The Legend of the First Christmas Tree

©2010 John A. Mills

Germany

Marcellus stood in the bitter cold, looking across the frozen Rhine, his breath steaming in the cold's cruel bite. He stared at the winter forest against the bleak and dreary horizon. Its trees were denuded of leaves; their branches, bare and empty. The trees seemed so lifeless and brittle, as if they could not survive the cold German winter. Aquilo, the god of the north wind, rustled through their stiff branches, arriving cold and sore at Marcellus' face.

Marcellus felt akin to those bare limbs. His life was bare and empty without point or direction. Each simple order felt like a major effort, as if his strength were brittle, ready to snap. His life was bleak and dreary like the winter days. The days passed routinely, one by one. He lived each day for when the day was done.

"Centurion, the tribune requests your presence." Marcellus turned towards the legionnaire who stood at attention. Marcellus recognized him as a peasant from his village. His family once owned the tillage of Marcellus' family, until they fell into debt, and became indentured. Marcellus turned his back on the Rhine and the plebeian soldier, and went towards the First Cohort's headquarter tent.

Marcellus stood at attention before the Tribune. "Marcellus, I am transferring you East to Judea. Divine Cæsar Augustus has ordered that a census be taken to collect taxes. Each Judean must return to the town of his origin to register. Many people will soon be on the Judean roads, giving cover to seditionists and rebels to rouse the hoi polloi.

"Quirinius, the governor of Syria needs extra troops. You are commanded there to help police that confused and confusing land. You will leave at dawn tomorrow."

Marcellus went back to his tent to prepare for his morning leavetaking. Behind it rose a tall, straight evergreen. Its needles were refreshingly green against the dull white and brown landscape. A few red berries hung on from the autumn. At its crown stretched a single, straight and green branch pointing to heaven. It seemed to defy Proserpina's time in Hades with her husband Pluto. Her mother, Ceres, seemed to blink back the tears of winter mourning and smile the smile of spring.

Marcellus thought, just maybe, green is coming into my dreary life with this new transfer. Judea is an exotic and trying land, but that ancient place will be a new life for me. In the tent, Marcellus spread his blanket over pine cones, the progeny-to-be of that great evergreen. He slept dreamlessly.

When he awoke, it was snowing. As he rushed to get ready, he did not notice the pine cone caught in his rolled-up blanket. He tied it to his horse, Neptune, and said farewell to his comrades and troops. For the last time, he looked across the Rhine. He rode in the gentle, muffling snow, the cone warm in his blanket.

Bethlehem Inn

By the time Marcellus got to Judea, the roads were crowded. Arriving in Jerusalem, he was immediately sent to Hebron. In Bethlehem, he could barely move Neptune through the streets. Since it was late and he was tired, he intended to go no further that night. Clearly, there were many visitors in town and the inns would be packed. But they would make room -- they would have to -- for a Roman centurion.

He came to an inn and banged on the door. Before the door even opened he hold a voice shout in the local language. He banged again harder. The voice shouted again, this time in Greek, "No room! Go away!" Again he banged. The door opened and the innkeeper peered out with an scrawling face. When he noticed that it was a Roman, his scrawl deepen to resentment.

"I need a room for the night and stabling for my horse."

"The stable is around back. I'll arrange a room."

Marcellus took his horse behind the inn to a cave in the side of the hill. There he found water and straw for Neptune. He unsaddled him and went back to the inn. The innkeeper was arguing with a well-to-do couple at the door of a room. When they saw him, they stopped arguing and the couple went to join the common bed.

"This way," said the innkeeper and showed Marcellus into the room whose one open window faced the back and the stable. Marcellus, exhausted, fell fast asleep.

...

What's that! A groggy Marcellus thought. A baby cried. A rooster was crowing,1. He opened his eyes to the deep night. Its not morning yet. It must barely be midnight. He heard the rooster again. Then he thought he heard singing. Maybe its just the mother quieting her baby -- but there seemed to be a whole chorus. He saw a light outside his window. He got up and looked out. There was a light coming from the stable -- a vivid, eerie light. Then he saw some shepherds crowding in. That's it. These peasants are just bedding down some animals. What animals? Shepherds usually don't have horses and donkeys. It doesn't matter, this is a strange land. Marcellus went back to sleep.

1See A Child and a Flower; alive now!; Nov/Dec 1992 ©1992 by The Upper Room..

