image “Snow” by Anna Sircar
reflection by Aaron HarrisonPsalms 31 and 35 Isaiah 7: 10-25 2 Thessalonians 2: 13-3: 5 Luke 22: 14-30
I wonder what my Christmas ornament will be this year? Every year, my mom gets us kids a Christmas ornament that somehow symbolizes something about our year: one year it was a clay whale, for when we went whale watching; another year it was an icon of St. Patrick. We would take these tokens and put them on the tree. Between all of us, our tree is now the bearer of many memories, tokens of years, all with the hope that one day we would take our ornaments and start our own trees. Wow, with all that symbolic weight, it’s amazing the damage one cat can do when she decides to pull down the tree and break a few things for kicks and giggles.
But as I’ve gotten older, I confess that this practice becomes more difficult, and that actually most Christmas things have become difficult. Hanging the token ornaments on the tree feels like a strange duty sometimes, when I can’t remember what that ornament was for, or maybe there’s a year I’d rather forget, a symbol I no longer want. Symbols are funny things, aren’t they? This time of the year seems over-stuffed with symbols: the tree, the candles, the santa-thingy, the nativity set. We get out these symbols to help us tell a story, or rather many stories. There’s the story of gift-getting, the story of light in a dark and cold time, the story of Jesus, and story-tellers like the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree tells a lot of stories.
There’s another story that the church remembers today, the story of St. John of the Cross. For many Christians, John’s writings have been a source of comfort and compassion in dark times. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” –that’s his idea. John wrote about the experience dryness, or abandonment by God. The Dark Night of the Soul is a time where the Christian feels alone, bewildered by disorientation, unable to feel the light of God towards which we journey. We desire union with God–intimacy, joyful companionship–and so often we are met with a trudging sense of banality, where each day feels like the last: dry, silent, and dark. For some of us, it lasts a season. For others, like Mother Theresa or St. Saraphim of Savarov, it can last a lifetime. And we as the church celebrate them, rejoice that God has given them to us: the dry, the tired, the weary, those in the dark. They are God’s gift to us, and even though we sometimes labor under a kind of Christianity that needs to be happy all the time to show what a good thing the gospel can be in someone’s life, we also embrace the darkness, the anticipation, the emptiness.
Further back than John of The Cross, some Christians, when they read the story of Genesis and Jesus together, thought that the Cross was like a second tree in the Garden of Eden. Jesus, by dying on this tree, undid all the evil that came when Adam and Eve ate of the first tree. Trees are something that run the course of scripture. There’s one in the beginning, one at the end, and one in the middle. And every year, when we celebrate the coming of our Lord Jesus, we bring a tree into our homes. It’s probably been growing in a forest somewhere, before we were born, waiting to be cut down, to begin to die in our living rooms, to brighten our lives with its smell, and hold in its branches our ornaments. It shelters our gifts, holds up our lights, and centers us in moments of celebration.
In the dark night of Advent, in the aching anticipation of the coming salvation of Jesus, we put up a tree. We recreate Eden, and we hang on this tree all our memories, our pretty decorations, our lights, and we ask the tree to hold these things up to us, to help us remember, to bear us up when the light in our hearts goes out. I think John of the Cross would have liked Christmas trees, because he might have seen them in this way: dying, they bring us life, and fading, they hold forth joy. In the dark night of our Advent soul they remind us of something that is ever green, that sustains us through the inner winter, and that will be there when the Dawn from on High shines upon us again.
If you haven’t decorated your tree already, maybe this Advent, give your tree a memory. Let it hold something for you that you can’t bear on your own. Let it be a light for you when other lights have gone dark. Let it be a cross, there in your home, a green tree of life. Because it has been growing for years, waiting, a symbol that can hold up the joy that is coming. Even though it’s dying, it’s a tree of life. And it has been waiting for its moment to shine.