Sunday, November 27, 2022

Tell Me a Tale of Paradise Lost: Sermon for Advent 1

Hans stood in the crowd, ready for the play to begin. It was cold out, but he and seemingly the whole town – or at least the neighborhood – had gathered at the churchyard for the performance. His place was one of the towns of southern Germany; his time was the late 1400s. At least it wasn't quite so cold as one might normally expect this time of year – it being the twenty-fourth of December, after all. But what better day for this play, really? Tomorrow, it'll be Christmas Day, when Hans and all his neighbors will come to church and celebrate the birth of their Savior, their Lord, Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of the words of all the prophets. It'll be a grand liturgy tomorrow indeed. But if the morning will see the birth of the One whom apostles hailed as the 'Last Adam,' it only seems fitting to prepare – on this, the day before – by remembering the First Adam, and why a Savior needed to be sent. It made sense to Hans, then, that on December 24, they watch the story of Adam and Eve.1

And so, a while earlier, Hans had caught sight as the performers paraded through the streets of town, carrying the final props needed to be set up – with Adam himself (or, rather, the actor who'd soon become Adam, with his short beard and long hair) bearing the weight of a tree to set in the midst of the garden.2 And now, the parade complete, the play was about to begin. The actors took their positions. The narrator's voice shattered the silence: “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae super faciem abyssi...” Hans was a simple man, not exactly conversant in Latin, but even he recognized the opening lines of the First Book of Moses.3

From the time when a choir sang back in Latin the line about the Lord God creating man from dust, breathing into him the breath of life, the action began to unfold. Hans stared in rapt attention as, in the first few bits of dialogue, the actor portraying the Maker brought forth, as if out of a pit, the actor playing Adam, and soon the actress playing Eve. Dialoguing with Adam and Eve in rhyming German lines, the Maker quite early on led them into the central level of the stage: a well-decorated area representing Paradise. And at the center of that scenery stood the juniper tree that Adam's actor had helped carry through the streets. Here it stood, evergreen – after all, any other tree would be barren this time of year. The hewn-down juniper loomed over the set, its branches festooned with shiny red apples and white communion wafers.

Around this would much of the action happen. Hans watched as, below the paradise stage, actors playing devil and demons frolicked and schemed, and as Satan slipped up to the tree to entice the pair. “Are you here, Eve?” he said, to no reply. “Oh, are you here, Eve?” he said. “Yes, I am here – but who's there?” “Are you here, O Eve, my true love?” Caught off her guard, Eve was drawn into dialogue with this serpentine trickster. Where the Maker in earlier dialogue had invited them to eat from any tree in all of Paradise except for this one, now Satan sowed seeds of doubt in Eve's mind. “Eve, seize the red apple, eat, and then you'll be wiser than God!” “Oh!” says she, “but the tree is so high that I can't seize the apple from way up there.” “Fear not, Eve,” Satan soothingly seethed, and helped her reach the apple so red. Hans watched in the crowd, as though he'd never heard the story before – and indeed, he didn't know it or understand it well. This, this was in his language. He watched as Eve bit into the apple on stage, and offered its remainder to Adam, telling him, “Adam, I've thought it through, I've brought you this: Eat with me, and you'll be wiser than the Maker of Paradise!” And as Adam thanked Eve, his true love, and agreed with her, he too bit into the apple – and immediately raised a cry of loud lamentation. “Oh, what danger! Oh, what peril! Oh, what bitterness is ours! Don't you see we're both naked in our shame?” Donning aprons designed like fig leaves over their prior costumes, the actors proceeded to play out the consequences of the fall, the confrontation with the Maker, the curses and the promise – and then they departed the stage of Paradise, as in the lower stage depicting Hell, the devil-choir cheered and feared – cheered the victory for now, feared the defeat that, in the Maker's words, they'd heard was still to come.

By the time Hans went to bed that night, what do you suppose he might've dreamt of? Could his subconscious mind have rehearsed images from that play? And if it did, wouldn't the vivid sight of that tree, verdant and bedecked with its red apples, have pressed itself to the forefront of his dreams?

Fast-forward through the centuries, and here we sit in our church, and here we move through our community. Hans was finishing out the season of Advent, whereas today we're just beginning it. This is Advent – it's not the Christmas season yet, but it's a time of thoughtful reflection and preparation for the Christmas season that'll begin in just under a month. And this year for Advent, we're going to be using an aid to our reflection. Oh, of course we have our Advent candles to guide us and mark the passage of time – and there's plenty of richness there. And we have our nativity set, to portray in miniature the scene we'd've seen in Bethlehem two thousand or so years ago, when Christ was born. But we also have this tall cone of greenery, lights, balls, and ribbons – a Christmas tree. Why, of all things, might we have a Christmas tree set up in our church? Why is there a tree set up in the town square, to be lit publicly this week? Why might some of you have put up a Christmas tree at home? What does a tree have to do with Christmas? What does this thing mean?

