Sunday, December 4, 2022

Under Every Green Tree: Sermon for Advent 2

Thirteen centuries ago, a missionary in his late forties glared in disgust and dismay northward from the ramparts of Büraburg across the River Eder at the village and forest on the other side. The year was 723, and Boniface could ever so faintly hear the noise of some of the sheep of his flock betraying their God yet again at the trunk of that oak tree whose lofty, lightning-scarred top he could see from here. As he gazed out at Geismar and its grove, Boniface turned around and marched back toward the Church of St. Brigid, there in the hill fort. It was built by Irish missionaries when he was still a boy, but Boniface was nowhere around here then. He grew up across the sea in the Kingdom of Wessex. Inspired by passion and dream, he'd gotten ordained, and gone for a few years to assist in evangelizing the Frisians. It was there he'd become better acquainted with Germanic paganism, whose imagination centered in a great evergreen tree whose branches embrace the skies and whose roots anchor the world. A couple years ago, Boniface had circled down through safe Frankish territory and begun working his way back north. He was eager to one day reach the Saxons, his long-lost cousins, with the mercy and majesty of Christ. But for now, the Hessians, caught between Franks and Saxons, needed saving.1

For although the southern Hessians had been brought into the Frankish sphere of influence through forts like the one at Büraburg for decades, the Hessians had seldom been the target of any concerted mission. Boniface was among the pioneers a couple years ago. He'd announced the Lord, baptized thousands. But somebody needed to build up the church here with authority and to confirm these people in the faith. Pope Gregory II had thus called Boniface to Rome, consecrated him bishop, and sent him back “to preach the word of the true faith.”2

And now Boniface had come back, only to find that, caught in the crossfire of winter skirmishes between Frank and Saxon, and without sufficient encouragement and guidance, many of those thousands of Hessians he'd led to Christ had continued their lives as before – superstition, idolatry, and all. When he traveled among them to lay hands on them and confirm them in the Holy Spirit, only some accepted and renewed their faith; others balked, and some declared they wanted nothing to do any longer with this foreign god he'd hoodwinked them into getting wet for. Some secretly and others even openly, although having once believed and received Christ, persisted in joining their still-unbaptized pagan neighbors in their traditional worship in that grove by Geismar. That grove, that blasted grove! It was that old oak tree they worshipped – for by it, they thought they served their weather god Thunaer, to whom they sacrificed in propitiating him for a fertile earth.

This was a crisis for Boniface. The forested darkness all around in Hessia was crushing. The land was soaked, literally soaked, in paganism too profound for most Hessians to resist. So long as the land seemed to them to bear witness to Thunaer and not to Christ, there was little hope to build up the church here and effect any lasting transformation. On that, Boniface had a thought. But he couldn't go it alone. So there in Büraburg, perhaps at St. Brigid's Church, he called a meeting. No doubt the few Frankish priests in town were there, with the abbot and six monks attached. No doubt some of the more influential Hessian Christians who'd accepted confirmation were there – their voice was vital. Boniface was there, and others. Alas, as handed down to us, we don't know what was said, only that Boniface sought out the “counsel and advice” of those who remained faithful.3

And so we have to use our imaginations. But I imagine that Boniface's discussion with them might have started by reading from that scripture we ourselves heard this morning. “Friends, you recall, don't you, what it says in the Fifth Book of Moses? 'These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place' [Deuteronomy 12:1-3]. Such was the plan of God and his servant Moses. For the abominations of Canaan were served under every green tree, and so the sons of Israel, to be faithful to the Lord their God, were to ban those places with axe and flame, lest they be tempted into idolatry themselves.”

But,” continued Boniface, “did Israel obey Moses and the Lord? Were they faithful with the axe? No! Once brought into the land, they withheld obedience, for we read in the Books of the Kings that 'they set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them..., and they served idols' [2 Kings 17:10-12]. Now, is the Oak of Thunaer across the river not one of the green trees of which Scripture has spoken? And is the Church not a new Israel? And have some Christians here not imitated the sin recorded in the Books of the Kings, joining the Canaanites under this green tree to serve abominations? What, then, are we to do to be faithful, to rescue our fallen brothers and sisters from temptation, and to glorify Christ in the land?”

I imagine that's the first point Boniface could have made. For a second, I think he might have turned his focus to the Frankish priests, monks, and soldiers of Büraburg. “And you, who let this go on! Brothers, have you never traveled to Bergheim, just a two-hour walk northwest? There, you Franks built one of the only other churches in all Hessia, and you dedicated it to the honor of St. Martin of Tours, who passed to heaven over three centuries ago. But in his day on earth, did your ancestors not worship at trees, as the Hessians do still? For in the Life of Saint Martin, you've read how in one village, he found just such a pine tree, and said it ought to be cut down. So pagans challenged him to stand bound where the tree would fall, and they themselves would cut it down to kill him, unless his God would save him. But as it fell, what happened? He raised his hand, made the sign of the cross, and his undaunted faith was answered by the Lord, who spun the tree to fall away from him. And what do we read? That monks wept for joy, that pagans believed the miracle, and that Martin 'immediately built a church or monastery in every place where he destroyed a pagan shrine,' and so 'salvation came to that region.'4 So, you Franks, why do you honor St. Martin with your lips and do not the works he did?”

