Tuesday, December 17, 2013

St. Boniface and the Christmass tree

(OCA-DOW) - “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches!”

I first learned this familiar song as a child, but entirely in German. I learned it from my neighbors, who were German immigrants, and have loved all things connected with the German celebration of Christmas ever since.

Have you all put up your Christmas trees? Mine is in its bucket of water, waiting to go up. I hope that you have put yours up, or are planning to do so in the very near future. I love Christmas trees, and I'm always thrilled to hear or to see that people put one up during this advent season.

Some folks don't put up a Christmas tree. Some mistakenly think that this custom is derived from paganism, and is inappropriate for Christians. Others believe that it was something invented by Martin Luther, the German Protestant Reformer in the 16th century, and therefore not an Orthodox tradition. Still others imagine that a Christmas tree only makes sense if you have children and if you have presents to place beneath it. All of these explanations miss the mark. Do you know the origins of the Christmas tree? I'm sure many of you do. But in case you have forgotten, let me share with you a tale from the eighth century, a tale from the church's oral tradition, about St. Boniface, the martyr, born in Britain, who became the Apostle to the Germans.

According to the BBC in Devon, England, “The famous Devon Saint, St Boniface, was the creator of the very first Christmas tree. In the early part of the 8th century, St Boniface was sent into Germany as a missionary, with an aim of converting the pagans to Christianity...He worked tirelessly in the country destroying idols and pagan temples across Germany and building churches in their place. He was named Archbishop of Mainz and founded or restored the diocese of Bavaria.

It was on this trip, around the time of Winter Solstice, that he was said to have come across a group of pagans worshipping an old oak tree. Horrified by what he saw as blasphemy, the all-action St Boniface grabbed the nearest axe and hacked down the tree. As he did this he called to the pagans to see the power of his God over theirs. Pagan feelings were understandably mixed. However, Boniface's actions were obviously taken in good spirit, with some of the tales saying he converted the pagans on the spot, especially since a fir tree sprang up spontaneously in the oak's place. The fir was seen as an image of God and many believed its evergreen nature symbolised the everlasting love of the Maker.”

Well, the BBC gets it basically right, but with a decided weakness in the meaning of the tree. The evergreen nature of the tree stands for eternal life. This idea is confirmed by the use of such a tree in medieval “Paradise Plays.” According to Fr. Fracis Weiser, in his “Christmas Book,” the origin of Christmas trees in the home “goes back to the medieval German mystery plays. One of the most popular of these 'mysteries' was the Paradise Play, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. It usually closed with the consoling promise of the coming Savior and with a reference to His incarnation. This made the Paradise Play a favorite pageant for Advent, and its closing scenes used to lead directly into the story of Bethlehem.

'These plays were performed either in the open, or the large squares in front of churches, or inside the house of God. The garden of Eden was indicated by a fir tree hung with apples; it represented..the 'Tree of Life'...which stood in the center of Paradise. After the suppression of the mystery plays in churches, the Paradise tree, the only symbolic object of the play, found its way into the homes of the faithful, especially since many plays had interpreted it as a symbol of the coming Savior.”

So the Christmas tree is a venerable, and very Orthodox symbol of the theology of the incarnation. It reminds us of the Tree of Life planted in Paradise. It reminds us of Christ, who comes to us a a newborn Babe, Who is, Himself, the fulfillment of the promise of that Tree. It reminds us of Christ, Who by means of the Tree of the Cross, granted us access to forgiveness of sins and life eternal.

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