3rd Sunday of Advent
- · Dan’s Deliberations, Discoveries, & Declarations
- · Quote of the Day
- · Today’s Gospel Reading
- · Gospel Reflection
- · Reflection Prayer
The history of the Christmas tree has many stories of origin, and has had quite of few adaptations to its usage throughout history. In my research of the Catholic aspect to Christmas tree history and origin, I left no [xmas] “leaf” unturned. I hope you enjoy.
“The Christmas Tree”
Despite many historians’ attempts to link the Christmas tree to an ancient pagan practice, it is actually “Christian” in origin. Whoa, how is that fact for a baited hook to get you to read on?!
Although it is highly unlikely that the Christmas tree – – as we know it today – – was first used in the 8th Century, some people believe the idea for the tree was invented by St. Boniface at that time. Legend holds that St. Boniface was the first to co-opt the “tree” tradition for Christianity in the 8th century. He was attempting to convert the Druids who worshipped oak trees as the symbol of their idol. He instead offered the balsam fir tree, using its triangular shape to describe the Trinity and the fact that the evergreen branches pointed to heaven, as a symbol of God. These new “converts” then began worshiping the Balsam fir tree as a Christian symbol.
There are also claims that the first proper Christmas tree was erected in Riga, Latvia (one of the Baltic States) in 1510. Today, there is a plaque in the Town Hall Square, in Riga, that is engraved with the text “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510“. It is believed that this tree was possibly decorated with paper flowers, and then burned during the New Year’s celebration.
Another legend has Martin Luther as being credited with bringing the popularity of the Christmas tree to Germany. Out on a winter evening one night, while composing a sermon, he was awed by the beauty of the stars. When he returned home, he attempted to recreate the beauty for his family by putting candles on an evergreen tree in his home.
We do know with certainty that the Christmas tree goes back to medieval German mystery plays. One of the most popular “mysteries” was the “Paradise play”, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Paradise. It usually closed with the consoling promise of the coming of the Savior, and referencing to His Incarnation. These plays were performed in the open, on the large town squares in front of churches, or, sometimes even inside the house of God. The Garden of Eden was indicated by a fir tree with apples hung on the branches. It represented both the “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of KNowledge of Good and Evil”, which stood in the center of Paradise:
“Out of the ground the LORD God made grow every tree that was delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
When the pageant was performed in church, the “Paradeisbaum” (German for “Tree of Paradise”) was surrounded by lighted candles. Inside a ring of lights surrounding the tree, the play was performed.
In the 15th century, after the suppression of the “mystery plays” in the German churches, the symbolic object of the play, the tree itself, found its way into the homes of the faithful, and the Christmas tree then became a symbol of the “Tree of the Savior”. During this same time, the custom of a “tree” in the home developed into decorating the “Paradise Tree”, already bearing apples, with small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist. These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells. Finally, other cookies were introduced to this tradition, bearing the shapes of men, birds, roosters and other animals.
The first known documented use of the fir tree as a Christmas tree is found in a description written by a German traveler visiting the city of Strasbourg (in the Alsace region of France, but formerly part of Germany) in 1605. In this description, he tells of trees being planted in rooms, and that they were ornamented with “roses of colored paper, apples, tinsel, sugar cubes, and cookies”.
Until the 17th century the “Christbaum” (as the tree is called in German, meaning “Christ tree”) had no lights. The Christmas candles, generally used in medieval times, were placed on a Christmas “pyramid”, made of graduated wooden shelves. As time went on, the tree replaced the pyramid in its function of representing Christ as the “Light of the World”. The candles and glittering decorations were eventually transferred from the pyramid to the tree.
In the 1700’s the Christmas tree custom had spread throughout northern Germany. People began decorating the tree with candles that were lit on Christmas Eve, a practice still done today in many homes across Europe. As the Christmas tree custom spread through Germany, the Roman Catholic Church eventually recognized the tradition in the early 1800’s. It was introduced to Vienna in 1816, quickly spreading across Austria, and in 1840 to France by the duchesse d’Orleans.
German immigrants were most likely to have set up the first few Christmas trees in America, as early as 1710. During the Revolutionary War, Hessian (German) soldiers were responsible for rapidly disseminating the practice throughout the entire US Eastern seaboard. However, the Christmas tree did not become the principal symbol of Christmas in America, and was not used generally throughout American homes until late in the 19th century.
