Ask my youngest grandson why he prefers a real tree to an artificial one and he will say, “Because we can burn it!”
Some weeks after Christmas, when the tree had been dried out by the Florida sun, they would drag it down beside the lake and set it on fire. One year he collected trees from his grandparents, neighbors and friends. It created such a huge blaze that people on the other side of the lake called the fire department who showed up with sirens blaring!
That may have been grand finale of the Christmas tree bonfires!
I was surprised to discover that the tradition of burning the Christmas tree goes back a lot farther than my grandson. In 1510, merchants of Riga, Latvia, set up a tree in the marketplace decorated with roses as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. (Macy’s didn’t invent using Christmas for marketing!) The people danced around it and set it on fire in a blaze of glory. It was, in fact, the first Christmas tree we know of!
Mary, Moses and the Burning Bush
“What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin … As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted.”
“The Unburnt Bush” is a long-standing title for Mary in the Eastern Orthodox Church. She shows up with Moses in medieval icons, hymns and liturgy. Tradition says that in 330 AD monks living at what they believed to be the place God spoke to Moses through the burning bush built a small church, dedicated to the Mother of God. It became The Monastary of St. Catherine which continues the tradition today. They still pray:
You showed Moses, O Christ God,
An image of your most pure Mother
In the bush that burned yet was not consumed,
For she herself was not consumed,
When she received in her womb the fire of divinity!
Mary Was There!
I’ve been working on a book about Mary for more than a year. It’s an odd project for a Protestant, male preacher! I was surprised to discover the Mary was there on Pentecost. I don’t know how I missed it!
They went to the upstairs room where they were staying … all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. (Acts 1:13-14)
Mary was there when the Holy Spirit came like “the howling of a fierce wind … They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:2-4)
Maybe St. Gregory got it right. Perhaps those 4th Century monks in the desert were onto something. Fire is a consistent metaphor for the Spirit of God throughout the Bible.
What if we believed that the same fire of divine love who met Moses at the burning bush calling him to be the agent of God’s liberating power for the people in bondage, was the same Spirit of divine love who met Mary in Nazareth, calling her to be the woman through whom that same liberating love would born?
What if it was the same firey Spirit of divine love who energized Jesus’ first followers to become the agents of that same love on Pentecost?
What the same fire of divine love that became flesh through Mary could become flesh in us?
What difference might it make if we allowed the prayer we sing at Christmas it ignite a bonfire of saving, liberating, life-giving love in us?
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray,
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!
Now, that would be a bonfire no fire department could put out!