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Tree Toppers: Cradle to the Cross Supremacy

By David Jeremiah

Christmas is in the air—literally!  Think about it. On that first Christmas, the Savior was born among us, but the double announcement of His arrival was made above us, there in the sky, up there in the air. The star in the Eastern skies provided the Magi with the sign of His coming. And in the skies over Shepherds’ Field, a heavenly host of angel choristers filled the night with songs of salvation. The news came down from above.

We symbolize this with our tree toppers. Surveys tell us that angels are the most popular tree toppers, with stars running a close second. They shine down on our decorated trees as signs of the announcement of His coming.

No one knows who topped the first tree, much less who cut down the first pine for Christmas. We know that in ancient Scandinavia, when winters were harsh and days were short, evergreens were revered as symbols of life and hope even in frozen midwinter darkness.

In the 600s, Saint Boniface, a British monk, traveled through Europe as a missionary, using evergreens as symbols of eternal life. Even the harsh winters couldn’t kill them, he said, and their triangular shape emblemized the three persons of the Godhead. For centuries afterward, people cut down trees and brought them indoors, especially in winter. About the year 1510, in Latvia, someone placed a small fir on a table and called it a Christmas tree. According to legend, it was Martin Luther who, shortly afterward, catapulted the Christmas tree into modern popularity.

The Legend of the Three Trees

Some believe decorating a tree is a pagan ritual, but I believe this wooden symbol represents something special. It brings back a special memory to me, a story I remember from childhood about three trees who talked among themselves about their aspirations. One wanted to become a wooden treasure chest to hold unfathomable wealth. The second wanted to be a mighty ship. The third longed to be the tallest tree of the forest.

By and by the trees were felled, and they were disappointed with the results. The first became a feed bin for animals, not a treasure chest. The second wasn’t made into a great ship, but into a simple fishing boat. The third was discarded as having no value for anything. You can guess the rest of the story. The feed bin became the manger in which Christ was laid. The fishing boat was the one from which the Lord preached when the crowds nearly pushed Him into the lake. And the discarded tree was reclaimed by a group of Romans soldiers and used as the central cross on Calvary. If I were writing the story, I think I’d make it a story of four trees, because our Lord’s mission can be told in four phases.

The Manger:  Humble Beginnings

The first tree represents the manger, emblem of the humble beginnings of His mission. Many of our Turning Point readers didn’t grow up on a farm, but perhaps we can all imagine a barn in the cold of winter. Close up, barns aren’t as quaint or sanitized as they appear in movies or paintings. They smell. They have to be mucked out. They’re dirty, and the animals are muddy and stinky. Imagine taking a newborn baby into a barn and laying him in a cold feed bin that had just been licked by a cow’s tongue.

It was God’s vivid way of showing us that a different kind of king had come to earth, one at home with the impoverished and downtrodden. He came to live among us, whatever our status or station. Though He was rich, yet He became poor. Though He was majestic, He became humble. Though He made the Milky Way, His home was in a manger.

The Carpenter’s Shop:  Simple Preparation

The second tree in my version of the story represents the Carpenter’s Bench, the simple place of preparation for our Lord’s mission. The Bible says little about the “hidden years” of Jesus, but we know Joseph was a carpenter by trade and that Jesus was later called a carpenter, too (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). Carpenters in the Bible built houses as well as furniture and implements for work and daily life. In 2 Samuel 5:11, King Hiram of Tyre sent carpenters to build a palace for David. In 2 Chronicles 24:12, carpenters were employed to repair the ramshackled House of God. In Ezra 3:7, carpenters were used to bring cedars from Lebanon for rebuilding the Jewish temple. Every reference to carpenters in the Bible describes hard-working men of skill who provided for the necessities of life, work, and worship.

How right that the Architect of the Ages and the Maker of the Universe became the Carpenter of Nazareth. Imagine—the hand that held the hammer was nailed to the cross, and the hardworking builder of houses is now preparing a home for us in heaven!

The Fishing Boat:  Miraculous Ministry

Which leads us to think about our third tree:  that fishing boat. After our Lord’s period of preparation, He laid aside His hammer, took off Hs apron, and moved to the village of Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee. There He called a handful of fisherman to be His disciples, and He requisitioned Peter’s boat to be a transport from village to village. It also became, on one occasion, His bed in a storm. Another time, it became a pulpit as He sat in it while teaching the throngs on the shore. On other occasions, it became a laboratory for teaching vital lessons about faith and obedience.

In essence, that little boat on Galilee became a symbol of the ministry of Him who was the great Fisher of Men.

Though Jesus had no advanced training in homiletics, His sermons represented the greatest discourses the world has ever heard. Though He never received a degree in psychology, He knew more about the human heart than all the counselors who have ever lived. Though He had never attended medical school, He healed the sick and raised the dead. Though He had no training in organizational management or public relations, He started an organization that has changed the world and provided a message that has changed untold millions. Though He should have been worshipped as God and served as a King, He became a servant to all. He came to seek and save those who are lost.

The Cross of Calvary:  Fulfilled Mission

And that brings us to Tree Number Four, the central symbol for time and eternity, the cross of Calvary. For a number of years, the church I pastor in California, Shadow Mountain Community Church, designed its annual Christmas pageant around the entire life-story of Jesus. We carried the Christmas story all the way through the manger, through the life of Christ, all the way through the death of Christ and His burial and resurrection, and even to His ascension and return. You’d be surprised at how many letters or comments I received from people saying, “Why in the world are you putting all of that other stuff in the Christmas program? That’s Good Friday. That’s Easter. That’s the Second Coming. It doesn’t belong in a Christmas pageant.”

But if you go back to the original announcements the angels gave to Zechariah, to Joseph, to Mary, and to the shepherds, you’ll notice there never was an announcement that didn’t in some way foreshadow the real purpose of Christ’s coming.

Unless we see Bethlehem in light of Calvary, we don’t know the real meaning of Christmas. Unless we see the cradle in light of the cross, we don’t understand what Christmas is about. Until we see God’s incarnation in light of God’s salvation, we miss the real story. The true meaning of Christmas is not the baby in the cradle, but the Savior on the cross. Unless we make that connection, we’re merely celebrating a pageant, not worshipping a life-changing Lord.

There’s more than one tree in the forest of God’s love. And as you see the trees of the season in homes, stores, and churches all around us, remember the manger, the carpenter’s bench, the fishing boat, and the old rugged cross. The Christmas evergreen and its tree-topping star reminds me of all that. It reminds me that the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloth is Jesus Christ my Lord.

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This article was first published in Turning Points Magazine & Devotional.
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