28. December 2012
Green and Red. The colors of Christmas. I think we can safely add white and gold, too. Have you ever wondered why these colors have come to represent this season? It turns out the inquiring world wants to know. A quick Google search yielded many repetitions of the same answers but never any discussion of their origin. Some say the origins are pagan and others uniquely Christian.
The truth is likely something of both. The most common explanation is that green represents the life of Christ and red represents His blood shed. This simplistic explanation is helpful. Certainly at Christmas time we rejoice at the birth of Christ, who brings life immortal to all who believe on His name. Jesus is the true evergreen, a shoot from Jesse’s stump, the rose e’er blooming. Jesus is the royal branch of David and His cross is the tree of life. All who are grafted into Jesus receive His life, just as a branch grafted onto a good tree.
Christmas is full of signs of life. The mistletoe is hung and a kiss is given among friends as a sign of good will and friendship. In England, the rhyme is said: “The mistletoe bough at our Christmas board Shall hang, to the honor of Christ the Lord: For He is the evergreen tree of Life.” Along with mistletoe is green ivy that perhaps suggests frail humanity clinging to the rock that is Christ.
Some of the oldest decorations for Christmas tide are the laurel (or bay) leaf, the ancient symbol of triumph. Early Christians in Rome decorated their homes with it to celebrate Christ’s nativity. From the laurel wreaths came the use of evergreen wreaths even to this day to proclaim Christ’s victory over sin and death. Another often forgotten Christmas plant is the rosemary. Legend has it that while the Holy Family fled to Egypt, Mary washed Jesus’ swaddling clothes and hung them to dry on a rosemary bush. Since that time the rosemary has delighted mankind with its delicate fragrance of Christ’s life.
Two traditional plants for Christmas are the poinsettia and the holly. The poinsettia is named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1851) who was our ambassador to Mexico. After a visit in 1829, he returned with this plant to his home in South Carolina, where it flourished. In Mexico it is called the “flower of Holy Night.” It’s brilliant red star resembles the star of Bethlehem.
Of all the various plants of Christmas, the holly has the strongest symbolism. One of the little delights of our parish is passing between two holly bushes on the way into our narthex. Early Christians throughout Northern Europe saw in it the burning bush of Moses, the flaming love of God that filled Mary’s heart. Even more so, it’s prickly points is a fitting reminder at Christmastide that the Divine Child was born to to wear a crown of thorns. From those temple points will appears little droplets of blood like the berries.
Green and red. Most of the season of Christmas is spent rejoicing in the life of the Christ-child as He was born into the world. We stand in awe of the sweet Child in the manger but we forget about how He was born not to live but to die. He came to set His people free from sin and Devil, to redeem them from the pits of hell and death. The Holy Spirit has given us clues to see this truth. His infant body is laid upon wood just as His crucified body is laid upon the cross. As Jesus lays in a manger for feeding animals so He comes to feed us with His own body and blood. Every happy Christmas celebration stands with the source of joy in Christ’s passion.
That’s why we’ve spend the last three days observing the feasts of the first martyr, of the evangelist, and now the holy innocents. Suffering and persecution accompany the arrival of Christ into this world. A short time after His birth and the wicked Herod is out for his blood, to slay the newborn King of the Jews. Simeon will say on Sunday that this child was appointed for a sign that is opposed. As we celebrated last year, Christ Jesus already begins to shed His blood for you just eight days as He fulfills the covenant of circumcision.
This theme of red, flowing blood will continue and even swell until it reaches a river of blood flowing from Christ’s hands, feet, and side on Good Friday. It’s bloody business as it has been since innocent Abel blood was shed. And now today, we remember a handful or more young boys, faithful believers in the promise of Christ, whose life is taken to spare Christ of death until His hour has come.
The sting of the death of a child is often to bitter to taste. We are still in shock from the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Like those parents, family, and friends, Rachel is weeping for her children. The blood of the Holy Innocents cries out to us to listen to Jesus. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:24-25).
Those little boys bore their little crosses already for the sake of Christ. We want noble martyrs and valiant Christian heroes. Our want is to mourn and grieve the death of those children. And then the Psalmist cries out: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints!” (Ps 116:15) We are horrified at the lives lost and yet thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work… and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future… and your children shall come back to their own country.” (Jeremiah 31:16-17).
The infant boys lost the life granted by their earthly mother but received the eternal blessed life of their mother, the Church. Their death is precious to the LORD because they have been received into his glory, the first fruits of the birth of Christ. What Herod meant for evil, the infant Christ meant for good. Herod intended to slaughter the King and instead became Christ’s devil to welcome home infant saints of God. The King will die under another Herod and His blood too will be shed. The holy innocents already enjoy the freedom of the Gospel through the future shed blood of Christ. His red blood will bring forth vibrant green life. We love the green of Christ’s life to grow amongst us the Christmastide. Let us not forget that the life springs forth from the red of Christ’s blood even as we today observe the blood of the innocents.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church