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Sometime after Thanksgiving and before the first weekend in December, we’ll climb the steps into a freezing attic and carry down the storage boxes that hold our holiday decorations. Inside are strings of lights, a constantly evolving nativity set, stockings to hang on the mantle, and of course, years of carefully packed ornaments for the Christmas tree. Soon we’ll pile into the car and head further up into the mountains to where the hillsides grow in neat rows of blue spruce, Fraser fir, and white pine. We’ll debate the merits of each, find one that is sufficiently tall and shapely, and cut it fresh from the ground.

While evergreens are synonymous with Christmas celebrations today, it wasn’t always this way. Brought to the American colonies by German immigrants, Christmas trees really didn’t become widespread until the late 1800s, in part because a more famous German immigrant, Prince Albert, popularized them in England when he married Queen Victoria. Prior to this, Christmas trees were regarded, at best, as a distinctly German tradition and, at worst, a pagan one.

Throughout church history, there’s always been a tension about how and how much of surrounding culture to incorporate into religious celebration. Because ancient cultures often worshipped the earth itself, putting faith in trees, wind, sun, and water, their celebrations included natural imagery and greenery. But such celebrations were also marked by violence, drunkenness, and licentious behavior. So when your surrounding culture is pantheistic and violent, what role should nature play in worship?

Ironically, the tension between worshipping creation and worshipping with creation is at the heart of the legend of the first Christmas tree.

While many credit Martin Luther with introducing Christmas trees, the tradition goes back much further to the early 700s and an English missionary named Winfried who preached the gospel in what is now Germany. Also known by his Latin name, Saint Boniface, historical records confirm that Winfried’s ministry laid the groundwork for the church in Northern Europe. But in an 1897 retelling of the legend of the first Christmas tree, author and Presbyterian minister Henry van Dyke renders Winfried as a woodsman missionary, a kind of medieval, monastic Paul Bunyan, who traverses the Germanic wilds, shod in leather boots, wrapped in furs, and shouldering a thick, wooden staff.

One wintry Christmas Eve, the story goes, Winfried enters a village where he sees its inhabitants gathered around a magnificent tree known as Odin’s Oak. Generations have worshipped under its branches, feeding it the blood of sacrifices to gain their god’s favor. But tonight, there will be a special sacrifice, a costly one, precious enough to prove their devotion. The sacrifice of the young, firstborn son of the village chieftain.

Just as the village priest raises his stone hammer to crush the child’s skull, Winfried rushes forward and thrusts his staff against the weapon, sending it flying. “Not a life shall be blotted out in the darkness to-night;” van Dyke writes, “but the great shadow of the tree which hides you from the light of heaven shall be swept away. For this is the birth-night of the…Christ, son of the All-Father, and Saviour of mankind. Fairer is He than Baldur the Beautiful, greater than Odin the Wise, kinder than Freya the Good. Since He has come to earth the bloody sacrifice must cease.”

Winfried then lays his ax to the trunk of Odin’s oak. As he does, a mighty wind from heaven picks up the oak and with a giant crack, fells it. Winfried tells the villagers to use the wood to build a church and then calls their attention a small evergreen, “standing straight and green, with its top pointing toward the stars, amid the divided ruins of the fallen oak.

Here is the living tree, with no stain of blood upon it, that shall be the sign of your new worship. See how it points to the sky. Call it the tree of the Christ-child. Take it up and carry it to the chieftain’s hall. You shall go no more into the shadows of the forest to keep your feasts with secret rites of shame. You shall keep them at home, with laughter and songs and rites of love.”

Or that’s how the story goes at least.

Despite the historical details of van Dyke’s narrative, it’s not hard to see the biblical themes: a tree that becomes a place of worship, the evergreen that points to God and eternity, and the impending sacrifice of a firstborn son.

In fact, the motif of the sacrificial son is woven throughout Scripture from the earliest pages. In Genesis 3, the Promised Son will crush the serpent’s head, but he will be bruised in the process. God calls Abraham to offer up Isaac. The firstborn sons of Israel are spared in the Exodus, but the firstborn sons of the Egyptians are taken. The law taught that God had a claim on the life of the firstborn male, and that the son must be redeemed or bought back from the Lord by way of a tax and circumcision. And Hannah returns her miraculous firstborn son, Samuel, to the Lord’s service.

By the time we reach Luke 2 and read that Mary “brought forth her first born son,” it’s not simply a statement about gendered birth order. There’s something more going on here, something on which all our Christian celebrations depend and why it’s fitting that we celebrate this season with evergreens as a sign of eternal life. Because Mary’s firstborn son is also the eternal Son of God.

In human terms, to be a son implies time. A son is always younger than his father, the next installment in a chronological line. But when we speak of the second person of the Trinity, of God the Son, we’re not speaking in terms of time or even status. We’re not saying the Son is somehow younger than the Father or even beneath him. While we are beings locked in time, God exists outside of time, and his eternality encompasses both eternity future and eternity past. In orthodox Trinitarianism, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit exists simultaneously, outside of time in perfect union and communion. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

So why do we call Jesus “God the Son”?

In part, the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit allows us to differentiate between the three persons of the Trinity. But the language of Father and Son also allows us to affirm that the Son, though different from the Father, is the same as the Father. Similarly to how a human man has a human son, a divine Father has a divine Son, with all the characteristics and authority that makes him divine in the first place. Or as the Nicene Creed put it, hundreds of years before Winfried’s confrontation in a German wood:

We believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The miracle of the incarnation is that the timeless Son entered time. God the eternal Son became Mary’s firstborn son. The Creator became part of the creation and submits himself as a man to God the Father and, in doing so, also becomes “the firstborn among many brethren.”

Then, as a good and faithful firstborn Son, he takes responsibility to care for and protect his Father’s household. He takes responsibility for the future of family and the earth that is their home. Instead of a human sacrifice to appease the creation at the foot of an oak tree, God the Son sacrifices himself on a tree on behalf of his creation. and because he died, we, his earthly brothers and sisters, have an inheritance of evergreen, eternal life.

These are deep questions and deeper realities – ones we ultimately accept by faith. But our weak and doubting faith is no match for the faithfulness of the Eternal One who became Mary’s firstborn Son. And so we trust him, and not in our own understanding. We trust Jesus who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” We trust that the One who existed from eternity will keep us forevermore.

-Hannah Anderson, Heaven and Nature Sing


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