In 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was actually German) were pictured in the London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. As a result of this picture, the popularity of Christmas trees soared both in England and America. By 1920, the custom of having a Christmas tree was almost universal.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, pioneer families who settled in areas where evergreen trees were scarce made Christmas trees out of bare branches, painting them green, or wrapping the branches with green paper or cloth. Sometimes a “tree” would be made by drilling holes in a broomstick and inserting branches of cedar or juniper into it. Often the only Christmas tree in the community would be in the Church or school. In the absence of a Christmas tree, presents were often hung by ribbons from a decorated clothesline strung across the corner of a room.
While many Christmas trees are set up in the home around the first of December (or earlier!), and are in the dumpster by January 2, many Catholic families often delay decorating the tree until Christmas Eve, still today. It is appropriate, and a popular custom, to delay lighting the tree and to put gifts under the tree until Christmas Eve when we celebrate the coming into the world of the infant Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
On Christmas Eve, parents might adorn the tree after small children are asleep, so that the first sight of Christmas morning is the gloriously adorned tree. Families with older children could even make the decorating of the tree a family affair. Many families bless their Christmas trees. A Blessing for the Christmas tree could be said on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Through the use of the Christmas tree, we are reminded that our first parents (Adam & Eve) were not allowed to eat from one tree, and that Christ paid the great price for our redemption – – by hanging on a tree. Being reminded that Christ is the “Light of the World” and that His light is everlasting, bringing joy and light into our dark world – – a blessing truly appropriate for this great Christian symbol of faith. Here is a simple blessing for your Christmas tree:
“Holy Lord, we come with joy to celebrate the birth of your Son, who rescued us from the darkness of sin by making the cross a tree of life and light. May this tree, arrayed in splendor, remind us of the life-giving cross of Christ, which we may always rejoice in the new life which shines in our hearts. Lord God, may the presence of this tree remind us of your gift of everlasting life. May its light keep us mindful of the light You brought into the world. May the joy and peace of Christmas fill all our hearts. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Information obtained from the following sites:
“Let us submit ourselves to His guidance and sovereign direction; let us come to Him that He may forgive us, cleanse us, change us, guide us, and save us. This is the true life of saints.” ~ Blessed John Henry Newman, “Life’s Purpose”, Pauline Books & Media
Today’s reflection: John the Baptist teaches the path of repentance and announces Christ. Did you hear what I heard?
(NAB Luke 3:10-18) 10 And the crowds asked him [John the Baptist], “What then should we do?” 11 He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” 15 Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
This Sunday’s Gospel continues last week’s focus on John the Baptist and his role in preparing “the way” for Christ. Recall last week’s reading describing John’s appearance in the desert and establishing his connection with the prophetic tradition of Israel. If we were to read Luke’s Gospel continuously, we would learn about John the Baptist challenging the crowds who came to him, and John’s calling upon them to show evidence of their repentance.
With this in mind, I am starting with a few verses prior to this week’s reading (and also situated between last Sunday’s Gospel and this Sunday’s, Luke 3:7-9). In this way, I would like to describe to you the three types of preaching by John the Baptist: (1) eschatological, (2) ethical, and (3) messianic. An eschatological preaching (1) concerns the human soul (the person) in its relation to His death, judgment, and destinies – – either heaven or hell. John the Baptist urges the crowds present around him – – getting their feet wet in the faith (and maybe their entire bodies as well) – – to reform their lives in view of the coming “wrath” expected with the appearance and coming of the Lord:
“He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7,9).
John tells his listeners that they cannot rely on their lineage as Israelites. Why (?): because true, authentic “children of Abraham can be raised up from stones” (Luke 3:8). Rather, repentance must be observable in one’s actions. So, the crowds, probably now frightened by his words, ask John the Baptist:
“What then should we do?” (Luke 3:10)
Hmm, I wonder how often I ask this same question: What am I to do Lord? I know the answer, and sadly, I don’t like my answer. Forgive me Lord, please!! I will try to do better in the future with your help. Amen.
John answers the crowds by drawing attention to, and preaching on, concrete ethical standards (2) (principles of correct moral conduct) for reforming their social behavior:
He said to them in reply, ‘Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He answered them, ‘Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And what is it that we should do?’ He told them, ‘Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages’” (Luke 3:11–14).
Interestingly, Luke mentions in particular two groups of people who came to John the Baptist for spiritual advice: tax collectors and Roman (some even Jewish) soldiers. Both groups were regarded as “dangerous” by the Jewish authorities – – and society as whole. They were treated as outcasts among both the Jews and the Romans.
