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The Christians and the Pagans

Solstice is almost here and so is Christmas!

But what does the bible say about Christmas trees?  Actually, nothing.  There are some verses in Jeremiah about not decorating trees:

Hear the word that the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.”

Killjoy.

But note that he’s referring to making an idol out of a decorated tree. What he is describing sounds more like a totem pole carved by skilled craftsmen. And nailed like a scarecrow?  It like a cross, if you ask me.  I don’t know about you but I haven’t worshipped a Christmas tree since the last time I sacrificed a goat.  They’re just pretty and festive and seasonal. Still, the ancient near east must have been onto something because in Isaiah we get this little nugget:

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious.

Soooooo, God doesn’t have a problem with trees decorating his temple.  In fact, he thinks they make his sanctuary glorious.  And they have a pleasing aroma so that doesn’t hurt.

But what happened when the Christians and the Pagans met during the Dark Ages?  We have an account of one such meeting from the Venerable Bede.  He describes the meeting the pagan King of Northumbria, Edwin, had with Paulinus, a Christian missionary in the 7th century.  Edwin was preparing to marry a princess from Kent in the south.  But she was a Christian and her father wouldn’t agree to the match unless Edwin promised to tolerate Christianity.  So, Edwin sent for Paulinus and his own pagan priest and let Paulinus make his pitch.  Then Edwin turned to his pagan advisor and asked him what he thought.  Bede recounts the advisor’s answer in one of the most beautiful passages from the Dark Ages:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Bede goes on to say that the pagan became an instant convert and suggested that all the non-Christian temples of worship be desecrated and burned, which seems unlikely.  But it does demonstrate that the pagans might have been receptive to Christianity because of the promise of an afterlife.  Then again, it was the Dark Ages and it was pretty hard to check out the claims of the Christians about that whole resurrection thing.  Centuries later, we find ourselves turning back into sparrows, flying through the mead hall in the light of the fire and the warmth of our friends.  What comes before and what comes after we do not know.  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”, as Tolkien once wrote.

I snagged a tree this afternoon for $20 bucks.  Around here that’s a bahgain.  The tree guy said:

“I’m Chris if you need any help”

To which I replied:

“What’s your name if I don’t need help?”

“Chris”, he said.

So, I picked out a tree and asked the guy if his name was still Chris and if it was, would he mind helping me?  He did and now the 7.5 foot Canadian fir tree is glorifying my sanctuary.  I haven’t put anything on it yet.  It’s still relaxing and it’s a weird egg shape.  I can’t tell if that has to do with it being Canadian or dirt cheap.  But it’s a nice tree and it smells good.

One Response

  1. >”A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.”

    Well Jeremiah must have been onto something. Because there isn’t a forest within 1,000 miles of Palestine. They must have all been chopped down in the 2,500 years or so since he spake.

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