Christmas Tree Festivals are a great addition to the church calendar at Christmas, and the story of Saint Boniface and the first Christmas tree is a good topic for the talk!
This talk was given at the celebration service to end our Christmas Tree Festival (that link will also get you to the order of service). This story of St Boniface isn’t included in the earliest accounts we have of his life. However, it is a good story and explains the symbolism of Christmas trees and hope of Christmas well. I modified the version written by Rev Alan Barker from SPCK’s excellent Assemblies website.
Boniface; Readings: Isaiah 11:1-4a; Matthew 1:18-23
It’s lovely to see Emmanuel Church decorated with all these Christmas trees, from a whole range of different groups. We’ve got local schools, charities, local groups and organisations, including groups from church and ones which use our Church Hall. And of course we have the results of all the hard work that our usual decorations team puts in as well. Thank you all for all your hard work. It’s been great to spend time looking at all the creativity and effort that have so obviously gone in to all the decorations. And in this service it’s been good to enjoy the talents of our musicians and choir. Thank you as well. It’s also been good to welcome the Chair of South Derbyshire District Council over the weekend and to this service.
It’s also been good to see the results of people’s talents, and find out about people’s passions and hard work. It’s been moving to read some of the reflections on Christmas and on the groups that are on some of the trees. And all this reflects the concern for us that God has for each one of us, a concern that is reflected in the Bible readings that we heard. In those we hear about a God who cares for us and cares about what we do, how we make use of our talents and how we treat one another.
This is also shown in one story about the start of Christmas trees. This is the story of a British saint, Saint Boniface. Boniface was a missionary who travelled across Germany telling people the good news of Jesus, who came to show us that God is with us.
Often his journeys took Boniface through vast forests. One day, the story goes, Boniface came across a group of people dragging a struggling boy along the track. They stopped beneath a large tree and pushed the boy to the ground. Boniface was horrified to see one of the people raise an axe high in the air.
So, Boniface leapt from his hiding place, seized the axe and helped the boy to his feet. The others surrounded him. ‘You shall die for this,’ they hissed. ‘The spirits of the trees demand life, and they will now take yours.’
‘I am not afraid’, replied Boniface, ‘and you should not be frightened of the spirits of the trees. Look! I will show you that they have no power.’ Taking the axe, Boniface began to cut at the trunk of the ancient oak tree that the people worshipped. They drew back, believing he would come to harm. Eventually, the tree crashed to the ground and Boniface was still standing.
Everyone was amazed. ‘What is this ?’ they asked one another. ‘It is the strength that comes from faith in God.’ replied Boniface ‘God, who made the trees, has sent his Son so that we need never be afraid.’ As he sat on the upturned tree telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Boniface noticed a small fir tree growing inamongst the roots of the oak tree.
He pointed to it. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘If you wish to have a holy tree, here is one. Its branches point to heaven and to God who has made the world. It doesn’t have leaves that fall every year – its needles are evergreen. A fir tree like this is a sign of life even in the middle of winter – like the life God gives to us through his Son.’
That little fir tree growing by the now fallen oak also reminds me of the first Bible reading we heard, from the prophet Isaiah, talking about the shoot growing up from the stump of Jesse. And we heard the end of that story in our second reading, telling the birth of Jesus, the new shoot growing up out of the old tree.
The name that Jesus is given in that reading from Matthew is where we get the name of our church from, Emmanuel, God with us. And that’s really what this Christmas Tree Celebration is about, and what we celebrate at Christmas. We celebrate that God is with us, that God has given us the talents and gifts that are shown in all these decorated trees, and that God cares about all the things we do. God is interested in us using our skills and talents, God is interested in the ways that we seek to care for one another, God is interested in all the ways that we care for each other and serve each other. Which is why it’s also good that we have the Chair of South Derbyshire District Council here as well. Ann, it’s a hard job and we’re praying for you.
So, as we gather to celebrate our gifts and our concerns, our interests and our lives, let us also give thanks to Emmanuel, God with us. We can celebrate with him this Christmas. Amen.