Copyright by Bob Rogers.
Ever since the star of Bethlehem led the wise men to baby Jesus, Christmas has been associated with lights. For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.
Lights on trees
The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s.
Origin of electric Christmas lights
On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan.
Today, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music. May each light remind us of a star long ago that led to Jesus, the Light of the world!
Copyright 2014 by Bob Rogers
Stout trees proud of tradition
Supported by eternal grass
Crisp cool wind caressing me.
Back against the oak
Tradition supports nicely
A squirrel darting by
The world races on
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
What is the most popular Christmas song in America? Billboard magazine’s list of the top ten Christmas songs of 2012 is probably our best source. This is not based on opinion, but is based on airplay on the radio, sales, and online streaming. Here is the list (Source: http://wgna.com/the-most-popular-christmas-songs-of-2012/):
10. Last Christmas- Wham!
9. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)- Trans-Siberian Orchestra
8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year- Andy Williams
7. White Christmas- Bing Crosby
6. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms
5. A Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives
4. Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)- Nat King Cole
2. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee
1. All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey
Did you notice who is completely missing from the top ten? Jesus! Christ is not only not in the top 10 songs, he’s not even mentioned in the rest of the top 20.
In a world that sings about Christmas without Christ, God is calling the church of Jesus Christ back to the tradition of Christmas carols.
I. The history of Christmas carols
While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.
Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.
“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. (Sources: Wikipedia and Companion to Baptist Hymnal by William Reynolds.)
I wish we had time to talk about many other popular Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” including some newer songs like “Mary Did You Know?” Many families bake a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful way to teach the true meaning of Christmas to children. Which brings us back to the original story itself, because the first Christmas carols are found in the Bible itself.
II. The songs of the first Christmas
Really, singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.
A Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten (Luke 1:46-55)
When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”
Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.
B. Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)
Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.
Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.
C. The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)
When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”
The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.
Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.
D. Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)
There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.
A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.
Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”
Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.
Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.
Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.
And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.
Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.
God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.
If you see a video ad below this past, please be aware that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.
Houses all over my neighborhood are covered with outdoor Christmas lights, but what does it have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Let’s go back and look at where we got the tradition of Christmas lights.
I. Origins of Christmas lights
For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.
The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. (Accessed on the Internet on December 5, 2013 at: http://www.christmas-tree.com/where.html).
Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s. (Accessed on the Internet December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath).
II. Modern Christmas light traditions
On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan. (Accessed on the Internet on December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Christmas_lights).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this message, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers today. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music.
Yet while many American homes are covered with Christmas lights, many of the families who live inside never go to church. Christmas lights are popular in Japan, but a very few Japanese are Christians. So what do Christmas lights have to do with Jesus Christ and His birth? Actually, it has everything to do with Christmas!
III. The light of Christ
The Bible uses light as a symbol for Christ in both the Old Testament and New Testament.
In Numbers 24:17, the prophet Balaam said, “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.”
The prophet Isaiah said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD shines over you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…Caravans of camels will cover your land… They will carry gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD.” (Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6).
The Gospel of Matthew shows how these prophecies pointed to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpected in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Perhaps the eastern star-gazers had been studying the Hebrews scriptures. Perhaps they read Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 that a star would come in Israel. We don’t know what star they saw. Astronomers say that there was a convergence of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 B.C., and a Comet in 5 B.C. Since our calendars are off a few years, we now know that Jesus was born about 4-6 years earlier than 1 A.D., so it is possible that they saw one of these astronomical events. Yet God could well have produced a supernatural light. According to Matthew 2:9, the star moved and then stopped moving. “After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen in the east! It led them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.”
Perhaps the wise men read Isaiah’s prophecy that nations would come to his light and caravans of camels would bring gold and frankincense to praise the Lord. For look at what it says in Matthew 2:11, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Matthew’s gospel shows us how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy and is represented by the light. John’s gospel makes the application to you and me. John 1:4-5 says, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it.”
Let’s take a closer look at this, because every line in these two verses is expanded on later in the Gospel of John.
