“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground” Isaiah 53:2
When I read Isaiah 53:2 the words “grew,” “shoot,” “root,” and “ground” capture my imagination and suggest a suitable starting point for a Christmas meditation. For in these words I conjure up a picture of a tree. More specifically – three trees. What we’ll call the Genesis Tree, the Gospel Tree, and the German Tree. Two of the trees are described in the Word and the third points to the One who is the Word.
The Genesis Tree is mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis. Its full name is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” Genesis 2:9,17. It has a prominent part in the Christmas story. For, in one sense, the Christmas story begins with “a garden in the east, in Eden,” where “the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the Lord God took the man” he had formed “and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.'” Genesis 2:8,9,15-17. But the man disobeyed God. He sinned. He ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And because he ate from the tree “the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden . . . he drove the man out” Genesis 3:23-24.
Thus the Genesis Tree is the initial reason for Christmas. For if Satan had not used the tree to seduce man and thrust him into sin, there would be no need for the incarnation. No need for God to leave heaven. No need for the Son of Man to become the Son of God. No need to forgive our sin. No need for God to raise “up a horn of salvation for us” Luke 1:69. No need for God to prepare, in the sight of all the people, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” and the Israelites (cf. Luke 2:30-32). And no need for the virgin to be with child, give birth to a son, and call Him Immanuel (cf. Matthew 1:23).
The Gospel Tree is mentioned in several places. It’s the tree on which Christ was crucified (cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29). The cross of Calvary. The means whereby “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” Galatians 3:13.
But what has this tree got to do with Christmas? Everything. For the Gospel Tree is the culmination of the incarnation. It’s the raison d’être for Christ’s birth, the justification for His coming, God’s defining moment in salvation history. Christ’s birth and death go together. The advent reminds us that Jesus was born to reconcile man to God, born to break the enslaving chains of sin, born to bring peace to the human heart, strength to the weak, and give life to the spiritually dead. In essence, He was born to be the “all time one sacrifice for sins” Hebrews 10:12.
The Gospel Tree therefore does what no other tree can do. It points us to the One who offers forgiveness and hope. It symbolizes the removal of enmity between man and God. It illustrates how sin was rendered powerless (cf. Romans 6:6). And it draws us to the Saviour who was born to die for our sin. As C. S. Lewis said, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that sons of men may become sons of God.”
The German Tree is what we commonly refer to as the Christmas Tree. I’ve called it the German Tree because the earliest record of an evergreen tree being used and decorated for Christmas is 1521 in the German region of Alsace. However, the origins of this tree probably go back to the eleventh century and the religious plays called “mystery plays” which became quite popular in Europe. These plays were performed outdoors and in churches. The most popular was the “Paradise Play.” This play opened with a portrayal of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from Eden, and ended with the promise of the coming Saviour and His incarnation (cf. Genesis 3:1-24). The Paradise Play was simple by today’s standards. The only prop on stage was the “Paradise Tree,” a fir tree adorned with apples. From this tree, at the appropriate time in the play, Eve would take the fruit, bite into it, and give it to Adam.
By the fifteenth century people had become so accustomed to the Paradise Play, they began decorating their homes with the Paradise Tree. The tree was put up on December 24 to commemorate the feast day of Adam and Eve in accordance with the custom of the Eastern Church. Because the tree symbolized both a tree of sin and a tree of life people decorated it with apples, to represent the fruit of sin, and with homemade wafers (like communion wafers), to represent the fruit of life. In the late Middle Ages candy and sweets were added and a large candle called the “Christmas light,” symbolizing Christ who is the light of the world, was lit on Christmas Eve along with many smaller candles which were displayed on a wooden pyramid. In addition to the candles, other objects such as tinsel, glass balls, and the “star of Bethlehem” were placed on the tree. By the nineteenth century the Christmas tree had grown into the general custom it is today.
The German Tree therefore combines the message of the Genesis tree and the Gospel Tree. It’s symbolic of the tree in Eden by which Adam and Eve were enticed into sin and it portrays the tree by which our sin was overcome, namely the tree called the cross of Calvary.
So when you look at a Christmas tree look beyond the ornaments. Don’t rush past the tree and fail to recognize the One whom it announces. For in the branches of the tree is the symbol of a baby – the gift of life for sinners like you and me.