Marcellus woke at the crack of dawn. The innkeeper gave him some bread and cheese and wine for breakfast. Marcellus then went to get his horse. He tramped into the stable and stopped short. A young mother -- a very young mother -- laid sleeping beside a new born baby. The sleeping father stirred nearby. So that was what the excitement was last night, he thought. He bridled and saddled Neptune and eased him outside, all along feeling the waken father's half-closed eyes on him.

Neptune seemed more shiny, more frisky this morning. He kept looking back at the baby and then at Marcellus, as if he understood something and wanted to tell Marcellus. Marcellus packed his bed roll onto the saddle, noticing that a pine cone dropped to the ground in front of the stable.

...

Marcellus turned towards Hebron and began the last leg of his journey. He slowly moved along the road through the heavy crowds. Along the way, he stopped by a caravan for some water. The masters of the caravan spoke Greek and told him with excited voices and eyes of three Magi they had seen further east, heading this way. Many of the people along the road listened excitedly, hoping they would not miss their coming ...

The Pine Tree

But that pine cone did not go to Jerusalem. That cone took root, and grew and grew. Horses and donkeys came and went; people came and went; and yet that little pine tree never was trampled; never was uprooted. It grew tall beside the stable, watching over the birth place of the Child of Peace. It stretched higher and higher to the sky, as the child, elsewhere in the Holy Land, grew to adulthood. Its ever green needles and red berries celebrating the nurturing of the soil and sun, of God's mysterious, divine purpose.

The evergreen stood sentinel over the march of time. It watched the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, the ruler and the oppressed year after year pass by. Women followed men to the stable. Slave followed master. Samaritan followed Jew. Jew followed Roman. Year by year, life continued; moments of joy, all too often followed by days of sorrow. Old folk died; young folk died too of sickness, war, and despair. Babies were born, grew, and took their place in the mass of humanity. The burdens of life grew heavy in that strange and prophetic land. Most people scraped out the best existence that they could, each year harder than the last. And all through this cycle of birth, struggle, and death, the evergreen grew and grew.

But lately, in just the past year, the evergreen stood watch over a different group of people. Poor and rich, oppressed and sometimes ruler, master and slave, they were different. They helped their enemies, not only themselves. They lived quietly, but let no one intentionally be hurt. They were scorned; they were feared; they were hopeful ...

Marcellus the Weary

But over those thirty three years, Marcellus' excitement wore off. Command by command, fight by fight, prisoner by prisoner, he was worn down. Never a lost, never a victory, these people seemed to never tire of fighting and debating and maneuvering. In this violent and resentful land, a Roman had to watch his back. The Zealots may strike at anytime in any crowd in any village. A swift knife and Marcellus would be dead. Marcellus, still a centurion, was now out on yet another patrol tracking down assassins and rebels. In particular, he was looking for their leader, one Barabbas.

Yet there had been high points for Marcellus

...

Like the time he was heading back from Cæsaria. Neptune was weary, so he ordered a local Jew to carry his supplies. Roman law required a peasant to carry a Roman soldier's supplies for a mile. But this Jew not only didn't refuse, he carried it two miles!2 "Why?" asked Marcellus. The Jew said, "because Jesus told us to." "Who is Jesus?" "The Way; our new life," he replied.

Marcellus heard about Jesus again from his fellow centurion Marcus. Marcus' beloved slave was dying. He had heard of the healing powers of Jesus. He went to Jesus for help -- a desperate attempt, since Jews hatred the Romans. But this Jesus healed the slave, because of Marcus' care and love.3

And just last week, one of Marcellus' soldiers was wounded in a fight with insurrectionists. A physician from the east lived nearby and helped the soldier. He had asked Marcellus, if he had heard where might be the Child of God. Marcellus found the question odd, but the way Artaban4 described him, he sounded like Jesus.

2Mt. 5:41.

3Mt. 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10.

4The Other Wise Man; Henry Van Dyke.

And old Neptune was as strong as ever. He was way past the age of a horse, yet he just seemed to go on and on. Ever since that stay in the stable 33 years ago, Neptune seemed to be more alive, awaiting something.

...

At last they cornered Barabbas in a rocky cul-de-sac. They had to slay most of his comrades, before he gave up. They bound him in chains and began the journey back to Jerusalem and trial.

The Carpenter

On the way back to Jerusalem, Marcellus' troop stopped in Bethlehem. He came back to the inn he stayed at so long ago. He noticed the great tall evergreen by the stable. It brought back memories of his time along the Rhine. He remembered the harsh, dreary winters; how they reinforced his mood. He remembered the evergreen under which he pitched his tent to break, in some symbolic way, his depression. Its green needles and red berries were a promise from Ceres that spring would return.

