“Advent was just one week away,” recounts one young mom, “so we thought we’d see what the children remember from our family devotions the year before.”
“Who can tell me what the four candles in the Advent wreath represent?” she asked her children.
Luke jumped in with seven-year-old wisdom and exuberance. “There’s love, joy, peace, and…and…”
“I know!” six-year-old Elise interrupted to finish her brother’s sentence: “Peace and quiet!”
Well, my peace and quiet was disrupted early one December Monday morning a few years ago, with the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw firing up. I looked out the bedroom window to see a group of men preparing to lay into the stately old oak tree in our neighbor’s front yard across the street. I watched in dismay as they began lopping off the uppermost branches.
At first I thought they were just trimming; but gradually, as they made their way tier by tier down the tree, hacking off the branches against the trunk, it became obvious they were going to cut down the whole tree.
I went to locate Diane (who somehow always seems to know what’s going on in our neighborhood, wherever we live): “Are they cutting down that big oak tree across the street?!” I fretted.
“Apparently so,” she said.
“But why?” I said. “It looks fine to me! It had lots of leaves this past spring. Why in the world are they cutting it down?”
“Our neighbor says it’s been rotting from the inside,” Diane informed me. “Apparently, they’ve lost a number of big branches this past year, and they’re afraid the tree could topple over under the weight of snow or ice this winter.”
“Just seems a shame they can’t try to treat it, or something,” I murmured as I got out a bowl for cereal.
“Well, they’ve tried, honey,” Diane consoled. “But, you know, that’s life.”
I don’t know; I’ve always hated to see such a beautiful tree being cut down. Maybe it’s because I grew up near the country and spent a lot of time as a kid climbing in trees, swinging from their branches, building tree houses in them, stealing their fruit, or just leaning against them daydreaming with a fishing pole across my lap.
Cutting one down has just always seemed almost tragic to me.
That big old oak tree across the street was probably a good sixty years old. When you cut down such a tree, you’re erasing part of the history of a place; amputating the memories of the people who live there.
Where there once stood a towering, dignified representative of a community there is now only an asymmetrical empty space; where there once was a sanctuary of shade is now just a sunny scar. Where once reigned a glorious haven for squirrels, birds and myriad other life now remains only a residual stump.
“Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will top the boughs with terrifying power;” declares Isaiah’s prophecy, “the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
You can just hear the divine grief in Isaiah’s words, as God determines to rid a once great forest of its infesting disease. And, in the end, all that will be left, says the Holy of holies, will be mere stumps.
It’s reminiscent of a scene from the movie “Patton,” with George C. Scott; when General Patton is surveying a battlefield in the aftermath of a fierce battle between German and American forces. Neither side won. Both sides suffered appalling casualties. The battlefield itself a scene of complete devastation—smoky ruins, rubble where buildings once stood, not even a tree left standing. Looking out upon the horrendous scene, General Patton says, “God forgive me, but I love this.”
But such devastation is not, I believe, in and of itself God’s doing.
Woody Allen once observed that when the calf and lion lie down together, the calf isn’t going to get much sleep. It isn’t that those particular animals are sworn enemies, or don’t like each other. It’s just the way it is: lions need protein. Lambs, kids, calves are protein. (Buchanan)
It’s a bit more complicate with human beings: But it’s not that we hate the other side, or love war, we tell ourselves, it’s apparently that – God forgive us – we just can’t seem to help ourselves. It’s the way the world is.
Isaiah spoke his prophecy during one of the most desperate times in the history of Israel.
For a relatively brief time—a hundred years or so, leading up to and including King David’s rule—Israel had enjoyed peace and prosperity. But then Solomon’s sons (King David’s grandsons) during their corrupted reign, had managed to divide and severely weaken the holy kingdom. For generations to follow Israel would suffer under a succession of kings who ruled for their own sake and glory rather than God’s. As a result, the nation steadily decayed, the people lost sight of God’s favor. The great Cedars of Lebanon had been compromised.
Plagued by powerful empires on all sides—Assyria, Babylon, Egypt—Israel was invaded, occupied, held hostage and banished into exile. As centuries passed the yearning for peace faded in the hearts of the people until it seemed like a distant dream.
All that was left was the field of devastation.
“You shall never fail to have a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel.” That was God’s faithful promise to David. And yet, for all intense purposes it appeared that God’s promises to David and his descendants had been snuffed out. The family tree had been cut off.
Death by amputation.
“A tree stump is not pretty,” as one said. “However strong, or venerable, or beautiful the tree might have been, it stood no chance before the blade that sliced it apart. A tree stump means that something that once was, is no more. The stump marks an ending, an emptiness” (Bill Versteeg).
Isaiah was preaching to a people who were well acquainted with emptiness and loss; and had been for a long, long time.