John 1:4a says, “Life was in Him.” John 5:26 says, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted to the Son to have life in Himself.” Jesus, the Messiah, has something powerful within Himself: life. He is able to give abundant life and eternal life to His followers.
John 1:4b says, “and that life was the light of men.” John 1:5a continues, “That light shines in the darkness.” We read in John 8:12, “Then Jesus spoke to them again: ‘I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Do you see how John 8:12 explains John 1:4-5? If you want to have real, abundant, eternal life, you need to come out of the darkness of sin and this evil world, and come to the light of Jesus Christ.
Now look at John 1:5b: “yet the darkness did not overcome it.” The Message says, “the darkness couldn’t put it out.” The NLT translates, “the darkness can never extinguish it.” In John 12:35 we read, “Jesus answered, ‘The light will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you.’” The word translated “overtake” in John 12:35 is the same Greek word translated “overcome” in John 1:5.
So what does this all mean? It means that there is a great spiritual battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Jesus warns that darkness can overtake you. You and I can be consumed with evil and sin and defeated. But Jesus is the light of the world. And if we come to His light, the darkness can never put it out. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus calls us to shine His light to a dark world that does not know Him.
Let me tell you the tale of two sons. It is a true tale. Both families have given me permission to tell their stories.
Mitch and Amy Ambrose are members of First Baptist Church of Rincon. Their son, Joshua, was two years old when he got sick, but he loved Christmas lights. He had several surgeries that next year. When he was almost three years old, he was going to have to go to the hospital for brain surgery. It was the middle of November. He asked if they were going to have a Christmas tree with lights on it. They said yes, and Amy they put the tree up in the middle of November, and put lights on it the day before they went to the hospital, so he got to see the lights. The morning after the brain surgery, he had a seizure and lost consciousness, which left him totally physically disabled. He couldn’t respond to his family at all, so the doctors labeled him as blind. But when he was about eight years old, he was lying on his play mat on the floor, and the Christmas tree was up with the lights on. When Mitch and Amy came home from Wednesday night church, Josh had crawled up under the tree, trying to get closer to the light, unknown to the caregiver. To this day, Josh still loves to come to church and see the Christmas lights.
Nick and Brenda Revette are my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Their son, our nephew Brian, was two and a half years old, about the same age as Josh, also right before Christmas. Brian was struck with spinal meningitis, and almost died. He survived, but was left blind. He wanted to see the Christmas tree, but he couldn’t see it that year, because he was blind. He was afraid of the dark. He would say, “dark is bad.” But people continued to pray for Brian, just as people prayed for Josh. A few months after Christmas, Brian remarked that he saw a horse on the TV, and they realized that his eyesight was coming back. The next year, Brian got to see the light on the Christmas tree again.
Both of these young men, Josh Ambrose and Brian Revette, are now in their 20s. Josh still cannot speak. Brian can see, but he continues to have seizures and is limited in his activities. But the thing they have in common is that they have both wanted to see the Christmas lights, and they both did. Josh saw the lights right before his stroke. Brian saw the lights after he recovered from his stroke. Jesus said in Revelation 22:16, “I am the Bright and Morning Star.” And because a star stood over Bethlehem, and because Jesus came as the light of the world, one day both of these young men will see Jesus face to face in the brilliance of all His glory in heaven.
Yet there remain billions of people who have yet to see the true light of Christmas.
It is interesting that almost every nation celebrates Christmas, even nations that are not Christian. The Japanese, for example, love the lights and music of Christmas. Post-modern Europe, which is largely post-Christian and has forgotten Christ, still loves to celebrate Christmas.
The 6.8 billion people in the world are ethnically grouped into 11,626 people groups. Of these people groups, some 3,352 people groups have no one who is spreading the gospel among them. No churches, no missionaries, no gospel.
The nations are waiting. The light has dawned at Bethlehem. As we put up our Christmas lights, let’s make sure that we share the light of Christ with the nations. Their eternal destiny depends on it.
When I asked Brian’s mother, my sister-in-law Brenda, to share how she feels about Christmas lights, she said, “God was not in the dark. God was in the light. God sent us His light, the light of the world that first Christmas. God’s miracles are great. When you look at the Christmas lights, remember the true light!”
If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.
All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees this time of the year.
In southern California, a 90-foot Christmas tree was erected at the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, covered with strobe lights and Disney-themed music for the thousands of shoppers. (Emily Foxhall, “90-foot Christmas tree arrives at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2013.)
All over the world, people are putting up Christmas trees for the holiday. But what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Is it just a pagan practice, or can we find Christ in the Christmas tree?
I. The origins of the Christmas tree
Where did the tradition of the Christmas tree come from?
There are many different stories, since ancient peoples have made use of trees and even worshipped them. One of my favorite stories is of St. Boniface, the missionary to the Germans in the 8th century. Boniface told them about Jesus Christ, but they worshipped a great oak tree. So Boniface boldly went to the oak with an axe and began to chop it down. They were ready to kill him, when a great wind came and blew the tree down. After that, the Germans converted to Christianity in large numbers.
Some legends tell that St. Boniface later decorated a fir tree to represent Jesus instead of their pagan gods. It is uncertain whether this is true.
During the Middle Ages, there was a popular medieval play in western Germany about Adam and Eve and a “paradise tree,” which was a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. Germans set up paradise trees in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it, representing the bread of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, and then later they hang cookies, and often put candles, symbols of Christ as the light. (“Christmas tree.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopeaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encylopaedia Britannica, 2012.)
Meanwhile, in the 15th and 16th century in Latvia, Estonia and northern Germany, there was a tradition of bringing an evergreen tree to the town square on Chritmas Eve, dancing around it, and letting it burn. Eventually people in Germany began to light a tree on Christmas Eve with candles. Lutheran tradition says that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther helped popularize the lighting of an evergreen tree at Christmas all over Germany.
II. Modern Christmas tree traditions
Germany settlers brought the Christmas tree to North America as early as the 17th century.
Prince Albert of Germany, the husband of Queen Victoria of England, introduced the Christmas tree into England in the early 19th century. By the 19th century, Christmas trees were popular all over the world. In Victorian England, trees were decorated with toys and small gifts, candles and candy. Blown-glass ornaments became popular in the 1870s. By 1890, strings of electric tree lights became popular to hang on trees. In the 1960s, artificial Christmas trees made out of aluminum became popular, but these were soon replaced by artificial trees that look realistic.
Many families still enjoy going together to get their own real Christmas tree. John and Pam Carper’s family have a tradition for the past five or six years, of traveling to a North Carolina Christmas tree farm, to cut a Fraser fir to bring back to Georgia for Christmas. James & Kerri Gilyard also have a tradition of getting a real tree, which they do right after Thanksgiving. Their tradition is to put on the lights first, then the ornaments, with the memorable and breakable ones up higher. Last of all, they put an angel on top.
Many families will choose a special ornament for each member of the family. We have an ornament for each child on the year that they were born. Kevin & Sharon Kendall choose a special ornament each year for each child in the family. They enjoy looking at the ornaments to see what dates they got each ornament.
That brings us back to our question. As nice as these traditions are, what if anything does a Christmas tree have to do with the birth of Jesus? Let’s open our Bibles and see.
III. God’s Christmas tree
- Israel was symbolized by a tree (Isaiah 5; Ezekiel 17; Daniel 4:10-12)
In ancient Israel, a tree symbolized God’s people Israel. Isaiah 5 gives a parable of a vineyard that was planted but failed to produce good fruit, and so it is torn down. Isaiah says, “For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah, the plant He delighted in.” (Isaiah 5:7, HCSB).
Ezekiel 17 gives another parable comparing Israel to a tree, saying God will plant a sprig on a mountain. “I will plant it on Israel’s high mountain so that it may bear branches, produce fruit, and become a majestic cedar… Then all the trees of the field will know that I am Yahweh.”
Thus Psalm 1:3 speaks of the righteous man as like a tree planted by water, and in Matthew 3:10, John the Baptists says every tree that doesn’t produce is cut down.
Daniel 4 tells how God used a vision of a tree to warn King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to beware of his pride. He told about a tree that reached to the sky, but it was cut down, and Daniel said, “That tree is you, the king.” (Daniel 4:22).
So a tree often symbolized Israel, although it could also symbolize the life of others.
- Christ is symbolized by a tree of life (Isaiah 11:1-10) and a tree of death (1 Peter 2:24)
So if we stay with the symbolism of life in a tree, notice what we read in the prophecy of Isaiah 11: “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit… On that day the root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples. The nations will seek Him, and His resting place will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:1, 10, HCSB).
Jesse was the name of the father of King David, so this passage is referring to the Messiah who would be a descendant of David. Notice the description of the Messiah in verses 2 and following:
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him—
A Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
A Spirit of counsel and strength,
A Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…”
From the beginning to the end of the Bible, we read of a tree of life. In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 2:9 speaks of a tree of life, and in Revelation 22:2 we read that in heaven, “The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”
Jesus is symbolized by this tree of life, for Christ gives us life. And how? Because he is also represented by a tree of death by his death on the cross!
Crucifixion was so horrible it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, and Jews saw it as a curse. Deuteronomy 21:23 says that anybody executed on a tree is cursed, and Galatians 3:13 repeats this. So when Jesus was nailed to the cross, which of course was made from a tree, the Jews thought He was cursed.
Yet look what we read in 1 Peter 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness, for you have been healed by His wounds.”
Thus the tree of life became the tree of death so that by faith in Christ, we could enjoy life.
The best Christmas gift was not under a tree, but hung upon a tree, the tree of Calvary.
In 1957, Frances Kipps Spencer at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia, came up with the idea of the Chrismon tree. She wanted a way to display a Christmas tree in her church that had Christian symbols, instead of gaudy, bright lights. So she covered the tree with monogrammed letters, and other Christian symbols, such as the cross, fish, crown, etc. Today, many churches display a “Chrismon tree,” which is a Christmas tree that only has Christian symbols on it.
Why don’t we have our own traditions to see and show Christ in the Christmas tree? Put an angel or a star on the top. Display a manger scene under the tree. Put a nail on a ribbon, and hang it on the tree to remember the tree upon which Jesus was nailed. Make a Chrismon tree full of Christian symbols. When your family, friends and neighbors see your tree, you can share the meaning of the symbols.
But there is something even more important than what we do with our Christmas trees. That is what we do with our lives. Let us show Christ in a Christmas tree traditions, but even more, let us show Christ in the way we carry the cross of Christ in our daily lives.
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Article copyright by Bob Rogers
With the increased popularity of cremation instead of burial, people often ask me if the Bible forbids cremation. The Bible does not prohibit cremation, but it does seem to show a preference for burial.
In defense of cremation, the apostle Paul speaks positively about death by fire in 1 Corinthians 13:3 with the phrase, “if I give my body to be burned…” While Paul was referring to martyrdom, not cremation, the apostle certainly did not think death by burning would prevent him from being in heaven. God can reassemble the molecules of your body at the resurrection, whether they are burned to ashes or decay to ashes.
I have done funerals for people who chose cremation. It certainly is a less expensive option.
Nevertheless, the Bible shows a preference for burial. In the Old Testament, passages such as Genesis 50 show great concern for the proper burial of the remains of Jacob and Joseph. In the New Testament, the Christian belief in resurrection is vividly shown as Lazarus and Jesus were buried and bodily raised from a grave. In Romans 6:4, baptism is depicted as a burial and resurrection: “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism…” Mark Coppenger says, “I would hate to think what sort of ceremony cremation would suggest.”
So while cremation is not prohibited and may be understandable for financial reasons, burial has a stronger basis in the Bible and is a clearer testimony to our faith.
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