John, in his instructions, is saying we must do six seemingly simple, but rather complex, things in order to have a true conversion of heart, body, and soul:
- · SHARE what we have with others: wealth and food;
- · STOP doing wrong: don’t cheat, extort, or make false accusations;
- · BE SATISFIED with what you have;
- · BE CHARITABLE;
- · BE JUST; and,
- · BE HONEST.
John does NOT tell them to adopt his desert way of life. He does NOT tell them to make sacrificial offerings or wear sackcloth and ashes. John the Baptist doesn’t try to purposely upset the existing social order. However, John DOES call for a real concern for a person’s “neighbor”.
The concern for justice is a hallmark of Luke’s Gospel and for John the Baptist. John tells the soldiers to make no false arrests, to be content with their pay, not to take bribes, and not to bully anyone. When talking to the tax collector, he knew that they were outcasts among the Jewish people, though Jewish themselves. John knew they were detested as “traitors” by the Jewish people and as nothing more than “robbers” approved by the Roman Government. As for as the Roman government was concerned, if the tax collectors wanted to collect a little bit more than the government required, that was fine with them. They could keep the extra money for themselves; all the Roman government was concerned about was getting their tax money!!
John obviously knew how to get his message across to these groups of people. Through his divinely-inspired words – – and witness – – to God the Father and to others around him:
“The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah” (Luke 3:15).
The people recognized John as an extraordinary man of God and a prophet for their times. John broke the prophetic silence of the previous centuries when he began to speak the “Word” of God. His message was similar to the message from the earlier Jewish prophets who scolded the people of God for their unfaithfulness and who cried out BOLDLY to awaken true repentance within them.
John proclaims his water baptism of his followers to be clearly in immediate preparation for the coming of the actual, true Messiah. John the Baptist knows his place and role in God’s plan of salvation. He announces to the crowds his messianic preaching (3) (relating to the Messiah instituting of the promised golden age of peace, truth, and happiness), the coming of the “ONE” mightier than he:
John answered them all, saying, ‘I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:16–18).
When John the Baptist talks about someone coming who is “mightier and more powerful than he”, John is ultimately speaking NOT of the “earthly” Jesus (though he may not have realized this fact), but the Risen Christ, who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit in a very personal and intimate way. When John says “He [the Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), he is contrasting his prophetic baptism – – just with water – – to Jesus’ additional messianic baptizing with both the Holy Spirit and with the Holy Spirit’s “refining fire”. When this Gospel was written decades after the Pentecost event, the early Christian community’s point of view understood, “the Holy Spirit and fire” to be seen in light of the “fire symbolism” found in the “pouring out of the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost:
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:1–4).
Jesus’ “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” fulfilled John’s “water baptism” mission on earth. Jesus’ baptism will also be accomplished by an “immersion”, an immersion of the repentant in water, and in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God. There will also be an immersion the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s wrath and judgment of them!!
John’s preaching of the “Holy Spirit and fire” is revealed in, and related to, the purifying and refining characteristics found in Jewish Scripture (our Old Testament): First, from Ezekiel – –
“I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them” (Ezekiel 36:25–27);
“Who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand firm when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and He will purify the Levites, Refining them like gold or silver, that they may bring offerings to the LORD in righteousness” (Malachi 3:2–3).
John the Baptist goes on to describe the actions of the coming Messiah Savior in terms this “well entrenched urban city” boy just cannot understand:
“His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).
I am pretty certain I know what wheat is, but a “winnowing fan” (?), “threshing floor” (?), and “chaff” (?) – – what the heck are these??!! I definitely had to research these items, and the why and how they are related to the actions of the coming Messiah Savior.
A “winnowing fan” was a forklike shovel with which the “threshed” (separated) wheat was thrown into the air. The wheat kernels fell to the ground – – to the “threshing floor” to be picked up later – – while the light “chaff” (the dry covering bracts [modified leafs] of grains being separated by the process of threshing) were “blown off” by the wind, gathered later, and then burned in a nearby fire.
“Fire” in Old Testament times was associated with God and with His purifying action in the world, His cleansing actions in the lives of His people. God sometimes manifested His presence by use of fire, such as in the example in the story of the “burning bush” which was not consumed when God spoke to Moses:
“The angel of the LORD appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed” (Exodus 3:2).
John, in describing the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff, is using the image as a comparison for what will happen to the “good” and the “bad” in this world by God when He returns with His judgmental and saving actions in the person of the RISEN CHRIST!
“Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” (Acts 2:3).
