The Crib and the Christmas Tree

Christmas Day. Is 52:7-10; Ps 97:1-6; Heb 1:1-6; Jn 1:1-18

Christmas day is, of course, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the very formation of the word ‘Christmas’ reveals its Christian origins: it is a Catholic word dating from about the eleventh century and it means ‘the Mass of Christ’. So I would like to thank you for being at Mass this morning for the celebration of ‘Christ’s Mass’, the Solemn Mass of the birth of the Son of God.

In this morning’s brief homily I would like to try to explain the meaning of what we are celebrating by referring to two popular symbols of the Christmas season. The first is the symbol of the crib. You will notice how there is a Christmas crib in our church, which, since Midnight Mass last night, also has a model of the baby Jesus lying in the manger. Any Christmas crib includes representations of many different things. However, what may not be immediately apparent is that, in an ideal crib, something of every part of God’s Creation is included in the scene. The star shining over Bethlehem represents the cosmos, also fulfilling an ancient prophecy, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17). The angels represent the purely spiritual or immaterial aspects of God’s creation, “Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Psalm 148:2). The landscape represents the earth, “O let the earth bless the LORD.” (Daniel 3:74). The ox and the ass represent the animal kingdom, also fulfilling an ancient prophecy of Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib.” (Isaiah 1:3). The stable and manger represent the secondary creation of human art and craft, the products of the human mind and hand. As King David said to his son Solomon, “Arise and build the sanctuary of the LORD God” (1 Chronicles 22:19). However, since we are a fallen race, expelled from Eden and steeped in sin, the first dwelling place we made to welcome our saviour was crude and simple and probably rather cold. The shepherds and sheep represent the lost sheep of People of Israel and their leaders, also fulfilling a prophecy of Ezekiel, “I will save my flock … And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David.” (Ezekiel 34:22-23). The wise men, whose arrival we shall celebrate at Epiphany, represent the world of the gentiles and also the world of philosophy and science, those who by investigating the beauty of creation come in humility to worship its Lord (c.f. Wisdom 13:9). Joseph is himself, but is also a patron of many other things, including Christian husbands who cherish their wives and exercise leadership through service. And what about Mary? About Mary one can never say too much. She is full of grace, the most blessed, the ever virgin Mother of God, Mother of the Church, the Second Eve, patron of Christian mothers, the Immaculate Conception of God. So every good thing of God’s Creation is represented at the crib.

And what are they gathered for? The focus of their attention, like our own, is that of the baby lying in manger. For while every human being has a unique dignity, this is more than an ordinary child. This is God himself, through whom all things were made, come down into his own creation, come down to save us. In the words of the Gospel of John, “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) So the simple crib scene carries a great meaning: the whole of the creation gathered to worship God made man.

The second symbol of Christmas I want to consider briefly is the Christmas tree. The origin and meaning of the Christmas tree is a matter of some controversy, but sometimes in Christian history a tradition unfolds by a kind of instinct without a conscious awareness of its significance. So today I want to suggest a meaning. I note that what makes a tree a Christmas tree is that the tree is decorated. In particular, it is decorated with light. Unlike the trees our ancestors worshipped in the black and tangled pagan forests of the Dark Ages, a Christian tree is hung with lights, with little globes of multi-colored flame. One could regard this as a symbol of the mature Christian soul. For Christ was born in Bethlehem to make us adopted children of God, to plant grace in our souls. And the fruitfulness of that grace shines in the sight of God like the lights of the Christmas tree, the twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Longsuffering, Goodness, Benignity, Mildness, Faith, Modesty, Continency and Chastity. The soul that bears these fruits, through the action of Holy Spirit, will be on fire with the love of God and will be fit for heaven, to be happy with God forever (Rev 22:2).

So the Christmas crib represents the beginning of our salvation, the birth of Christ, while the Christmas tree can symbolize of the fulfillment of our salvation, the human soul lit up with the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. May God bless us this Christmas and bring us all one day to everlasting life.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 25th December 2007

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