would have done us no good: He had to take the form of a man, and stay on His own throne at the same time. And so with Jesus, He stretched forth His hand, reaching out to us. Throughout the Bible, the hand is a symbol of power, and when God stretches for His hand, you better hope it's for blessing. In the Old Testament, when God stretched for His hand, it was usually in anger. In Isaiah 5, the prophet spells out the things God intends to do to those who disobey Him, and four times (at least) he uses the sentence, "His hand is stretched out still".

But when He sent Jesus, God stretched forth His hand to bless us and empower us. And where does Jesus sit? On God's right hand. So in sending Jesus, God stretched for His right hand -- and that's as powerful as it gets.

Why do you suppose the first Apostles Jesus called were fishermen? "Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men," He told them. Simple: they understood the concept of what God was doing. Just as they stand in their own element – on land or in their boat, which represents their element – and cast their lines or their nets into another element, so, too, did God cast His net into our element (the world) while staying put in His (Heaven).

Jesus is the bait: He came to earth and showed us things that we could do with the power He brought us; we wanted that same power, and are drawn to Him, because He was and is the only way to achieve that power.
So in casting His net, God was stretching forth His hand.

Isaiah also prophesies, "The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand: that I will break the Assyrian in My land, and upon My mountains tread him underfoot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders. This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth: and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations. For the Lord of Hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? And His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?" (Is. 14:24-27).

That passage is not only refers to the destruction of the Assyrians, but foretells the Messiah’s coming, where Isaiah writes that the purpose of lifting the yoke of the enemy and the enemy’s burden departing from the shoulders of God’s people is His purpose for the whole earth. Once again, there’s that hand, stretched out: a prophecy that God’s hand won’t always be stretched forth in wrath.

Interestingly, the expression, "stretching forth (the) hand" also turns up when God mocks mankind. As God tosses Adam and Eve out of Eden, He says, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken." (Gen. 3:22-23). God could stretch forth His hand, but Adam couldn’t.

But while the stretching out of the hand was invariably done in anger through the Old Testament, with the arrival of Jesus, it became a whole new ballgame. God stretched out His hand, but it was in love, and the same power God used to destroy in the Old Testament was now to be passed on to us in Christ.

The Greeks have a word for it: dunamis. It’s the same word which gives us "dynamite", "dynamic", "dynamo" and so forth, and it signifies an explosive power, a burst of energy with the force to change things, to alter situations, to turn whole lives around on a dime. That power brings miraculous healing, both physically and spiritually, and with that power, things that seem impossible to us become not just possible but probable with God (Matt. 19:26).

That power is only available to us through Jesus Christ. There are counterfeits, and plenty of belief systems which deny its very existence, but ask anyone who’s experienced the awesome "turnaround" which happens when they receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and when they put their lives into His hands.

Scientists say that we humans use only about 10% of our brain-power, and many muse about what we could do if we were able to unlock the other 90%. We actually use only a tiny fraction of the spiritual power God has given us in Christ, and are only starting to awaken to the possibility that we have phenomenally more power available to us. The enemy would prefer we didn’t know about that. That’s why he connived to steal the power God had initially given Adam. Adam didn’t understand what he had: the enemy did.

That power that Adam craved – the power from the fruit of the tree of life, including eternal life (Adam would probably have denied it to the hilt, but God knows all, and if He said the tree of life would have been the next thing Adam and Eve would have reached for, you could take that to the bank) – is back within our reach. But it’s not completely ours for the taking. We can only get it through Jesus – the result of God’s stretching forth His hand in a new attitude of love and reconciliation.

And that is what the Christmas tree symbolizes to me: God stretching forth His mighty hand in love and reconciliation and giving us the power to be what He wants us to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment