There is no entry for “Christmas tree” in my field guide to trees of the eastern United States, and I cannot buy a table from a carpenter made with the wood of a Christmas tree. A Christmas tree becomes one only when we bring it into our home and dress it up with twinkle lights and tinsel. It is place and purpose, rather than species or variety, that identify an ordinary evergreen as a Christmas tree.
Through Christ, we have become rooted in a new and eternal place that is forever fresh like spring and fruitful like summer.
As a child, I helped choose our family Christmas tree from a field of Scotch pine in central Texas. Now that I am grown, I help my own children choose our annual tree from a field of Douglas fir in southeastern Pennsylvania, a practice we especially enjoy when there is snow on the ground and we can take turns pulling the tree back to our car on a sled. Whether we choose pine or fir, the lifespan of most Christmas trees is brief, but a friend recently introduced me to his family tradition of a “living Christmas tree.” For several years in a row, he and his wife have chosen an evergreen tree from a nearby garden center. This “living Christmas tree” includes a root ball well wrapped with burlap and twine. After a few days in the house, this tree can be replanted in the yard, and my friend now has a few transplanted Christmas trees flourishing around his home.
Followers of Jesus have something in common with Christmas trees. We, too, have been given a new place and a new purpose, and it is these that now identify us. No longer defined by categories like “slave or free” and “Greek or Jew,” we are, as Eugene Peterson writes so beautifully in his colloquial translation of Psalm 1, trees “replanted in Eden, bearing fresh fruit every month, never dropping a leaf, always in blossom” (Gal. 3:28 NASB; Psalm 1:3 MSG). Through Christ, we have become rooted in a new and eternal place that is forever fresh like spring and fruitful like summer. Our core identity as “replanted trees” stands in sharp contrast to those this version of Psalm 1 calls “the wicked, who are mere windblown dust” (Psalm 1:4).
Windblown dust is a troublesome thing, and when we feel its sting, we may be tempted to repeat a familiar cliché: “This is not our home. We are only passing through.” With these words, we claim a heavenly inheritance, but unfortunately, we claim it only for our future selves. Heaven becomes a place out there instead of near as Jesus promised when He preached, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17). The idea that we are “passing through” comforts only if we have forgotten where we stand: not in the kingdom of men or even Satan, but on firm ground reclaimed by the bountiful and beautiful kingdom of God.
Perhaps the notion of Christians as homeless wanderers persists because it echoes biblical imagery—for instance, in 1 Peter where we are described as “aliens” and “strangers” (1 Peter 2:11). However, in Ephesians we read, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19). Are we strangers merely passing through this place called Earth? Or have we traded the identity of stranger for citizen? If we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, is that kingdom here and now? Or is it something we only anticipate?
In Hebrews, the heroes of our faith who preceded Jesus are those who believed they were “exiles on the earth” in search of a “better country” (Heb. 11:13; Heb. 11:16). But we who live after Jesus are digging our toes into the dirt of that better place Abraham could only imagine. When I return to 1 Peter to trace the contours of that word stranger, I find a passage concerned with our rootedness. No longer wanderers, we are “living stones” being built up into a solid, spiritual house (1 Peter 2:4-5). With Christ as our cornerstone, we are already home. If we remain strangers in some sense, it is only that we are strangers to the dust-blown reality of which Peterson writes. That reality is passing away. One day it will disfigure the earth no longer and creation will be completely renewed.
If we acknowledge the mystery of this fulfilled kingdom—if we truly believe that the kingdom Jesus proclaimed did not depart with Him but has instead established itself on earth through a Spirit-filled church—we will live each day with a profound sense of freedom. Why is this not always our experience? Perhaps it is because, though our roots are growing in a place where spring and summer reign supreme, we still feel the chill of a wintery world. We must still remind ourselves, as we do this time of year, that the Light of God “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 NIV). Those twinkling lights on our Christmas trees testify to this truth.
With Christ as our cornerstone, we are already home.
With the help of God’s Spirit, we defy the world’s winter winds to offer our neighbors the heavenly fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And this fruit blesses not only our neighbors but all of earthly creation. For creation itself is groaning for the new world that is even now being revealed in us. Groaning as if in childbirth, even as we are being shown our true nature: We are children of the eternal king (Rom. 8:19; Rom. 8:22).
Grafted into the true vine, laid like rocks on the most solid Rock of all, our transformed lives testify that heaven has drawn near and is reclaiming its rightful place on earth. If we ache, if we feel battered by the swiftly passing dust storms of the world, it is because we long for the kingdom soil beneath our feet to extend everywhere without boundaries. We feel that ache especially during the Advent season of Christmas anticipation. “Come, Lord Jesus,” we pray. “I am with you always,” Jesus answers (Matt. 28:20). Because Christ is with us, and because we are fruitful trees of Eden, every moment of our life is an opportunity to extend the reign of heaven on earth. Even our smallest offering, whether we bring a meal to a lonely neighbor or plant a tree in the ground, becomes one more resounding answer to an earth-shaking prayer: Thy kingdom come.
Illustration by Helen Musselwhite