Photo by Diliara Garifullina on Unsplash
This time of year seems to revolve around traditions. We work to recreate old traditions each year and often look at how to add new ones. Traditions give us a sense of place and belonging and bind us closer to those we love. During this time of year, we can see traditions everywhere we look, from Christmas pajamas to Christmas popcorn to the town Christmas tree.
A few weeks ago I started listening to the podcast “Luther in Real Time” (which I highly recommend), and then, completely by accident, I came across an article about how Luther is credited with being the first to put candles on Christmas trees. This fascinated me for a couple reasons. First, I always wondered what fool thought that putting live fire on a tree that was cut down, dying, and drying up was a good idea. Clearly his theological genius didn’t extend to all parts of his life. I’ll come back to the other reason in a bit.
We can’t deny that Christmas is so steeped in tradition that commercials, songs, and holiday movies all play off of this fact. Every Hallmark Christmas movie is about traditions of a town or a family or an inn or whatever else, and these traditions bring people back together and help the Hallmark hunk and cutie-pie girl find love. But we would be amiss if we didn’t recognize that these traditions, at times, can make the sting of brokenness all the more painful.
I am the youngest of four children and my childhood memories of Christmas are filled with us in our home enjoying all that Christmas Day had to offer. That meant bottled Coke under the tree along with a huge bag of popcorn: this is still the ideal Christmas breakfast (along with some chocolate). It also meant tons of toys (there were four of us). We always had a new board game to play after Christmas dinner. Inevitably we were watching movies by noon because we were tired from being up so crazy early. I remember Mama sipping coffee and sitting, which my mom never did, just to watch her kids on Christmas morning. But over the past years and at different times, both of my brothers have walked away from our family. The reality of this is always evident when the rest of my family gets together, but at Christmas it hurts a little deeper. If traditions give us a sense of belonging and place and help bond us together, then they can also be the catalyst for what is most painful about the season. The reality that things in this world hurt and that relationships are broken tends to be on full display during holiday seasons.
In a congregation this size, I am sure that I am not the only one who feels the hurt that accompanies the Christmas season. But what do we do with this hurt? How do we still rejoice in Christmas?
I don’t have all the answers or even a few of the answers, but I do think the desire that drove Martin Luther to put candles on a tree is a good starting place. That is the other thing that fascinated me about Luther’s story: because of Luther’s love for Christ and desire to share it with others, he started a tradition that is now universal. It is part of everyone’s Christmas. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you see lit trees everywhere you go.
The story goes on to say that he was so enthralled by the beauty of the stars in the backdrop of an evergreen that he wanted to recreate it for others. Surely, being Martin Luther, he didn’t think, “Oh that’s pretty” and just move on. I think it was probably because his understanding of stars and trees was steeped in the reality of the Trinity. He wanted others to know the awe of a baby being born to save a lost and dying world.
As I picture Luther standing there on that cold clear night, I can’t help but wonder if he was reminded of this passage from Isaiah 40 as he gazed at the stars:
Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.
Think about that. God calls out the stars and not one is missing. God sees every star and watches over them. If He will do this for a star, how much more will He look after and care for those that His Son came to save?
Did the trees remind him of a passage such as Psalm 104:16?
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
God doesn’t leave us to grow on our own. He tends to us and guides us and does so abundantly! He has planted us into His family and will keep us in His love.
Maybe the scene reminded Luther of what the shepherds might have seen out under the stars that first Christmas night when an angel of the Lord appeared to them to declare the good news of Christ’s birth. I think this is what Luther was trying to do in his own way; he was trying to declare the good news of Christ’s birth to all those around him. Luther had felt the grace of Christ and knew the love of the Father and the surety of the seal of the Holy Spirit, and he wanted to share that. We can share that as well. No one is going to question why you hang lights on your tree, but maybe you can tell them the story of a man named Martin Luther who wanted to share the love of Christ with others, so he started the tradition we now hold. Sharing the love of Christ with others helps us focus our hearts on the love of God and, in turn, the love He has for us.
Like Luther, we belong to the larger family of God. Maybe the sting of broken relationships is very real for you during this season, but don’t let that blind you to the fact that being part of Christ’s family is real as well. Being part of the North Wake family is real. Traditions like our Christmas Eve service, Larry’s children’s Christmas service, or the children’s singing and performing all the way home show that we are part of a bigger family. A family established by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. A family that will love and support one another through the hard times and rejoice in praise to the Lord when prayers are answered and the evidence of God’s goodness is on display. This means that when we are hurting during this holiday season, we can look to one another to be reminded that we are part of God’s family.
Today everyone who puts up a tree adds lights, but do they stop to think why? Just this week, we put lights on our tree twice because the first set was so bright you might think we were trying to recreate what the shepherds witnessed. But, as I hung a new set of lights on the tree, I began to think about what Luther fought for and the traditions that he started or reestablished in our churches. I am thankful for men and women who have set traditions in place to remind us of the love of Christ and the family of God. Like Luther, I hope to see Christ in the small moments. When lights on a tree catch my eye, may I be reminded of the One who doesn’t let a single star go missing. When there is laughter and dancing in our home, may I be reminded that God has given us the ability to rejoice in the love of a family, whether that be my immediate family or the family of God.
I hope that as this season of traditions unfolds we remember that Christ’s love is to be shared with others, that we belong to God’s family, and that we must look to see Christ in the small moments of our days. With these things in place, may we find new traditions and bolster the ones that lead us to worship and rejoice. Let us leave with these words found in Luke 1. Although Zecaraih spoke these words in reference to his son John the Baptist, his wisdom can extend to us all this Christmas season.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.