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Oh Christmas Tree

Rev. Stephen Milton Sermon on December 29, 2019 
Lawrence Park Community Church, Toronto.  

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For the last month, most of us have been surrounded by Christmas trees. We’ve pulled artificial ones out of boxes in the basement or closet, or we’ve gone out to buy one from a parking lot turned into an arboretum. We’ve had trees in our homes, or, if we have opted out this year, we have been surrounded by them in malls, in other peoples’ homes, and even in churches like this one. Love them or hate them, Christmas trees are everywhere at this time of year.  

But why do we have them at all? Tradition is the short answer. We have them because we had them before, and this is just what we’re supposed to do at Christmastime. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain much. Why do we put shiny balls on them, why do we put presents under them where needles and sap can drip on them? Surely there are more practical alternatives. By the end of this sermon I hope you’ll have a better understanding of why we bother with Christmas trees, but to get us there, I want to talk about the most famous tree of all in our faith, the tree of knowledge.  

In the scripture passage Gerry read ( Genesis 3:1-7), we hear about the tree that is at the root, pun intended, of all our problems. Adam and Eve have been created by God to tend to Eden, as gardeners. They are vegetarians, but they have been told to never eat of the tree of knowledge, whose fruit confers knowledge of good and evil. If they eat it, they will die. The serpent tricks Eve into eating its fruit, and she convinces Adam to eat, too. When God finds out, God kicks them out of the Garden of Eden, concerned lest they eat from another tree, the Tree of Life, which would give immortality like God.  

This strange myth is offered as the explanation for why human life is so difficult, why we sin so easily, and even why childbirth is so painful. It reads like a myth, not history. Yet, among its many perplexing features is why our fate as a species should be decided by the simple act of taking a piece of fruit from a tree. It seems like an incredibly banal and minor infraction to yield such world changing consequences. Why not just forgive Adam and Eve and move on? Why would simply eating some fruit from a tree be so pivotal? Why not have them wade in the wrong stream, or sit on the wrong rock? Why should a tree be involved in this story?  

The story of Adam and Eve was written down around 2500 years ago, although the story itself is much older. Spin forward 2000 years. In the 1500s, European ships spread out all over the world to find gold and silver in the Americas, and spices in the East. The European sailors are all Christians, raised to believe that the story of Adam and Eve with the tree is literally true. As they reach all these foreign lands, they encounter something surprising. The tribes and civilizations they encounter also have creation myths which feature trees. The stories come from all over. In India, the Buddha reaches enlightenment as he sits beneath the Bodhi tree. It is here he battles against repeated assaults against demons and illusions until he stills his mind enough to reach Nirvana. In Scandanavia, there is the story of Odin, the chief god, who straps himself to the sacred tree Yggdrasil for nine days where he dies and is resurrected.[1] In the Americas, Mayan explorers discover Mayan temples, covered in hieroglyphs. On them, there are depictions of the cieba tree, which holds up the heavens like a tent pole, and is central to the Mayan understanding of the universe.[2] Among the Muslims, the Prophet Mohammed is taken up to the highest level of heaven on his Night Journey. Here he is shown the tree of immortality.[3] Among Hindus, each time the universe is destroyed, the only surviving remnant is the sacred Banyan tree.  

In time, anthropologists and religious scholars noticed that the Jews were just one of many cultures who had creation myths which involved a tree. It was noticed that all of these stories have a few things in common. The tree is never just a normal tree. It is usually involved in life and death. It gives access to the world of the gods in the heavens, who are immortal, and it provides access to the underworld, the realm of the dead. The religious scholar Mercia Eliade famously defined these trees as being world trees, or cosmic trees. They link the three realms of existence, the heavens, the Earth and the underworld. These trees represent the entire cosmos, and provide access to each of its levels. [4]

This may seem unfamiliar, but as kids, we were all introduced to a story of a cosmic tree : “Jack and the Beanstalk”. You remember the story: Jack is living with his widowed mother. He trades the last of their father’s wealth, a cow, for some magic beans which are inedible. Jack’s mother throws them out into the yard in disgust, where they grow to reach the clouds.   Jack’s beanstalk is a classic world tree – it makes travel between the three realms possible. The beans represent the dead father’s wealth, which takes root in the ground – the underworld. The beanstalk grows up into the heavens. Like all cosmic trees, it allows travel between the three realms, which is dangerous for mortals. Jack is chased down the beanstalk by the giant. Jack saves himself by cutting down the beanstalk, killing the giant. Death is always near when one is dealing with a cosmic tree.  

All over the world, people who have had little or no contact with each other possess stories of sacred trees which link the dead, the living and the gods. The Mayans in central America came up with this idea independently of Christianity and Judaism, as did many other cultures. This appears to be an example of an archetypal idea planted deep within human consciousness, which appears pretty much anywhere humans settle. Seen in this global context, the presence of a sacred tree in the Garden of Eden does not seem so random. In our creation myth, the cosmic tree has been divided in two : a tree that confers death, and the Tree of Life, which confers immortality. Adam and Eve’s crime is that they approached the cosmic tree before they were ready. The penalty was that they gained access to the realm of the dead – they became mortal. This was no normal tree, and God’s injunction was not a line in the sand. Instead, in the Garden of Eden there was a cosmic tree, a symbol of the structure of the universe, to which we tried to get access to before we were ready, and we have been paying the price ever since.  

