Tuesday, December 23, 2008

O Christmas Tree

Luke 2:8-14

by Daniel Harrell

They say that one of the things about being a parent is that you get to relive your own childhood. Among the many Christmas memories from my childhood was one where my dad decided it might be a good idea to chop down our own Christmas tree. Part of his motivation had to do with the fact that the woods behind our house were due to be developed into a subdivision the following spring. Another part had to do with Dad’s determination to bypass the rip-off prices at the downtown tree lot. The rest of it may have been some sort of nostalgia for his own childhood when cutting your own tree was what everybody did. At any rate, it was a cold December day, so he bundled up me and my brother, grabbed his bow saw and marched us through the briars to the grove where the pine trees grew. The only problem was that wild fir trees don’t come in sizes much smaller than 20 feet. We’d have to take a treetop. So Dad picked out what he thought was a good one, handed me the saw and told me scramble up to whack it off, telling me not to worry, he’d catch me if I fell. Thanks Dad. Up I went, and after a few shaky moments, down came our Christmas top, which we proudly hauled home and decked with tinsel and lights. It was a pretty good tree.

However, on Christmas morning, bounding downstairs to open our presents, eggnog in hand, we were disgusted to discover that underneath the tree our beautifully wrapped packages lay covered in some sort of moving black film. Upon closer inspection the film turned out to be a huge colony of maggots that had crawled out of our infested fir. Gagging on our eggnog, we spent that Christmas morning burning the tree as well as the presents and exterminating our house.

With that memory indelibly stained on my brain, it was with some trepidation that I determined to redeem my marred Christmas past. Since cutting down a pine from behind my house in Southie would be illegal, Dawn and I bundled up our daughter Violet and drove to Lakeville, about an hour south of here, to a Christmas tree farm (where presumably they disinfect their trees) in order to take a second hack at evergreen glory. Upon arrival, we were pointed to a selection of precut trees all beautifully shaped and reasonably priced at around 40 dollars apiece. This was good news, I thought, since if a tree costs 40 dollars cut, it’s got to be half that if you chop it yourself. The farmer told us that he had thousands of uncut trees from which to pick, and that a tractor pulling hay bales in a trailer would drive by every 15 minutes to take down our choice with a chainsaw; that is, unless I preferred to do it myself with a bow saw. Ah, redemption! I took the bow saw, gave it to Dawn and we trekked out into the forest, I mean farm, and took stock of practically every tree in search of the perfect one. Sadly, figuring that the best trees had all been cut and put up for sale already, we settled on something of a Charlie Brown rendition for ourselves. A few manly whacks and, old tannenbaum went tannenboom. Well, more like tannenpop, the tree was kind of little. The tractor pulled around and we loaded her up and puttered back to the barn. A cup of mediocre hot chocolate later, we were charged a hundred bucks for the experience. “A hundred dollars,” I said, “the cut trees are less than half that price!” “Oh yeah,” the farmer said, “we buy those up in Boston and then sell them down here for a bit of a mark-up. What’d you drive all the way down here for anyway?”

Needless to say, my shot at redemption didn’t quite live up to expectations. But isn’t that the Christmas story? Israel’s history had been fairly maggot-infested, most of it due to their persistent unfaithfulness toward God. Having first gotten exiled to Babylon and now overrun by Imperial Rome and mired in their own economic meltdown; they eagerly longed for redemption themselves, for God’s kingdom to come. God loved his people and promised to save them despite their unfaithfulness―and not just them but the whole world too. But when redemption finally came, it arrived in somewhat disappointing fashion. Rather than a Soldier Savior armed at the hilt to impose justice and secure prosperity, God delivered a little baby scandalously born to a teen-aged girl and her bewildered betrothed—in a barn no less, because no hotel in town could spare a room for a woman about to go into labor. Why is it that among the gospels only Luke gives us this information? Mark and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth. At least Matthew has him in a decent house visited by foreign dignitaries bearing expensive gifts. Luke gives us lowly shepherds, ancient day peasants, unclean and outcast, who come bearing nothing but themselves. They’re the last people you’d think would be the first to get news of God’s plan to save the world.

But as is common throughout the gospels, the last go first, and on this occasion, the last get blasted by a heavenly host of angels, led by the most formidable angel of the Lord himself. A proper translation of heavenly host would be heavenly army. As far as expectations went, this was more like it. For a people chafing under Roman oppression, forced to up and migrate to their hometowns to be taxed, there’d be nothing sweeter than a host of Chuck Norris cherubim dropping the hammer. Except that this angelic army just drops off a Christmas card: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!” Still, having something akin to the 82nd Airborne deliver a Christmas card would be enough to scare anybody to death, which is why Luke has the shepherds so terrified. But what should have really scared them silly was God placing all of their hopes on a helpless, poor little kid wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in some roadside feed trough. What kind of Messiah shows up like that? How was he going to save anybody? Where exactly was their redemption? The angels never say. And the shepherds never ask. They simply trusted God and traded their fear for joy. They headed over to check out Jesus. And then they praised the Lord all the way home.

We took our forlorn fir home and rotated it so that its biggest bare spot faced the wall. It didn’t look like much of a Christmas tree. It also had these really sharp needles that drew blood a few times as we strung on the lights and ornaments, which hurt like ho, ho, ho. The whole time I was still fuming about driving all the way past Plymouth to pay double for half the tree we could have had, especially with money so tight, jobs so shaky and the need to watch expenses. Add to that my hot cider was tepid and I was coming down with a cold. Where exactly was my redemption? I begrudgingly flipped on the tree lights―and our one-year-old Violet flipped out! Whoa, her eyes bugged, her mouth gaped and her arms flapped with such joy that suddenly that hundred dollars was worth every penny.

They say that one of the things about being a parent is that you get to relive your own childhood. I remembered my own joy at the lights coming on every Christmas, even on that tree infested with maggots, and I had to smile too. Maybe this is one reason why God showed up as a baby. As I look at my daughter and imagine her future, some of my visions terrify me. But at the same time there is something about little kids that invite such hope, such newness. It does feel like a do-over, like a new start, just like the gospels promise. The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ you are a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” Despite our unfaithfulness, God makes peace with us through his son Christ who born in humility, died for our sins and rose for our redemption. It’s why the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” May your own expectations go unmet this Christmas, that you may discover the real redemption God has gained for you through Jesus.

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