Perhaps, if Boniface said that, the uncomfortable silence sure to follow left him way to say even more. “And have you not read the sermons of St. Caesarius? I know you have, for the Frankish priests who haven't training enough to preach their own sermons are accustomed to use those St. Caesarius assembled for their help! How, then, have you for so long ignored what he said over and over again in them? For what did he say? 'We are sad and we grieve,' he said, 'because we know that some of you rather frequently go over to the ancient worship of idols like the pagans who have no God or grace of baptism,' and so 'make vows to trees,' which is to 'reject God and embrace the devil. … Why did they receive the sacrament of baptism, if afterwards they intended to return to the profanation of idols?'5 So said St. Caesarius, and should we not ask our fallen Hessians the same?”

What else,” Boniface might've continued, “did Caesarius say? What should be done? 'If anyone knows that near his home there are altars or a temple or profane trees where religious promises are made, he should be eager to destroy them by pulling or cutting them down.'6 'If a man has... trees or altars near his estate where miserable men are wont to fulfill such vows, if he does not destroy them and cut them down, he will doubtless be a participant in those impious practices which are carried on there.'7 'On judgment day he will have to render the whole account for the souls of however many come there and commit dreadful crimes.'8 What, then, of us?”

I imagine Boniface closing the discussion something like this. “Here we are gathered in Büraburg from the fort and from the countryside around – Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Hessians – and we know that the fate of souls lies in the balance. The peoples of this land are a rude people, who respond to power and to protection. The Hessians who have fallen away have done so because of the ties of tradition and because of fear – fear that Christ is not strong enough to give them what their old gods and spirits, which are but idols and demons, had promised them. The hard winter was too harsh and violent for their newborn faith to withstand. Unless they see that Christ has strength to wrest this land from Thunaer, I fear they shall never be converted in heart. I propose, then, to obey holy Moses, to imitate holy Martin, to heed holy Caesarius. By God, I will put an end to the oak, if you are with me, and this will clear the way to confirm the weak, restore the fallen, and regenerate the pagan. If there is anything inadvisable in this plan, counsel me otherwise now. But if not, join me. Let us serve God!”

That, in my heart, is what Boniface could've said, might've said. Again, the discussion is left to our imagination – but not so the outcome. For, after talking things through with the few Hessian faithful and with his Frankish backers, they crossed the River Eder to Geismar, that ancient settlement through which the mineral waters flow. And they went out to the forest grove, to the great oak of vow and sacrifice. Boniface brought with him an axe. All around on every side, Hessian pagans stood – and some fallen Christians with them – and jeered and cursed, at least inwardly if not vocally. They were furious with Boniface, who dared to make himself an enemy of their old gods. Yet they knew they dare not try to physically intervene, not so close to Büraburg. For, with his signed papers of protection from the East Frankish king Charles Martel, to injure Boniface would to be challenge earthly as well as heavenly wrath. And so, axe in hand, Boniface approached the massive oak tree and swung.

Then, we're told – and this account comes from within living memory of the event – that there was a sudden blast of wind from heaven, which like a storm hit the top of the tree just right. And though Boniface perhaps had barely made a dent, it was enough. The great Oak of Thunaer, see, was mostly dead weight – just like the god they served by it. And Boniface's faith was enough to move mountains – or, in this case, topple trees. The oak came crashing down, cracking into four pieces as it shattered on the earth beneath. No lightning descended from the heavens in wrath on the missionary bishop for his impiety against Thunaer. On the contrary, a stronger God had made his will plainly known. Forget Thunaer. Glory in Christ!

Those in the crowd who had fallen away from their baptism were astonished – they hurried to Boniface for the laying on of his hands, recommitting themselves by confirmation to the Holy Spirit they had received, and so were strengthened with further grace, enlisting themselves in the army of the Lord of Hosts. Those in the crowd who hadn't yet been baptized, who were pagan through and through – they, too, were astonished, and some of them blessed the Lord, persuaded by the mighty deed done before their eyes. Certainly all cursing died away from every tongue. The future of Geismar and its lands was clear. This place was claimed by Christ.

St. Caesarius, the Franks in the crowd surely knew, had complained about lingering superstition about the wood from a so-called 'sacred tree' like this fallen Oak of Thunaer. “How is it,” Caesarius had asked, “that, when those trees where vows were fulfilled are cut down, no one takes the wood of them for his hearth? See the misery and foolishness of men: they pay honor to a dead tree, but despise the commands of the living God!”9 Superstition would lead the Hessians, too, to treat this oak's wood as taboo, building nothing with it, nor burning it for fuel on the cold nights. But Boniface was determined to break that superstition's hold here. If St. Martin had normally replaced pagan shrines with something better, why not kill two birds with one stone?