If all of this seems obscure, that may be because in Christianity, we don’t talk about the importance of trees very much, if at all. In Christ’s story, there are very few trees. Zacchaeus, A short man climbs one to get a look at Christ when he is passing by (Luke 19:3), and Christ curses a fig tree which fails to provide fruit when he asks for it (Mark 11:12–14). Neither are central to the Christian story. How could our faith have simply walked away from the importance of cosmic trees, if they are such an ingrained part of spiritual thinking in the rest of the world?  

The fact is that Christianity contains a very important cosmic tree. The early Christians often spoke of a tree in connection to Christ, and that tree was the cross. Over and over again early theologians refer to the cross as a tree. The first to do was Paul in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 3:8). Indeed, Christians preferred to speak of the cross as a tree. It allowed them to make clear connections to the Garden of Eden story. Humankind fell because we disobeyed using a tree; Christ saved us by obeying God’s will to be killed on a tree. [5] The first tree brought death; the cross tree brought eternal life.[6] In the Garden of Eden there are two sacred trees – the tree that brought death, and also the Tree of Life. Christ’s cross is made of two pieces of wood, symbolically representing the union of those two trees.

The cross was commonly seen as a cosmic tree that linked the three realms of existence. When Christ died on the cross, Peter and Paul in their letters tell us that Christ descended into the underworld to preach the good news to all the people who had ever died (1 Peter 3:19; Ephesians 4:9). Tradition has it that he brought Adam and Eve, as well as all the prophets up to heaven. When Christ was resurrected, He opened the gates of heaven to all who believe. All of this was accomplished via the cosmic tree, the cross. The cross as the tree that links death, life and afterlife became a popular image in medieval Christianity. Christ does not die on a cross, but on the cosmic tree.  

Now, I know that this way of thinking is not mentioned much anymore. One of the consequences of the Protestant revolution in the 1500s is that North European Christians became very suspicious of Catholic symbolism. Churches were stripped of their statues and ornamentation, and these symbolic ways of understanding our story were set aside. However, if the anthropologists and Jungians are right, then since we are still human beings, the archetypal way of understanding spiritual matters will not go away. It is still with us, but it gets expressed secretly, without our conscious minds being aware of it. If so, then even in our hyper rational, scientific age, we should still be interested in cosmic trees.  

And that brings us back to where this sermon started – Christmas trees. Every year we put them up, and aside from tradition, we are not sure why. They are eminently impractical. They are hard to get into the house, the cats like to pull them down, the ornaments are fragile and break. It would be way more convenient to put presents on a table beside the tree rather than under it. Rationally speaking, Christmas trees don’t make much sense. However, let’s look at Christmas trees from a spiritual, symbolic point of view. Let’s ask ourselves if maybe Christmas trees might be cosmic trees in our midst.  

If a Christmas tree was a cosmic tree, we would expect it to symbolically link the three realms. Its top should point to the heavens, the abode of the gods. That seems to work, since we typically place stars or angels at the top. A cosmic tree has roots that extend into the land of the dead, where ancestors live. In Christmas trees, we place gifts from family, friends and relatives close to the roots. Presents from distant relatives go here, linking us through parents and grandparents to our ancestors who have died in years past. The Christmas tree’s roots and our personal roots are symbolically linked. So that seems to work, too. But what about how we decorate the middle of the tree? Most of us place shiny glass bulbs on the tree as well as little ornaments that kids have made, as well as tinsel which looks like icicles. What all of these decorations have in common is that they are fragile and temporal. Ice melts, bulbs are easily broken, children’s ornaments remind us of the fleeting nature of life. Unlike dead ancestors and immortal gods, the decorations on the middle of the tree represent the fragile, ephemeral nature of being alive – we place fragile ornaments on the tree to represent our mortal nature, where nothing lasts.  

We may be a scientific, rational society, but with Christmas trees, we have smuggled cosmic trees into our homes, churches and shopping malls. We still yearn for connection to the divine, to having a place well defined in the cosmos. Our rationality may tell us this is all humbug, but deep down, we need it, and feel fed by it. And that’s why we keep putting up Christmas trees, and find even the strange stories of Eden still evocative. The old stories still contain great power, and they can help us, if we give them a chance to be heard. Amen.

[1] Lawrence Eson, “Odin and Merlin: Threefold Death and the World Tree,” Western Folklore Vol. 69, No. 1 (Winter 2010), [2] “Axis Mundi” Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, (MacMillan, New York:1987), 20. [3] [4] “Axis Mundi” Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, (MacMillan, New York:1987) [5] Ireneaus, Against Heresy, Book V, Ch16:2 ( Ireneaus was a second century theologian from Lyon, France). [6] This idea of the cross as a tree lasted well into the Middle Ages: Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Book 1, ch 3.