The perfect tree of grace.
Last week it was clear that I needed to buy more Christmas trees for our Forest of Love outside. When I proposed the project to the parish, I wasn’t sure if anyone would buy the trees so that we could raise money to bring gifts of love to our homebound parishioners and to the people sleeping on the streets of our neighborhood, but I went out on a limb and called a Christmas tree wholesaler and asked him if he could sell me 30 trees. “Gee, Father, I don’t know, it’s pretty late for that kind of an order”. He said he’d call me right back, but it was doubtful.
So I hung up the phone and prayed to my mama, and a minute later, he called back. “Good news, Father. I have your trees!”. And then I immediately panicked that no one would buy them. I hung up the phone and prayed to my mama. And suddenly the orders started coming in and I had to buy almost 20 more trees somewhere. No wholesaler this time.
And so I drove away from Manhattan and its ridiculous Christmas tree prices, and went looking on tree lots in the country. And who knows? Maybe I could find the tree of my childhood dreams: the elusive perfect Christmas tree.
When I was growing up we never had an artificial tree. No way. We wanted the real thing, and of course we wanted the perfect tree.
We would begin at one place, early in the evening, the magic hour, when there is still remnant daylight in the sky but not enough, when streetlights come on and kitchen lights and lights in the living room. We would bundle up, put on extra socks and warm mittens, maybe a scarf, and climb into the car, on our way to the first place, looking for the perfect Christmas tree. The Dairy Queen lot, transformed into an enormous outdoor room with walls of trees, a ceiling of strings of bare white bulbs, and a heating system that consisted of one rusty barrel of flaming evergreen branches---the Dairy Queen was our first stop. There were hundreds of trees to inspect there, but in fact we probably only looked at 25 or 30, rejecting all the others because they were too tall or too short or the needles were not the right kind or the tops weren't pointy enough. Finally we'd reject all of them because this was only the start of our search and we knew, my sister and I, that we had other stops and surely the perfect tree was somewhere still ahead of us.
Our father somehow found the patience required, and we would climb back into the car, off to the second place, always the same, the lot beside the volunteer fire house. Every year they specialized in Scotch Pines for some odd reason, and though we were never real fans, we'd stop and look, take measure of another 20 trees or so, but we'd never find the perfect Christmas tree at the volunteer fire house lot.
The A&P was our third stop, more walls of trees but the attraction was the live sheep and the cider. For a dime you could have a cup of warm apple cider and it wouldn't cost you anything to feed the sheep some hay. My sister and I would start to fight at this point in the great Christmas tree search, we'd fight about some particular trees, each rejecting the other's choice because it was too skimpy or too wide or because it had a crooked trunk. More often than not, our father's dire threats of an artificial tree brought us to some compromise, and then Dad would take on the task of bargaining the price down with the man.
It was never the perfect Christmas tree, there was not one year that we found a tree to be the perfect height and shape, with every branch evenly spaced and living in harmony with its neighbor. Every year with every tree that we took home, Dad would be out in the cold garage for hours trimming crooked trunks, snipping awkward branches, and drilling holes to insert foreign branches into places where the tree chose not to grow an appendage. When he was finished, the tree was as nearly perfect as you can make a Christmas tree, and most of our holiday guests ooohed and ahhhed at it when they visited. But my sister and I knew that it was not, in fact, the perfect Christmas tree, that we didn't find it this year. There was always next year, and the hope of perfect Christmases to come.
But when I grew older the world grew darker, and hope… well, hope lives more easily in the young. My sister got married and started her own family, and the Christmas tree choice became solely my own. Not even my father came along, his bargaining spirit spent out over the years, and maybe his bones a bit weary of the chill. Perhaps out of habit, or maybe nostalgia, I continued to visit each of the three lots, looking for a tree. Not the perfect tree, I no longer went looking for the perfect tree, because as I grew older I realized that you never just find the perfect tree on a lot at the A&P or the Dairy Queen. No the perfect Christmas tree is something like the perfect Christmas, it is born into the world with great effort.
A couple of years ago, I watched a movie that spoke to me about the effort it takes. The movie is called Tree of Life. And that film astonished me because it spoke exactly about the way I have come to see this amazing creation of which we are a part, and the striking difference between the way of nature versus the way of God’s grace.
The way of nature is the way of guns and pipe bombs and harassment and fundamentalist declarations of the truth—be it from radical believers or bombastic, narcissistic politicians. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, getting even and getting ahead. Might makes right. And such power also provides pleasure, no matter how it batters and humiliates and assaults. The way of nature is the way of rising fear, growing darkness, and preparations for warfare that will not bring peace for anyone, really.
The way of grace is something else altogether. The way of grace has none of that. The way of grace is about gentleness and humility and self-surrender. The way of grace is about cooperation and sacrifice and forgiveness. It is the way to light and to hope and to redemption and to community and to love.
If I stopped looking for the perfect Christmas tree, I never stopped looking for the perfect Christmas. But I have learned that it is born into the world with great effort.
What should I say about birth, what can I say about giving birth, about the pain of it, the enormous tearing apart it requires, the risk that in giving birth you may die in the process, the certainty that all birth involves some kind of death? What do I know about birth, you know, what does any man really know about birth? I will never know the daily nausea, the strangeness of sharing my body with another being, the final pain when separation occurs and the baby comes tumbling out like raw meat, the exhaustion in the aftermath and the pain in the healing. What can a man really say about birth?
I can speak about an imperfect man looking for a perfect Christmas tree and more importantly, a perfect Christmas life. I can speak, as you all can, about some of the pain in trying to be reborn, myself and the world I'm a part of, the pain in trying to make this sorry self and sorry world be born again into the kind of perfect height and perfect shape, the perfect harmony of branches and trunk that it was meant to be from the beginning. It is not easy to be reborn, that much I know, because it requires extensive pruning, time-consuming shaping, risky straightening, and more than anything else, death-defying faith. The perfect tree begins to take shape right here, the same place crazy John the Baptist speaks to us, right here, in his locust and honeyed voice, "Reform your lives, the Kingdom of God is at hand!" Re-form, re-shape ourselves, you and me.
There is darkness all around us, but John comes to us, dressed in rags, stomach full of digesting locusts, and a raging fire in his heart, and he wakes us up from our happy slumber to try to teach us the way to becoming responsible for who we are meant to be. WAKE UP, forget your idol iPhones and your Amazon wonders, it’s time to get your act together, to see the suffering servant who walks on this earth every moment of every day, WAKE UP and open your hearts to the poor, the lame, the blind, the starving, the wounded and the dying who surround you every moment of every day…who are you. Prepare the way of Grace for the world in which we all live, go to war against the way of Nature and darkness, using the weapon of Love that is trying once again to be born in our world.
John, making straight the pathway of the Lord, for us. In these days of Advent, listen to him, especially when the road seems endlessly longer, hopelessly higher, when despair seems to silence all the hope. Prepare yourselves, onward, to the Father's love begotten, for all of us. To the baby Jesus, waiting to be born in you, and in me, for the whole sorry world.