And so, after talking it through with the Hessians, Boniface enlisted their help. They chopped and hacked and sawed the oak trunks, just that morning a place of demonic sacrifice and impious vows, into useable wood. And from it, Boniface had them build a small chapel – there wasn't enough from this one tree for a full-blown church in the grove, and one wasn't quite needed, but it would be a place for prayer to the true God, and a reminder, so long as one was needed, of the victory of Christ over the darkness. When it was finished, Boniface wielded his authority as bishop to dedicate the chapel to the honor of the Apostle Peter, through whom he'd been sent on this mission. He left it behind him as a beacon, to light the way for these Hessians to follow heavenward.10

Centuries came and went. The exact site of the Oak of Thunaer, and of the little oratory built of its wood, was lost to time. But the story continued. Eventually, as we heard last week, the Christmas tree was born, probably in medieval Germany. But its roots went deep in history. And in time, some came to accuse the Christmas tree of being merely a revival of the tree cult of the ancient pagans. Still today, we hear that claim being made, that nothing is going on here with us now but what the Hessians used to do at Geismar. But that's not at all how Christians ever meant this tree. And so a legend arose. As the story of Boniface was retold once Christmas trees came into use, people began to imagine that maybe the day Boniface went to Geismar was Christmas Eve, and that when the oak fell, it revealed a humble little pine tree behind it, which Boniface could've told the Hessians to bring into their hall and decorate as the very first Christmas tree of all.11 But even if that's not how it happened, the story of the Christian reaction to the pagan tree cult can't be told without Boniface.

To the ancient Germans before Christ, trees like the oak at Geismar might have signified the cosmic tree that, in spirit, upheld the whole world. But Boniface tamed the tree. He chopped it down and turned its wood into a house of prayer, a way of changing the landscape to take it captive for Christ. That was part of his strategy of evangelism in his day, as he moved through Hessia and Thuringia toward Saxony. And our Christmas tree is, in part, a celebration of his victory – because without the mission of St. Boniface and those who followed in his pioneering footsteps, the Christmas tree would never have come to be. The Christmas tree, insofar as it comes to us from what St. Boniface did, reminds us that evangelism is a battle. We tend to think of Christmas in very sentimental terms, a baby meek and mild, sleeping in heavenly peace. And while peace was brought between heaven and earth, war was joined between heaven and hell. The early Christians imagined that when Christ was born, it threw the demons everywhere into a panic, making them redouble their vain efforts to keep the world in their clutches. St. Boniface would have had an easier time than we perhaps do in remembering that this tender season of Christmas is a flashpoint not in a mere 'culture war' but in a spiritual war over souls and societies.

When we look to the Christmas tree, we see an emblem of that war. We see the tree that Boniface victoriously felled, by the grace of God, and how he took it captive for Christ, because he had such passion for Christ's glory and for the preservation of at-risk souls. In our own day and age, we understand that the trends all indicate that our land is being secularized and repaganized, much as Boniface's first Hessian converts readily repaganized in his absence. In a pagan or repaganizing society, even the souls of those baptized into Christ are vulnerable to various forms of compromise – of assimilating to the prevailing ways of thinking, of appeasing thisworldly powers for the goods we think we need most. And so we find that even Christians are pulled to this grove, that tree, to make vows to things that are not God. Be it political idols, customary superstitions, blended beliefs – in any case, we make a Geismar out of our hearts and bow to the powers of mere nature there, listening in vain for the shock of thunder to answer our paganized prayers. And so, in this season, we put up Christmas trees in our homes – not because they are a capitulation to paganism, but because they remind us of Boniface's insistence that we need not capitulate, not even in our own hearts. The Christmas tree carries into our church and into our houses the demand that we chop down the oaks within, surrender the superstitions, and build something for God out of the rubble left by what he's toppled. We can grow in grace only as our own idols fall within us first.

And the Christmas tree is also a promise. It's a promise that the God of St. Boniface is a winning God, a God who will topple the tallest trees when his servants have faith to confront the darkness where it lives. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh,” like mere axes, “but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We chop the oak, we build the chapel. We carry the tree into the house and give it to Jesus. We challenge the repaganizing myths and customs, we live differently, we preach the true word of life and salvation. The Christmas tree tells us to evangelize as St. Boniface did, in faith and hope and love. And the Christmas tree reminds us that souls are at stake, but that souls can be saved. To Christ be the victory! Amen.

1  Many details in this paragraph and what follows are drawn from throughout John-Henry Clay, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-754 (Brepols, 2010).

2  Pope Gregory II, letter to all German Christians, dated 1 December 722, in Ephraim Emerton, ed., The Letters of Saint Boniface (Columbia University Press, 1940), 42.

3  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 6, in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head, eds., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 126.

4  Sulpicius Severus, Life of Saint Martin 13, in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head, eds., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 15-16.

5  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 53.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:263.

6  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 14.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:82-83.

7  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 54.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:269.

8  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 14.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:83.

9  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 54.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 31:269.

10  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 6, in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head, eds., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 126-127.

11  For an example (and perhaps the origin) of this adjusted legend, see Henry van Dyke, “The Oak of Geismar,” Scribner's Monthly 10/6 (December 1891): 682-689. The connection forged by this legend between Boniface and the Christmas tree is noted in Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (University of California Press, 2007), 45; G. Roland Murphy, Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North (Oxford University Press, 2013), 200, 206-207; etc.

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