Formations 12.21.2014: City Rallies around “Ugly” Tree

John 1:14-18; 6:35-40

David Dellpiane, La Crèche

David Dellpiane, La Crèche

Yesterday was officially Charlie Brown Day in Reading, Pennsylvania.

It all started in November, when the ground was too wet to get a truck close to the Christmas tree the city had already picked out from a nearby farm. Instead of simply waiting for the ground to dry, however, workers drove to a local ballpark and took a fifty-foot Norway spruce from behind home plate.

Residents were less than thrilled with the sparsely needled tree. Before long the city was hearing calls for it to be replaced with something less scrawny. In fact, a replacement was selected, and the decorations were removed from the original tree.

But then something interesting happened. As it turned out, not everyone was happy to see the tree go. Reading city council vice president Jeff Waltman insisted taking the tree down sent the wrong message. “None of us in our city are perfect,” he said. “If we took out everything that is imperfect in our city it would be empty.”

Others insisted the Christmas tree ought to be a matter of celebration, not a laughingstock like the iconic tree in the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. For Waltman, however, that was exactly the point: what did they do with that little tree in the special? They saved it. They embraced it.

And that is what happened in Reading. At the last minute, the mayor ordered the tree spared. With the original decorations already taken down, the city decorated the tree with a single red ornament—just like in the holiday classic. On December 20, they added more decorations, echoing the actions of Charlie Brown’s friends at the end of the story.

We want Christmas to be perfect, don’t we? But perfection is a rare commodity in this world. Things don’t measure up. They break down. They fail us. Sometimes the disconnect between what we hope for and what we get is enough to give us whiplash!

It is comforting, then, to realize that the true meaning of Christmas is that God chose to embrace this world—to become a part of it—despite its many flaws. It isn’t by accident that the incarnation is the central doctrine of the Christian faith. The Word became flesh (fragile and dependent, just like all of us), dwelled among us (despite our limits and imperfections!), and revealed to us his glory.

This is the mystery at the heart of the Christmas story, presented in John’s prologue in such a way that the deep truth has no chance to be lost amid details about shepherds and wise men. Christ incarnate bestows grace and truth; he makes God known as God has never been known before.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Steve Hartman, “Ugly Tree Helps Pennsylvania City Find ‘True Meaning’ of Christmas,” CBSNews.com, 28 November 2014 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ugly-tree-helps-pennsylvania-city-discover-true-meaning-of-christmas/.

“Town Plans ‘Charlie Brown Day’ to Celebrate Ugly Christmas Tree,” Mashable.com, 3 December 2014 http://mashable.com/2014/12/02/town-embraces-ugly-christmas-tree/.

Discussion

• What would it mean for Christ to enter your imperfect world in a special way this Christmas?
• How does the doctrine of the incarnation shape your faith?
• What blessings of grace and truth does Jesus’ dwelling among us as a human being bestow?

Reference Shelf

John’s Prologue

[John’s] prologue introduces Jesus as the logos. This concept has deep roots in both Jewish and Greek thought. The opening words echo the first verse in Genesis. The wisdom tradition had identified wisdom as the one through whom God had created the world (Prov 8:22), and all wisdom was believed to be contained in the law. Wisdom had been personified, so it was a short step to affirm that Jesus was the Wisdom of God that had become flesh. Greek readers would have understood that Jesus was the incarnation of the trational principle of the universe that the Stoics spoke of as the logos.

The prologue may have originally been a hymn to the logos into which prose sections have been added. John the Baptist is introduced as a witness to Jesus (John 1:6-8, 15), and Jesus’ superiority even to Moses is defended (John 1:17). Jesus is the revealer who has revealed the Father. Those who accept him as the revealer have become the “children of God” (John 1:12).

R. Alan Culpepper, “John, Gospel and Letters of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990) 462.

A Permanent Union

In the Johannine epistles there was a recurring attempt to insure belief that Jesus Christ continued in the flesh even after the resurrection: e.g., 2 John 7 (the use of the present participle for “coming” in the flesh to imply continuation through time); 1 John 1:1 (the appeal to post-resurrection sight and touch to guarantee that the risen one was still flesh); 4:2 (the use of a perfect participle, “having come and remaining” in flesh); and 5:6-8 (the emphasis on water and blood as opposed to water only to insure that Jesus Christ’s coming extended through his death). In three of four cases, the attempt to guarantee that the Savior’s coming in flesh extended through his passion and beyond is expressed by the use of the verb “come” in a variety of ways (2 John 7: present tense; 1 John 4:2: perfect tense; 5:6-8: by water and blood). In all cases, the intent is to protect the permanent union of Jesus Christ against the progressives’ attempt to separate the divine Son of God from the human Jesus as quickly as possible and certainly before the passion. What better way to speak about a permanent union than by shifting from “come in the flesh” to “became flesh”? Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.1, understood it this way. He says:

John…seeks…to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men…that the Son of the Creator was…one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impassible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into his Pleroma [or “fullness”].

In 3.11.3, after discussing other Gnostics who took the same stance as Cerinthus, he says, “according to the opinion of no one of the heretics was the Word made flesh.” It seems that the expression “the Word became flesh” functions to insure the permanent union of the preexistent Word and the human Jesus after a given point in time. It would have been heard as a defense against the type of error espoused by the progressives of the epistles and exemplified by Cerinthus.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 76–77.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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