Undoubtedly, the Christmas tree has plenty of historical roots, and many are shrouded in mystery. But over the past couple centuries, many scholars have entered agreement that it's no coincidence that a decorated evergreen tree shared the stage with Adam and Eve in medieval Germany, and later started showing up in town halls and private parlors in the generations that followed. What Hans saw would eventually find its way into our homes – and, yes, our church. For the tree used in the 'Paradise Play' was, perhaps, a major ancestor of the Christmas tree we've come to know and love.4 The apple-bearing evergreen on stage with Adam and Eve stole the show – and the hearts of Christmas-lovers. Even in the modern era, there were once pockets of Germany where it remained customary, even after the Christmas tree made it into homes, for people to put little figurines of Adam, Eve, and a snake at the foot of the Christmas tree.5

We don't have those figurines here, but we don't need them if we use our imagination. And we should be using our imagination, this time of year especially. Ours here may have no juicy red apples, and it may be artificial – not even a real tree at all – but it connects us to that same tradition. So take a good, hard look at this beautiful Christmas tree up front today. If you put up a Christmas tree at home, or if you pass by one of the community Christmas trees this year, pause for a while to think. Don't just see it as a symbol of Christmas. Press beyond a modern shape, and see the tree that Hans saw.

As you look at this tree, mentally place it in the Garden of Eden – in Paradise. Look around it, and see with your mind's eye all the splendors of God's creation, with every running river and every blade of grass declared very good by its Maker. Take in, with your admiring gaze, the limitless bounty he provides – how in this place, this paradise, you'd want for nothing, but have all the desires of your simple heart met by the generosity woven into the fabric of the world around you. Breathe in that fragrant air, and listen for the footsteps of the Lord God as he walks with you and talks with you and tells you that you are his own. For that's what you're there for. You live in Paradise to walk with him, to talk with him, to savor his goodness. You're there to rule the earth from a garden palace, to lead the chorus of creation in a song of praise, to lay out your self-will on the altar of love and devotion. You're there to keep the garden clean from pests and well-tended, to share its splendors with the waiting world beyond those walls (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). Paradise is beautiful, next to heavenly in its bliss.

Now look again at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the heart of the garden. Stand before it, and imagine yourself acting alongside Adam and Eve in that fateful moment. See the tinsel, the garlands of the Christmas tree? See them now as the unclean serpent, coiled around the tree. He corrects you, confronts you, challenges you in his cunning hisses. Hear him whisper his seductive lies. He denies the word God has spoken. He makes your Maker out to be a bumbling buzzkill, a stingy and jealous tyrant, irrationally hoarding from you what you can just seize for yourself. You decide your destiny, the crafty snake wants you to know (Genesis 3:1-5).

The ornaments on the Christmas tree – see through them, to the fruit they represent. So sumptuous, so plump are they! They're “good for food” (Genesis 3:6) – they'd be nutritious, they'd be delicious, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Oh, but they're also “pleasing to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6) – beautiful in their symmetry, shining in their juicy fullness, just like the fruit on any other tree you'll find (cf. Genesis 2:9). Ah, and these – unlike any other tree's fruit – are “desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6) – they can teach you something, take you to the next level. They seem to be exactly what the snake is describing them as.

Look at the Christmas tree, and see the tree in the garden, with its forbidden fruit so hard to resist. All of us, in staring at that tree, have taken our nibble. Each one of us has bitten down on sin. And when we did, it turned out to be about as pleasant as biting into a Christmas ornament that we only imagined was fruit. For even if it were in itself good for food, in itself pleasing to the eyes, in itself desired for making you wise, still in being forbidden, it became deadly, like shards of glass in the roof of our mouth. Bite into an ornament, and you'll struggle to sing the praises you were made for. Sin handicaps us from living up to our full potential and living out our real purpose. It traps us in artificiality, the mere simulation of life. We become plastic representations of the people we ought to be and become.

And so, as we get ourselves ready for Christmas, we unbox this Christmas tree to remind ourselves of what we lost and how we lost it. We set it up so we can see what we let go, what we abandoned because we were too foolish and proud to say no to such flattery. The Christmas tree pictures for us, year after year, the fruitfulness we traded away for the dreary toil of winter's chill – how we smashed our summertime souls with snow shovels, and trudged eastward from Eden, out into the cold and bitter night. In the Christmas tree, we see our temptation and our sin. In the Christmas tree, we see our foolish decisions laid bare. We see and sorrow for paradise lost.

But as we look ahead to Christmas, this tree reminds us also of what can be gained. Because the Christmas tree doesn't just represent the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Christmas tree is also, just as much, an image of the Tree of Life that likewise stood at the heart of the garden. And much as the First Adam and Eve were sent away from that tree, so on Christmas we celebrate as a New Eve brings forth a Last Adam who can crush the snake and lead us victoriously back to our paradise lost and to the life-giving tree we so sorely miss.