God’s fire purifies and refines. This refining purification, through baptism, confirmation, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also increases our desire for holiness and for the joy of meeting the Lord when He comes again. Our baptism in Jesus Christ by water and the Holy Spirit results in a “new birth” and entry into God’s kingdom as His beloved sons and daughters:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
John the Baptist ends his preaching in today’s Gospel with a message of hope:
“Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:18)
For me, God’s “Word” ALWAYS offers hope, even in the most dismal of circumstances characters in the bible seem to get into. After all, they enter those bad circumstances, usually, not because of God Himself, but because of them turning their backs on Him!! God was (and is) always with them, even in the BAD times; they just did not believe in his “word”, nor could they realize His presence! So, read the Bible, re-read the Bible with YOU as the character in these stories, and then re-re-read the Bible so that you realize that the 73 books which make up this great “Bible” (in the Catholic edition) are truly “instructions” on how to live as a Catholic Christian and an honorable son or daughter of God in the world!!
The third Sunday of Advent is also called “Gaudete Sunday”. “Gaudete”, a Latin word – – meaning “rejoice”, with its form being a “command” – – is another way of exhorting hope. This command to rejoice is taken from the entrance antiphon for Sunday’s Mass, which is also echoed in today’s second reading from the Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6).
The Catholic Church obeys this command by lighting a pink candle instead of another purple one already on the Advent wreath. In doing so, it is a reminder that the Advent season is a “Season of JOY” and “Re-Joy-Sing” [rejoicing] because our salvation is truly already at hand.
John the Baptist’s message of “good news” inspired many to believe God was about to do extraordinary things in their midst. John the Baptist’s task – – his mission – – was simply to awaken the interest of his people to God’s “Word”, unsettle them from their complacency, and arouse in them enough “good will” to recognize and receive the Messiah when He appearance on the scene.
Today, Luke is continuing to set up two important themes of his Gospel message: (1) the Christian faith is expressed in one’s actions, and (2) the call to salvation is extended to everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike.
John the Baptist knows his place and role in God’s redemptive plan of salvation. John’s teaching to the crowd suggests that each person has a role to play in God’s salvation. He is encouraging them to follow his model of faith and hope in their own personal life’s positions and status. It is our personal, human cooperation in His divine plans that is THE great mystery of God’s initiative to empower and to encourage each of us to participate – – through our believing and rejoicing – – in His plan.
John the Baptist basically called the people to turn back to God and to walk in His way of love and righteousness. Whenever the Gospel is proclaimed it has the power to awaken the faith in people, and to change their lives for good. John’s baptism was for repentance; a turning away from sin and taking on a new way of life according to God’s “Word”.
Hmm, my life has its own temptations, and its own opportunities to take advantage of others, using them for my own personal gain. Does yours? As I prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas, I will consider my own life situation, my own temperament, and my own personality in heeding John the Baptist’s words from today’s reading. I believe I may need to make some adjustments. How ‘bout you?
The theme of the season for Advent is sometimes described as “a period of waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ”. However, today’s Gospel reading suggests something much different. John the Baptist did not tell the crowds to wait for the Messiah. Instead, he told them to prepare for the Messiah through acts of repentance. If Advent is a time of waiting, it is not the “sitting in waiting room or office lobby” kind of waiting. It is a busy time of preparation, more like the waiting we might do when “preparing for dinner guests”. Our challenge as Catholic Christians is NOT to make this season a frantic, disordered, and/or apathetic time, but rather a time of “joyful anticipation”, making ready for God who comes to dwell among (and in) us, changing our lives with His gift (grace) of redemptive salvation.
Think about the preparations you are making during this season of Advent period. Reflect on these activities, not only on what you are doing but WHY you are “choosing” to do these things. Remember, Advent is a time for making ourselves ready to receive Jesus Christ – – anew and more – – in our personal lives. Could you make some changes in your Advent activities so that you are MORE prepared to celebrate the gift of salvation at Christmas? Hmm, I think I can for sure. Pray that you, and your family and friends, will be able to live the “spirit” of Advent as it should be, and not as a secular time of the year. Heck, why not sing an Advent song, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as you light the third candle on your Advent wreath this evening at dinner. I will, and I’ll possibly report on the interesting looks I receive from my family members who ALL say I have a voice made for paper!!
“An Advent Prayer”
“Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever faithful to your promises and ever close to your Church: the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior’s coming and looks forward with longing to His return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness that hinders us from feeling the joy and hope which His presence will bestow, for he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.”