Many Eastern Red Cedars grew on the farm and grandpa would travel to the woods on Christmas Eve and select just the right tree for our Christmas celebration. When we arrived on Christmas Day there it stood, brightly decorated with ancient ornaments, old fashioned lights, and a star adorned the top. Nestled among the branches would be little gifts and sweets for each grandchild. The problem was getting to them. If you have ever reached into the boughs of an Eastern Red Cedar you know what I mean. We children called it the “prickly Christmas tree”. We would stand around the tree waiting for the first brave child to thrust a hand into the prickly branches to retrieve a sweet or little present. Only after we saw that person survive the branches would we all dive into the tree enduring scrapes and sticky cedar branches to gather our treasures. All of us carried the scars of those encounters for days after we went back home; but it was worth it! Sweet candies and cookies brightly wrapped and little trinkets made it all worthwhile.
There is something peculiar to each of us that makes us willing to endure pain and hardship to acquire what we desire. Whether it is a single hope or many, from sports to physique, job, family, home, finances, recognition, and others each and all can cause hardship and discomfort in our effort to attain our goals. Just like the child who braves the prickles of the cedar tree to get to the sweets, so we too, are willing to face the prickles of life to attain what we want.
St. Paul wrote about enduring pain and hardship to win a race. “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” (1) St. Paul is writing to the people of Corinth about heavenly things. These same things should be on our minds at all times, but especially as we approach Christmas.
The Season of Advent carried us to the end time when Christ will come to judge all. Advent reminded us that this life with all its good and bad is transitory – something better awaits those who are willing to endure the race to win the imperishable crown. Christmas reminds us that we are called to live our lives in Jesus Christ and that it is only through Christ that we are able to complete the race. None of us, from the strongest in faith to the weakest in faith, are able to achieve this race without the aid of Christ. At the same time, it is not “Christ and I” but “Christ and us”, for we are all members of Christ and each a part of the other. Again we are reminded by St. Paul, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (2)
The sweet is our lives lived in Christ. The prickly branches are those things that block our way to living in Christ. We have each other to push aside the branches or to cleanse our wounds or to cheer us on as we strive to live a life in Christ. Most important we have Jesus Christ himself as our guide and savior “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (3)
Use this time wisely. Don’t allow the hustle and bustle of the commercial Christmas season to keep you from remembering who you are and the task that is set before you. Celebrate the endurance of your faith, the joy that comes in living the Incarnation, and then, like St. Paul you can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (4)
Don’t let the prickly branches keep you from the sweetness of Jesus Christ. My prayer for you is a blessed Christmas.
Fr. Al Jewson
1. NRSV, 1st Corinthians 9:24-27
2. Ibid, Hebrews 12:1-2a
3. Ibid, Hebrews 12:2b
4. Ibid, 2nd Timothy 4:7-8