Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
by Tom Beutel
They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. Matthew 27:28 (NIV)
When I first began writing “Balancing Acts” over 10 years ago Susan Mark Landis, who was then the editor of Peace Signs, explained that one emphasis of the column was to embrace the tension between spiritual and practical, faith and works, worship and service. This tension is inherent in our Christian faith, but for many of us it is difficult to hold these two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time. We either tend toward the practical somewhat ignoring the spiritual or we focus on the spiritual at the expense of the practical.
The same can be true of the two great holidays of the Christian year – Christmas and Easter. It may be difficult to hold these both equally; we tend to favor one over the other.
While there are no doubt many ways to look at these days, Christmas seems to me to be identified with the practical – God with us. Jesus, who was God Himself, set aside his divinity and became human, even being born as a vulnerable baby to a poor couple. He experienced all of what it means to be human – temptation, friendship, rejection, love, sorrow and joy. In His time of ministry much of what He did was practical: healing those who were sick, giving sight to the blind, allowing the lame to walk. All-in-all these things which are a result of Christmas, of God becoming human, are practical.
Some of us, particularly those who seek to be peacemakers, probably identify more with this practical side of Jesus. We work at food banks or serve at hot meals programs; we advocate for higher wages for workers; we befriend and walk beside immigrants; we work at clinics.
But, Christmas is not the only important event in the life of Jesus. He was also betrayed, arrested, executed and resurrected! One could argue that this, too, was quite practical, bringing needed salvation to all people caught up in and oppressed by their own sin and the sin of others. However, we could also view this as the “spiritual holiday.” How the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplished victory over sin and death and brought salvation to humanity is certainly a spiritual matter. It is inexplicable in logical, practical terms.
Some of us may be more inclined to Easter, seeing Jesus’ “work” of the cross as being the essential reason for His birth and life. We seek opportunities to tell about and explain Jesus to others; we engage in and lead Bible studies, worship services, and prayer vigils; we focus on the spiritual needs of others more than on their physical needs.
While it may be in our nature – and God may lead some – to be more focused on the physical and others to be more focused on the spiritual, both are important. An old Frank Sinatra song captures the idea:
Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.
Probably without meaning to this song captures the essential truth of Christmas and Easter. Love is mysterious, emotional, sacrificial; it is “spiritual.” 1 John 4:7 says, “love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (NIV)
Marriage on the other hand is intentional, a commitment, involves work and perseverance, puts love into practice; it is “practical.” James 2:14-17 reminds us,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
And, as the song reminds, the two go together. In fact, “you can’t have one without the other.” The same is true of Christmas and Easter. Each, important in itself is, nevertheless, incomplete without the other. Christmas’ practicality becomes mere “works righteousness” or social activism without Easter. And Easter’s spiritual deliverance from sin and death can become a heartless faith, a dead faith.
For Christians, whether we see ourselves as peacemakers or not, both are important – faith and works, spiritual and practical, Christmas and Easter.
This is where “taking down the tree” comes in. The ritual of the Christmas tree can remind us of both Christmas and Easter. The Christmas tree is certainly associated with Christmas and decorating and displaying it are part and parcel of many Christmas celebrations. Typically an evergreen (pine, spruce, etc.) it is a symbol of eternity and eternal life. The lights represent the light that Christ brings to the world; the ornaments perhaps can be associated with the gifts of the Wise Men; and, of course, many situate an angel at the top of the tree as a reminder of the angels that proclaimed Jesus’ birth to the shepherds.
But, in another sense, the Christmas tree can be – up to a point – a reminder of Easter. Decorating the tree reminds us of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, with the crowds proclaiming Him to be king, paving the way with their cloaks and palm branches. Taking down the tree marks the end of that same week with Jesus being stripped, rejected, and crucified. In the same way we strip the tree of its decorations and cast it out to be burned or picked up with the trash.
Each year, then, as we take down the tree, perhaps it can remind us of what is to come in just a few months, the celebration of Easter. Taking down the tree, marks not just the end of one holiday season, but, in a way, the beginning of another.
As we approach the Easter season – Lent begins in just a few weeks – let’s remember Christmas and the “practical” aspect of our faith. Also, let’s embrace the spiritual aspect, exemplified by Easter. Our faith includes both. Our lives should do so as well.