CHRISTMAS TREES ARE EVERYWHERE: in homes and churches, parks and stores, offices and government buildings. In an age when people have fought to keep crèches in (or out of) public spaces, few seem to have challenged the presence of Christmas trees in those same venues. After all, the crèche is “religious” and the tree is not.
As to its origin, that statement is true. The decorated trees introduced in Estonia and Latvia in the fifteenth century had no Christian significance. They were the focus for revelry: people sang and danced around the tree much as the English did around the maypole. The first decorations were tidbits – fruit, nuts, paper flowers – which the children were given on Christmas Day. In Germany and other European countries where a non-liturgical Protestantism was dominant, there was little in the way of religious customs on the holiday. The Christmas tree, which spread from Germany into western Europe and eventually throughout the world, was more a symbol of holiday cheer than a commemoration of the nativity of Christ.
The Tree of Life
What opponents of Christian Christmas symbols do not realize, however, is that the tree was a symbol of Christ long before the Germans introduced it into their holiday observances. Furthermore, it a more richly symbolic presentation of our faith in Christ than the merely historic picture painted in crèches. It not only says that Christ has come; it proclaims what His coming means for us.
During the last week of the Nativity Fast, a kind of “holy week” observed before Christmas in the Christian East, we sing the following troparion at every service:
Bethlehem, make ready for Eden has been opened for all. Ephrata, be alert for the Tree of Life has blossomed for from the Virgin in the cave. Her womb had become a spiritual Paradise, wherein the divine Fruit was planted – and if we eat of it we shall live and not die like Adam. Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.
Like much of our liturgical hymnody, this troparion incorporates a theme drawn from the writings of the Church Fathers. We find its imagery in the Commentary on Proverbs of the third-century Father, St Hippolytus of Rome:
“The Fruit of righteousness and the Tree of Life is Christ. He alone, as man, fulfilled all righteousness. And with His own underived life He has brought forth the fruits of knowledge and virtue like a tree, whereof they that eat shall receive eternal life, and shall enjoy the tree of life in paradise, with Adam and all the righteous.”
The hymn is built upon a pair of images taken from the Scriptures. In the story of creation in Genesis the Tree of Life was the giver of immortality from which fallen man could not be allowed to eat (see Gen 3:22). Were he to do so, Genesis suggests, sin would live forever. For us, however, Christ is the source of our immortality. He is the Tree of Life and, sinners through we are, we are called to eat of this Tree and live forever.
We also find the Tree of Life in the last chapter of Revelation, the last chapter of the Bible. There the Tree is in the center of the New Jerusalem, the ultimate Paradise. For St Augustine and other Fathers, “Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the Canticles…the Tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ…” (St Augustine The City of God). Christ, at the heart of the Church, gives us life through the Holy Spirit who works in the Church.
In the troparion Christ is also called the Fruit of this Tree planted in the spiritual paradise of the Virgin’s womb. This brings us to the Gospel story of Christ’s conception where Mary’s cousin Elizabeth proclaims – with countless generations after her – “Blessed is the Fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:42)
Restoring the Likeness
Finally the troparion returns to the imagery in Genesis to give us the spiritual purpose of Christ’s incarnation. “Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.” Many Fathers saw in Gen 1:26 a key to understanding the mystery of our existence. There God resolves, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” They saw in the word image the range of qualities that set us apart from the lower creation: a resemblance to God in our nature. This remained in us after the fall, although in a damaged or scarred way. In the term likeness they saw the resemblance to God by our behavior, which had been lost through sin. We may still look somewhat like God (the image in us) but we surely don’t act like Him.
In His own person Christ is the perfect likeness to God. “He who sees me sees the Father,” we read in Jn 14:9. He is the new Adam, who starts humanity anew in Himself and gives us a share in His renewed nature. In His incarnation He assumed our human nature so that we might share in His divine likeness. In the words of the patristic adage, “God became man so that man might become God.”
If they knew the Christmas tree as the symbol of Christ, the Tree of Life, secularists might happily welcome the mangers and cribs and shepherds and animals of the creche in the public sector and strive to banish Christmas trees instead!
Vespers sticheron: Come, let us rejoice in the Lord! Let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld: now shall the Cherubim let us all come to the Tree of Life. As for me, I am returning to the bliss of Paradise whence I had been driven by the original disobedience. Behold, the Image of the Father and His immutable Eternity has taken the form of a servant! He has come down to us from a Mother all-pure, and yet He has remained unchanged: He has remained true God as He was before, and has taken on Himself what He had not been, becoming Man out of His love for man. Wherefore, let us raise our voices in hymns and sing: “O God who was born of the Virgin, O our God, have mercy on us!”
Lete: Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born. Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to Heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us give glory and cry aloud to Him: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Your coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior. Glory to You!”