Crooked Christmas Trees

sermon audio for “Crooked Christmas Trees” by Martin Malina
The star on a crooked branch (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)

I have tree problems, I must admit. The Christmas tree inside the house, and the trees outside our house, have certain challenges, you might say.

When I ordered our artificial Christmas tree some years ago, I wanted it to be tall enough to just reach the ceiling of our living room. So I ordered the 10-foot one. However when it arrived and I set it up in place, the tip was about 6 inches too long. So, I had to deal with a crooked tip. How would a star fit on top of my Christmas Tree?

The opposite problem existed outside. The tips, the leads, of two of my six white pine trees, now about 6 feet tall have fallen off because of the white pine blister fungus. These trees will lose their straight-line trunk as they grow and reach for the sky. 

When these tips fell off a couple months ago, I must admit I grieved this change of their life’s trajectory. The trees will have a crooked trunk from about six feet up. Their new branches near the top will eventually bend towards the sky. They will not look the way I had envisioned when I first planted the seedlings in a row at the back of our property.

When I did a book search on Amazon using the title “The Crooked Tree” I was surprised to find not one, but several books with this title. All of them were geared to Christmas time, and most of them offered a spiritual message.[1]

I guess I’m not alone in searching for meaning in a Christmas Tree that is not perfect, crooked in fact. Would we yearn for a celebration of Christ’s birth that was not encumbered by expectations we have, expectations that contribute to the stress of the season?

I love Charlie Brown Christmas trees – a 2-foot tall, low-leaning branch in a pot, really, bearing only one red ball which pulls down the tip. Whenever I see one in someone’s house, I gravitate towards it. 

A living branch (photo by Beth MacGillivray, 2021)

But when we set up our Charlie Brown Christmas trees, is it the only festive tree in the house? Or, is it meant only to serve some comic-relief, meant merely to complement the other more serious decorations in our homes? Do we make sure the real, dressed up, ‘perfect’ tree is centred in front of the picture window in the grand rooms of our homes? I’d be tempted to go there, I must admit.

I like the story about Martin Luther in the sixteenth century going into the bush before Christmas, cutting down and hauling in an evergreen tree to put candles on it. Lighted, these candles attached to the branches of the tree. They reminded Luther of the stars that he saw shining in the sky above. They filtered through branches of the forest around him. Martin Luther, of course, understood these lights to symbolize the light of Christ shining in the dark, the light coming into the world.

I will read later tonight from the first chapter of the Gospel of John describing the light coming into the world.[2] That is the meaning of Christmas—Jesus, Son of God, came to us. 

And what is more to this story of Jesus coming – the Light of the world shining in the night – is that God does not wait until the morning. God does not wait until midday when all is bright in our lives. God comes at night when the monsters creep in the shadows and our minds and hearts can’t see clearly.

Understand, God does not wait until everything is perfect. God does not wait until you find your way. God does not wait until you get it right. God does not wait until you fix all your problems. God does not wait until everything that is wrong is gone. God does not wait until COVID is over before coming into our lives.

Because on a crooked branch, there is still room. The top part of my Christmas tree can still hold a star. There is room aplenty on crooked branches to hold all manner of stars.

And God rejoices this night. God rejoices that the tree with crooked branches can bear the star, hold the light. And that is all we are: Christ-bearers, holders of the light. Our hearts, our lives, crooked and imperfect in every way imaginable, can still reflect and hold the light that has come. That, my friends, is good news.

It just makes me want to sing! “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree …”


[1] A couple of books I have read recently – Damian Chandler, The Crooked Christmas Tree: The Beautiful Meaning of Jesus’ Birth (New York: Hachette Book Group Inc., 2017); and, Michael Tracey, The Crooked Christmas Tree (Michael Tracey, 2012).

[2] John 1:1-5

The good news this COVID Christmas

This Christmas Eve many of us worship in our homes.

I’ve asked you to bring and light a candle for the duration of this time of prayer online. Perhaps as we look to the weeks ahead, we’ll all be spending more time at home during the lockdown, and there will ample opportunity for you to create a space and time for prayer, and light your Christmas candle. In fact, you may want to light it for a few minutes each of the twelve days of Christmas.

Lighting a candle and pondering its flame is a simple act. Yet doing so provides you with a focus for prayer. It creates a holy space in your home. And brings an awareness of God’s presence closer to your heart.

Maybe that’s the good news in this COVID-Christmas. Because isn’t that the truly evangelical faith – to experience personally an encounter with the Lord? Not by going to some other place from where you live, sleep, eat and spend most of your days. Not in holy sanctuaries far away. Not somewhere you need to drive to or take a bus or walk. But right where you are. Right where you live.

Christmas is about God coming into our world. And for many of us this Christmas, our world is very close to home. Where the heart is. For all the missional work the church aspires to and the social gatherings many of us love in the public spaces of our lives, the faith at some point still needs to resonate in the heart of the believer. And that’s what this Christmas is about. Inviting us to press the reset button on faith, by starting at home, where we are.

In an email that I received from a friend a few weeks ago they signed off not with  “Sincerely” or “Best wishes” or “With warmest regards.” Rather they signed off their letter by writing “Keep negative.” Keep negative? What did they mean?

I reacted to that statement and I wondered if they were being brassy or making a dig at me, always trying to put a positive spin on everything. Were they trying to be funny? It seemed odd to sign off that way. Anyway, I asked what they had meant by ‘keep negative’. 

They laughed and said it was a COVID reference. Keep negative. That is, if and when you get tested for the coronavirus, they hoped I would get a negative result. Not a positive one.

It was my turn to laugh. Of course. And then I reflected, how easy it is for us to focus on the negative. It’s almost our default. Even when there is good news. We’re afraid that if we are overly positive the other shoe will drop and something bad is just waiting to happen. 

Even when there is so much for which to be thankful. Even when there is so much that we have. It’s easier to ‘keep negative’ and talk about what is not happening this Christmas, what is wrong in the world, how dark it is. The ‘good news’ can be staring us in the face, and we don’t acknowledge it. We choose to turn away from it.

Christmas is a time to focus on that single flame from that single candle surrounded by darkness and give thanks for the greatest gift of love and life in Christ. Christmas is ‘good news’ that we need to recognize, first in our own hearts. And then spread it to others around us.

The message of Christmas is that divinity and humanity unite – and we see that first and foremost in Jesus. But the purpose of Jesus was to bring that awareness and truth into our own lives. So, during this COVID Christmas we are pressed, indeed, to grapple with Christ in our own lives.

The image of a pregnant Mary carrying the Christ child to birth is an image to hold onto. This Christmas, we carry the Christ child in our own hearts. And if at first you can’t find Jesus there, take some time to explore the interior regions of your own soul. This Christmas, we are invited to traverse the inner landscape of our hearts, and discover the spirit of Christ lives there, too. Even where there is pain, illness and fear.

That Christ Jesus chooses to live there despite all that is not right — this is good news. And this news brings joy, peace, and hope. So, keep positive; there is good reason.

Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9