The oldest and most universal of all religious symbols is that of a tree. The ancient Scandinavians imagined Yggdrasil, the mighty ash tree that binds heaven, hell, and earth together, with the three Fates busy beneath its branches, spinning together the fortunes of our lives.
The worshipers of Astarte honored their goddess within the sacred groves of the Asherah; the Druids enacted dark magic under the brooding protection of massive oak trees; the devotees of Dionysian and Mithraic and countless lesser forms of pagan worship put trees at the heart of their creeds and their pantheons, and made trees their temples. There are the enchanted singing trees of the Arabian Nights; there is the blessed Bo-tree, under which Gautama Buddha bade his great farewell to the illusions of the world.
And we know how trees permeated our Lord’s own Hebrew religion; how the Book of Beginnings locates the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil at the heart of Paradise; how Wisdom, the very Logos, is identified as that Tree of Life; how Abraham planted the tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there called on the name of the Lord.
Why is this? Why do we find the tree at the heart of the religious imagination?
The beginning of an answer is that human conceptions of God and the spiritual world are limited by our human consciousness and human values and, most of all, by our human language. In the scale of being, we cannot give voice to anything other than what our language allows, or give form to any image higher than ourselves. This is the conditioning boundary of all religious insight and expression, whether brutish or sublime. “Let us make God in our own image” is not only a precept of paganism; it is a constraint of our human condition.
But it is not a hopeless situation. God, who made us, is perfectly aware of who and what we are. In sympathetic condescension to our confined understanding, God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. We are humans who worship a human God. That license is the greatest proof of God’s love for us.
And the tree is another. The tree – like Christ himself, only in symbol – bridges humanity and the divine. Erect and strongly rooted and sheltering, standing in imaginative solidarity with the best of Man, the tree stretches out branches like arms and responds to the wind and the seasons in a silent imitation of music, that purest of human languages. And yet, at the same time, all of poetry and myth speak to the uncanny apprehension of friendly life in the company of trees, a life that seems risen and connected with our own from the unfathomable depths of being, a life unthinkably old and mysteriously wiser than we ourselves. A walk through a deep wood is never lonely, and never without education.
And that is the secret of the religious awareness and symbolism of trees. They symbolize both men and the divine, or rather, the mutual indwelling of both, and that intuition fills our Scriptures. The saint, in the first Psalm, is like a tree planted by the river; “as the days of a tree,” says Isaiah, “are the days of my people.” “Then shall the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord,” says another Psalm. The mighty of the earth are always the tall cedars of Lebanon. Our very Lord knows the soul of a man by his fruit, and did not the blind man, in a moment of wondrous mystical vision, like the tender moment of awakening when true reality is suddenly, but oh so fleetingly, perfect and clear…did not he perhaps say it best of all: “I see men as trees walking”?
And as we bring the Christmas tree into our homes and surround it with gifts, we see what has gathered up all these intuitions in human religion from the beginning, and sealed them with God’s signet, and sanctified them with God’s sanction. For what is the gift that is life and death, that is good and evil, that is worship itself, that is man’s sanctuary and also man, that is somehow even God, in silent majesty; that grows on earth and yet has its arms in heaven? Here it is: “Him they slew, and hanged him on a tree.”
The Cross of our Lord. That is the true source and meaning of all the tree-thoughts that figure in the aspirational religious thinking of humankind. This is the tree which the trees of all the divines ever born went forth, from the beginning, to anoint king over them, and which says to all of them: “If indeed you anoint me your king, them come and put your trust in my shadow.”
In that tree, we see the true Yggdrasil; the tree both of knowledge and of life; the temple Ark of acacia wood and the great floating Ark of salvation; the menorah studded with almonds, the sweetening wood of Mara; the staff of Moses and of Elisha; the branch of Jessie and the root of David; the mustard tree and the true vine that are the Church, and the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
And of that Tree of Life, we are not forbidden to eat. On the contrary, the true Adam and Eve, who are all of humankind, are invited to stand in the shade of that tree, and eat of its fruit, that they may not die. It is a tree laden, for us, with all manner of gifts, including the greatest of all, Who died for us in its arms.
And so we return to the Christmas Tree.
Very likely our Christmas Tree, blazing with lights and offering gifts, is a survival of ancient pagan celebrations, but what of it? For Christ is born at Christmas, and has purged the old pagan religious instincts of their harm and unloveliness, and shown us their deep spirit, true and heavenly. All beautiful old traditions show their meaning, when brought into the true Light.
And so where the diminished and secular world might see in this gaudy tree with its ornaments and gifts only a frivolous and fantastic social custom, we of the one true and complete faith, seeing much deeper than they can even imagine, bear witness to a holy and sweet idea, the most ancient, the most lovely, and the most life-giving of all ideas revealed by God to our human comprehension:
Gifts from a Tree.