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Aleteia’s Christmas Homily: On the greatest Christmas symbol

© Blachère Illumination

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 12/23/19

It is a once a symbol of shame and a sign of victory

Christian symbols of the great feast of Christmas are everywhere about us. Wreaths, bows, lights, carols, Santa Clauses (that is St. Nicholases), menus, cocktails, and more — they all point, in their way, to the greatest event of human history: the coming of God among men.

The greatest of these symbols, though, is none other than the Christmas tree. With its fragrant scent, twinkling lights, graceful form, and grand decor, the Christmas tree transforms any room. The tree makes it known to all that this time of year is different. It is a time marked by something, marked by a series of very grand events, which we are invited to recall, praise, and contemplate each December. So what does the tree mean? What does it proclaim?

The Christmas tree proclaims our redemption. Why has Christ come into the world at all? Perhaps the words of the old carol put it best, “Christ was born to save!” Because of mankind’s first turning from God, Adam’s original sin, God sent his only begotten son into the world to save us from our sin (John 3:16). The beautiful words of the Easter liturgy’s Exsultet thus rightly sing of Adam’s sin, “O happy fault, which won for us so great a redeemer.”

The Christmas tree symbolizes both sin and redeemer. A tree was the occasion of sin in the Garden of Eden, and a tree the instrument of salvation through the wood of the cross. As St. Augustine says, “Adam despised the command [of God], plucking the apple from the tree: but all that Adam lost, Christ found upon the cross.” It is a once a symbol of shame and a sign of victory. 

Perhaps above all, the Christmas tree’s lush green color calls to mind life and growth. It is the tree of the cross that give life. Moreover, green is the color of hope. St. Paul assures us, “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5). There’s nothing beyond the work of the redeemer. There’s no family struggle, no situation at work, no question of faith that the Infant Savior can’t touch with the special grace of hope this Christmas. The great work of our redemption, undertaken by the Son of God coming into the world, offers to us all the confident and enduring hope that only heaven can send.

There’s nothing beyond the work of the redeemer. There’s no family struggle, no situation at work, no question of faith that the Infant Savior can’t touch with the special grace of hope this Christmas.

But the Christmas trees in our homes are not simply bare trees; Christmas trees are always adorned. Christmas trees shine, bringing warmth and beauty as they illuminate our homes. Pope Francis says, “In turning on the light of the Christmas tree, we wish for the light of Christ to be in us. A Christmas without light is not Christmas.” 

The lights of our trees change the nature of our homes. The trees gently shimmer in front windows, silently singing their hymns of praise throughout the night.  The light of the trees isn’t contaminated by darkness. You can shine a light in the gloomiest places, and the light stays strong. As St. John the Evangelist puts it, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Christ the Light comes into the world to enlighten our hearts. Pope Francis pleas to allow the light of Christ to come. The Holy Father says. “Let there be light in the soul, in the heart; let there be forgiveness to others; let there be no hostilities or darkness. … Let there be the beautiful light of Jesus.”

The greatest light of the Christmas tree, however, is its star. Like Bethlehem’s manger, we crown our trees with stars, in imitation of that ancient sign of the heavens, leading all who would seek Christ to find Him. The star faithfully led the noble magi to the Lord, and stars adorn the brow of every tree in homage of this celestial sign of yore. 

The star declares that even the heavens serve and adore this Infant Lord. After all, St. Paul reminds us, “For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth” (Col. 1:16). The stars of our trees proclaim to all with eyes to see the grandeur of Christ’s birth. They invite us too, to join their exultant hymn of praise.

The invitation of the Christmas tree, to rejoice and be merry, bespeaks the greatest grace of Christmas, which is joy. “With his luminous presence,” says Pope Benedict XVI, “Jesus has dissipated the shadows of error and sin and has brought to humanity the joy of divine blind love, of which the Christmas tree is a sign and a reminder.”

Reminders of the love of God are all about us in these blessed days. May they serve their aim well. On this feast of the Holy Incarnation, the Birth of Jesus Christ our Lord, may our hearts be overcome by the joy of this wondrous mystery.


Read more:
The history of Christmas tree lights: From fire hazards to “festoons”

ChristmasSunday Readings
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