When we set up a Christmas tree, a flourishing evergreen abounding in symbolic fruit, we have to remember that in our earliest records, Christmas trees were decorated, not just with apples, but with wafers. And those wafers were hung there as symbols of what every Christian saw, and at least sometimes tasted, Sunday after Sunday: the redemption-bringing body of Jesus Christ. For in letting himself be pinned and hung from a tree of wood, Jesus made his cross into the tree of life for us, and he himself, in his body and his blood, became the immortal fruit we've been missing out on. It's to the cross that we can reach out our hand, take and eat, and live forever. The pierced heart of God-with-us, a God who became human so he could die on a tree to save us, is the fruit of the tree of life. And so that, too, was hung on the first true Christmas trees.

For the Christmas tree does tell us a tale of paradise lost. But it tells us also the tale of paradise found – found in a Savior born in Bethlehem, found in a Savior crucified outside Jerusalem, found in a Savior who takes away the flaming sword and tells the cherubim to stand down their guard. The Christmas tree shows us a Savior born to beckon us back to the tree of life. For if the Christmas tree on the one hand shows us the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, where the snake seduced us to sin and where we lost paradise, the Christmas tree on the other hand shows us the Tree of Life, where we regain paradise. For doesn't Jesus tell us that if we overcome, he'll give us permission to at last “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7)?

And that, too, is what the Christmas tree is all about – or can be all about. The Christmas tree calls us to come for our healing to the evergreen leaves that are meant to cure what ails all the nations (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12). The healing isn't for one nation alone, or one party in a privileged position. To all who approach the tree of life, the leaves are medicine for whatever ails them, and whatever ails you. The Christmas tree is a word of welcome to feast on fruit that's fresh and new each month. Its juicy blessings are far more resplendent than any mere shrewdness or wisdom or knowledge. It's blessing is life, life abundant, life to the full, life eternal.

To eat from the tree of life that is in Christ is to eat the life of God, communicated to us in a way our creaturely bodies and souls can receive. That's the life that awaits us, that's the life that has been reopened to us, if only we overcome, if only we turn back from our east-of-Eden doldrums and overcome this winter we've fallen to. The Christmas tree shines bright because it needs to pierce our darkness, needs to not only remind us of our fall and the perils of temptation in the world, but to inspire our hope that, in Christ in his manger and Christ on his cross and Christ interceding for us now in heaven, the paradise of God is being opened to us once more. This fruit is for all who come in faith and overcome in faith, and to taste it is to know delight that never fades. These healing leaves will anoint all the pains and sorrows of our lives, will make good all the broken dreams, missed opportunities, and thwarted futures. And in the paradise of God, we'll dance with our Savior 'round the tree that is his grace, and open an endless chain of revelations of his undying favor and immortal love.

And that's why we've put up this Christmas tree. Pulling double duty, the Christmas tree anchors us in the scene of paradise lost and paradise regained, calls us to stand with Adam and Eve before the tree of temptation, to feel and admit the allure of sin, to properly grieve the simplicity we fouled up with our foolish grabbing of wisdom we weren't ready for. But the Christmas tree invites us not only to grieve what's past but to hope for what's to come. The Christmas tree shows us a picture of redemption, of Jesus presenting himself in a way that feeds and heals not merely for a day but for eternity – a greenness that outlasts the worst any winter can whip us with. So when you see a Christmas tree this season, think about that paradise long lost – and on paradise found, regained, restored – and tell yourself the tale again. It makes for quite the show. Amen.

1  For December 24 as a popular (albeit perhaps unofficial) date for commemorating Adam and Eve in late-medieval Germany, see, e.g., Karl Klimke, Das volkstümliche Paradiesspiel und seine mittelalterlichen Grundlagen (M. & H. Marcus, 1902), 2; Eva Bird Bosworth, Trees and Peaks: A Nature Study (Eva Bird Bosworth, 1911), 65; Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (University of California Press, 2007), 49.

2  Phillip V. Snyder, The Christmas Tree Book: The History of the Christmas Tree and Antique Christmas Tree Ornaments (Penguin Books, 1977), 12-13.

3  The outline of the play that follows is very loosely adapted from two different medieval examples. Part is inspired by the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman play Jeu d'Adam or Ordo representaciones Ade, translated by Carol Symes in Christina M. Fitzgerald and John T. Sebastian, eds., The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama (Broadview Press, 2012), 23-67. The greater part, though, is inspired by the fragmentary late-fourteenth-century Central German play whose untranslated Middle Low German text is printed in Hartmut Broszinski and Hansjürgen Linke, “Kasseler (mnd.) Paradiesspiel-Fragmente,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsches Literatur 116/1 (January-March 1987): 36-52.

4  Elia, “About Christmas,” The Guardian 17/2 (February 1866): 50-53; Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (T. Fisher Unwin, 1913), 271-272; Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (University of California Press, 2007), 49; Bernd Brunner, Inventing the Christmas Tree (Yale University Press, 2012), 15-16, 91.

5  Phillip V. Snyder, The Christmas Tree Book: The History of the Christmas Tree and Antique Christmas Tree Ornaments (Penguin Books, 1977), 13.

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