But it occurs to me that a tree stump also represents something else: a toughness; resoluteness. Whatever harsh reality has led to devastation above the surface, it is also true that stumps sink their roots deeply into the ground.
They don’t give up so easily.
Cutting down a tree is one thing. Pulling up a stump is entirely a different matter.
A tree stump may only be the residue of what was once a tall, strong tree, but it can be stubborn as it clings to the ground, tenacious in its claim to life, refusing to surrender its place in the world.
When our family first moved into the house where my dad still lives, some fifty years ago, my mom wanted to plant a mimosa tree in the back yard. “The blossoms will be so beautiful in the spring,” she said. And, indeed, that mimosa grew to adolescence and was glorious. About ten years later, one stormy spring night, the tree was tragically hit by lightning. Right outside my bedroom window. Woke up the whole family. Knocked me out of bed.
The next morning, we went out to survey the damage, and it was fairly dramatic. The main trunk was split from top to bottom, right down to the ground. A number of other major branches had been seared and charred and broken in two. I think dad was ready to just cut it down at that point.
But mom, who dearly loved green living things, wanted to wait and see what happened with it. So, under her supervision, dad did some fairly significant pruning; indeed, by the time he cut away all the burned and damaged parts, there wasn’t much left standing of that tree. Just a couple of trunk remnants that were little more than stumps, really. But the next spring, hopeful new shoots started to grow out of those charred stumps.
And, while for a number of years it always seemed rather doubtful as to whether the mimosa would blossom that particular spring or make it through the winter, year after year it persisted.
And, albeit, today it’s kind of an odd looking mimosa: has one trunk that sort of goes up a few feet to a dead end; a couple of major branches that reach out to abrupt ends, with a few small leafy branches that sprout out each year. The new shoots that emerged from those devastated remains have grown into major branches in their own right. Those tender, tenacious shoots have now become the main foundation of the tree.
I guess you could say it has the shape and stature of a tree that bespeaks of hard life, necessary changes, but which also bears witness to the indomitability of life.
Isaiah’s diagnosis was not wrong. The tree, as it stood, could not be saved. The nation had become rotten at its core.
And yet, the prophet Isaiah predicts more than a mere imitation of life. From a pitiful stump, he says, there will emerge the essence of life; growth the like of which has never been seen before; a brand new shoot will rise up. Leaves will break forth from rotten wood and bask gloriously in the sunlight. New branches will spread out and reach majestically toward the sky. It was the promise of a new start for peace in the kingdom of Israel. (ibid. Versteeg)
At the time it was an absurd assertion. Peace seemed such a remote possibility. Unrealistic. The reality of the world didn’t bear up under it: a world where tyranny and cruelty lurk just beneath the surface; where people hold their breath in fear of another act of terrorism and brutality.
Sometimes, in the face of such reality, the longing for peace seems almost irresponsible; perhaps even dangerous. Deadwood.
But God has a capacity to see life where we cannot. Where we see only decay, God sees a compost rich in potential for a brand new start.
And so a Child was born into this hopelessly decaying world. “And the Child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” [Lk. 2:40]
And the Child was struck down by the storms of this world – by the brutality of man, by lust of power, by greed, enmity, hatred, fear, bigotry – struck down that new life might spring forth out of death.
Most scholars trace the origins of the Christmas tree back to St. Boniface who, in 722, encountered some pagans who were about to sacrifice a child at the base of a huge oak tree. Legend has it that Boniface cut down that tree to prevent the sacrifice from taking place, and from stump of that hewed oak tree grew up a Fir tree in its place. Boniface saw the Fir tree – with its branches reaching up toward heaven – as a holy sign; the tree of the Christ Child; a symbol of his promise of eternal life.
So sings the wonderful old hymn:
“Throned upon the awful tree, Lamb of God, Your grief I see,
Darkness veils Your anguished face; None its lines of woe can trace.
None can tell what pangs unknown Hold You silent and alone— (v. 1)
Lord, should fear and anguish roll, Flooding o`er my sinful soul,
You, who once were thus bereft That Your own might ne`er be left,
Teach me by that bitter cry In the gloom to know You nigh.” (v. 4)
I remember thinking, as I watched my dad go to work pruning away on that badly damaged mimosa: “That tree is never coming back to life.”
But it did. Perhaps my mom, like the prophet Isaiah, like God, knew that life does not give up that easily. God’s power does not disappear simply because the tree is cut down.
So if you look around at a country deeply divided and in despair, or if your family relations seem to be mere remnants of what they used to be, or if you are clinging to your joy this season by the barest of limbs, take heart and have hope. God’s roots within this world – in the hearts of his children…in us – run exceedingly deep.
There will be, one glorious day when God has God’s way, a new start for peace.