Christmas Trees in Lent?
Jeremiah 10:When my children were young, at Christmastime they would decorate small, artificial Christmas trees for their bedrooms. Early in January, the trees would be undecorated and returned to the attic until the next Christmas season.
One year, however, I found myself unusually busy in January and February, so I didn’t take down my kids’ Christmas trees at the usual time. I left them up . . . until Mardi Gras, the day before Lent began. At this point, my wife, who had been quite patient with me, complained. “We just can’t have Christmas trees up in Lent! That would be wrong!” I had to agree, so I found a spare hour to remove the trees.
My wife was right. Christmas trees don’t belong in Lent. But I just couldn’t reflect on Jeremiah 10 without saying something about Christmas trees, even though we’re in the season of Lent. My real subject, however, is not Christmas, but Scripture and how we interpret it. This is surely an appropriate Lenten theme.
A few years ago, I did some blogging about Christmas trees. I focused mainly on the cultural controversies concerning the display and even the name of Christmas trees. (One prominent store decided to sell “Holiday Trees” that year.) In response to my blog series, I received a number of emails from Christians who were unhappy with me. They weren’t upset about what to call Christmas trees. Rather, they were offended by my apparent openness to Christmas trees at all.
From their perspective, biblical Christians should not ever put up Christmas trees. Why not? Because the Bible prohibits this practice. What was the source of this prohibition? Jeremiah 10! In Jeremiah 10:2-4, the Lord told his people not to act like the pagan nations, who cut down a tree, decorated it with gold and silver, and then set it up in some public place. “What could be clearer than this?” my critics asked. “Christmas trees are pagan and should be avoided by Christians.”
I did appreciate my critics’ commitment to follow biblical teaching. I did not, however, agree with their understanding of Jeremiah 10. The language and the context of verses 2-4 show that the Lord was not addressing the issue of Christmas trees or anything like them. Rather, these verses condemn the pagan practice of cutting down trees, carving them, decorating them, and then putting them up as idols to be worshiped. Idolatry was the problem, not holiday decorations on a fir tree.
So, if you’re inclined to worship your Christmas tree, you ought not to have one. But, otherwise, there’s no reason, at least on the basis of Jeremiah 10, not to put up a Christmas tree if that’s part of your Christmas tradition. In fact, as we’ll see tomorrow, this passage provides a theological rationale for enjoying Christmas trees.
Let me close today’s reflection by reminding us that our interpretations of Scripture matter. Even when we’re reading the Bible devotionally, we need to understand it accurately. This kind of understanding comes, with the help of the Spirit and the Christian community, when we carefully study the text and its context. Serious Bible study takes work, to be sure, but it pays rich dividends in truthful knowledge and application of God’s Word.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: What helps you to understand God’s Word truly? What helps you to avoid or identify misinterpretations of Scripture? PRAYER: Gracious Lord, you know how easy it is for us to misunderstand your Word. Sometimes we fail to invest the time and energy required for right understanding. Sometimes we want a certain interpretation to be true so much that we project our desires into the text. Sometimes, no matter how hard we work or how pure our intentions, we simply miss the point. Our human limitations and our sinfulness keep us from seeing the truth.
Help us, dear Lord, to rightly discern your truth in Scripture. Stir up our desire to know what your Word really says. Help us to engage in the disciplines of study, prayer, reflection, and community, so that we might know you and your ways. By your grace, show us where we have misunderstood your Word, so that we might revise and repent.
May we know the truth so that we might embrace it, do it, and share it with others. Amen.