The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Hanging of the Greens

Anyone get to clean out their refrigerators this past week? Amen! Does it look like this now?

Did you pardon any turkeys in your life? Amen, again! I hope you continue this tradition next year, and remember to prepare your hearts for Thanks-forgiving every year. And speaking of traditions, did any of you participate in “Schwarzer Freitag” the day after Thanksgiving? Those of you with a German heritage will nonetheless know what I am talking about…Black Friday? Anyone know why we call it that? Excellent! Yes, most stores make enough sales after this day of the year that anything they sell afterwards is pure profit.

Like Black Friday in the secular world, we have lots of traditions or customs that we follow in the Christian church during this time of year. There are many traditions that most young people don’t really understand, and even some of us older folks have probably forgotten their original meanings. Over the next four weeks we will be exploring these customs during our Advent sermon series called, “The Gospel Symbols of Christmas.”

Well, we know that the Christmas season has been around for a long, long time. But do you know just how long? It is generally known by most folks that Christmas began as Christes Masse, a beloved religious festival originating from the angels’ song in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This is really the Good News of the Gospel in simplest terms. But Christes Mass literally means the Eucharist of Christ, or Christ’s Communion with Humankind. It’s the season to remember why God came to earth enfleshed in human form, to commune with us, God’s children.

EMPEROR constantine 336 C.E. 

But what is less known is the face that only as late as 350 C.E. was December 25th set for the observance of the birthday of this Christ. The date was set by Julius I, Bishop of Rome, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion in 336 C.E. While the reasons for choosing this specific date are wildly different, it is assumed that because this time of year coincided with many pagan festivals, the church needed to offer people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities. Eventually many of their symbols and actions were reinterpreted in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. Although the Christmas season has been developing for over 1600 years, it is still changing and continues to grow as our customs are refined and new traditions begin.

Some of our modern traditions still originate in pagan customs and have little to do with the biblical account of Christ’s birth. This morning I want to give you some history behind our “hanging of the greens” around the sanctuary and our homes. First of all, aren’t they beautiful? Tim Causey and I were here till about Midnight on Wednesday trying to get these hung. He’s not here today, but please when you see him again, give him a big thank you hug for his generosity in decorating. His company Recreations really does a fantastic job all year round.

The hanging of greens, such as Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was used to lift people's spirits during the long winter and remind them that spring was not far away. There are more than 150 varieties of holly and ivy, and it grows in practically all the countries of the world. It was used for centuries for decorative purposes, especially in winter festivals because it bore fruit in the winter. It came to be a symbol of immortality. It was connected to Christmas, beginning in Denmark, as a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, the red berries representing the blood. The Danes call it, Christ-thorn.

Another similar seasonal decoration is the Mistletoe. Its name is derived from the Norse word, misteltan, meaning “different twig.” In ancient Britain it was the sacred plant of the Druids, used in elaborate ceremonies at the winter solstice. Because of its overt pagan associations it is seldom used in church decorations, but is commonly found in homes. As it hangs in the doorway anyone may claim a kiss from the person who stands beneath it. After the kiss they then remove one of the berries to give to the recipient. When all of the berries are taken, no more kisses are available. (Herbert Wernecke, Christmas Customs Around the World. Louisville: Westminster Press)

How about the wreaths that we hang on our doors and windows, or the greenery we string along our banisters and archways? Evergreens, which flourish when all else is brown and dead, are obvious symbols of enduring life. Our primitive fore parents brought in green branches at the festival of the Winter Solstice, which occurs every year on December 21st. They used them in magical rites to ensure the return of vegetation in the spring. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were strong life-symbols because they could bear fruit even in the winter. And wreaths represented the Teutonic fire wheel, a symbol of the sun god.

But not all of our holiday greens originate from our European ancestors. For instance; the Poinsettia as a symbol of Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend. A poor little girl was heartbroken because she had nothing of beauty or value to offer the Christ child, so she plucked some weeds from the side of the road and, as her only possession in the world, laid them at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The legend says that the weeds were miraculously transformed into the scarlet brilliance of the poinsettia flower that we know today. In fact, in present day Mexico people still refer to it as the flower of the Holy Night.

And, like these many symbols of our greens that mean more than they seem, we have an unusual gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent. Just what do these apocalyptic words mean to the audience that the gospel writer was addressing? This is what we do know. Mark’s gospel was written during a turbulent political era in Judea. Judea was the area of ancient Israel that was occupied and governed by the Roman Empire. The time frame was about year 70 of the Common Era, or roughly 40 years after the death of Christ. The situation had become gravely dangerous. Enemies and spies were everywhere. It was not safe to be a known follow of Jesus. And people spoke in coded language for their own safety, especially members of that tiny, persecuted community called the church.

The author of the gospel of Mark writes about the time after the suffering of the followers of Jesus, “Then they will see ‘the Son of man coming in clouds’ with great power and Glory.” As I read this I have to ask myself, is this a reference to a literal ‘end of the world’ scenario? Growing up I was taught that this passage was evidence that Jesus was predicting the end of the world with very specific signs…and that only those who endure to the end would be saved. How many times have you heard that the end of time is closer than ever now? But what did these words mean to the people that Mark was writing to? We do know that Mark was indeed writing about the end of an era when Jesus died on the cross. That was the beginning of the end for Mark and that tiny Christian community. But Mark believed that the powers that ruled their world were toppled in the very moment that Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus stood up to the powers, it was the dawn of a new day, the beginning of the renewal of everything in the whole universe. . . . stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, the scripture says. Nothing would ever be the same again.

And then Mark recounts Jesus’ story about a fig tree that is about to blossom signaling the end of one season and the beginning of another. Mark confirms that the old order of domination is about to end and a new day is about to blossom. It is happening now.  . Jesus is near, at the very gates . . . Mark tells us. It is the moment of truth for the Christian community—a chance for things to begin. Pay attention! And then, just to make sure we get the point, another story hot on the heels of this one - about a man who leaves on a journey, leaving his servants in charge, telling them to be ready for his return, for they do not know when that will take place. It could be . . . in the evening.

“Ah,” members of Mark’s community would have remembered. “That’s when Jesus met with his friends in the upper room, wasn’t it? . . . or at midnight when Jesus was arrested . . . or at the cockcrow when Peter denied Jesus . . . or at dawn when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus!” You see? Coded language that Christian people would have understood during those dangerous times to refer to the fact that they were living in a time of momentous importance.

“Beware, keep alert,” Mark writes, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . . or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. What I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” It’s the same word Jesus used in the garden of Gethsemane when he begged Peter and James and John to stay awake with him. Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep on me! This is the hour, Mark is saying in coded language.

I’ve often wondered why there is no story about the birth of Christ in the gospel of Mark. When it comes to Christmas, Mark is not concerned about a stable, a star, shepherds or Wiseman. For him, more cosmic things are happening. This passage is not a vision of the end of the world but words of encouragement to a dispirited group of Christians who were in danger of giving up the cause. The cosmic images and parables are ‘coded’ language, intended to remind members of the Christian community of the importance of remaining faithful in these dark days of world history, a time not unlike that time for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

 Our Christmas symbols represent a similar coded language that is intended to remind us of exactly what we are waiting for during advent. Although some of these customs originated as pagan rituals, and were even at one time forbidden by the early church, we understand that back them, like now they represented the ever-living, eternal God whose constant and abiding love is always ours…and that God is always present with us.

Like the Holly does, what fruit will you bear when the environment around you seems cold and lifeless? Like the garland wrapped around our sanctuary, how will you express the enduring life of God within you when all else seems dead and forgotten? That is our gospel duty, not just through tough times like we are experiencing today, but in all the challenges and conflicts we experience in this human form.

Advent means coming. The Advent wreath symbolizes our journey of waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one who came to liberate us from our own personal bondage. The light is coming to wake us up from our slumber and lead us to a new way of being.

Are you awake to these dark days of so many in our world? Do you read about the suffering of the poor, but have no desire to ease their pain? Have you fallen asleep spiritually? Do you snooze through the anticipation and excitement of Christmas? Have you dozed off from following the gospel—no longer alert to the realm of God around you? Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep during this season of advent! Get ready for the coming of our Messiah who makes all things alive and green even when our world seems brown and lifeless.

So go home and…