He saw the innkeeper bargaining with someone. It was the carpenter from Jerusalem who did work, now and then, for his troop. The carpenter counted out thirty denarii in the innkeeper's hand. He picked up an axe and began to chop down the evergreen. Marcellus felt the cold breath of Aquilo blowing from the north ...

Passover

Days later, Jerusalem was swarming with people from all over. It was the Passover and many people had come to the Temple. Marcellus impatiently pushed his way through the crowd. He arrived at the carpenter's workshop. He had a thankless and grim job to do.

He had been assigned to the Prætorian Guard at Pilate's palace during that farcical trial. He had finally meant Jesus -- in chains. When Pilate ordered Barabbas out of his dungeon to stand with Jesus before the crowd, Marcellus was angered. They had fought hard to capture Barabbas and now Pilate was going to let the crowd choose him for freedom! He watched as the rabble rousers in the crowd shouted down everyone else and cried for Barabbas. The crowd wanted Jesus, but the powers were more afraid of him than of Barabbas. They egged the mob on to cry for Barabbas and proclaim Cæsar their king. The truth be known, Pilate was afraid of Jesus too. Jesus understood what was wrong with our world all too well.

Now Marcellus needed a cross and he came to his carpenter for one. The carpenter demanded thirty denarii for it, an outrageous price. But Marcellus wanted it now; Pilate wanted the bloody deed done quickly. He ordered his soldiers to take it back to the courtyard so Jesus would have the full pleasure of a long walk to the Hill of Skulls.

The Crucifixion

Marcellus' soldiers stretched Jesus out on the lying cross. Marcellus got a good look at it. It still had some bark left on it. It was hewed from his evergreen. Jesus was being nailed to a tree from the Rhine.

Can't they hammer quietly, thought Marcellus. All of Jerusalem must be able to hear this pounding! When the soldiers wrestled the cross upright, it slammed into its hole with such a bang Marcellus thought it echoed all the way to Rome. Jesus' groan filled the sky.

His troops were casting lots for Jesus' robe. Wealthy looking people stood by taunting Jesus. Some women knelt at his cross weeping.

The tedious, tense hours passed. Jesus cried out something. Marcellus shouted at one of the wealthy looking men, "What did he say?"

"Daddy, forgive them. They do not understand what they are doing."

"Forgive whom?"

The men laughed, "Maybe you, Roman!"

The wind picked up. Marcellus looked up at Jesus. He was dying quickly. He looked at the cross. One small branch with a red berry remained on the transept close to Jesus' hand. Marcellus cried out, "Truly, this man was the Son of God."5

The wind blew and blew. Marcellus looked up at the sky. It was cloudless. The sun was midway towards the horizon. But it was dark.

"Centurion," cried one of Marcellus' soldiers, "why is it dark?"

The earth shook and shook. Marcellus replied, "God is dead!"

Marcellus ordered the soldiers to stand guard and headed back into the city. He pushed his way back towards his barracks. Along the way he saw a crowd gathered. He pushed through. They were gathered around a dying man. It was Artaban. He had been struck by a falling shingle during the earthquake.

The Stump

Weeks later, Marcellus was ordered to a new command in Hebron. Barabbas had taken up residence there and Marcellus knew his movements best. He had to pass through Bethlehem to get there. He went to the stable again to see the evergreen stump. Limbs, fresh and green, were sprouting from it, stretching to heaven. Marcellus remembered that a few days after he executed Jesus, he had gone to the temple of Mars. A priest was there rocking back and forth on his knees groaning.

What's wrong, asked Marcellus.

Pan is dead, said the priest.

Now as Marcellus looked at the newly sprouted tree, he thought, yes, the gods are passing.

...

Marcellus heard shouting and turned Neptune around to see. A crowd was yelling at a young couple with a baby heading out of town.

"Kill them!"

"They will bring Rome's wrath on us!"

"Where did you get that baby -- from the trash heap'?"

"Maybe they're going to eat it!"

"Traitors!"

"Idolaters!"

"Follow your Jesus to the grave!"

They picked up stones and began to throw them at the couple. Marcellus nudged Neptune between the couple and the crowd. They would not dare throw stones at a Roman centurion. They stopped and watched in anger as Marcellus followed the couple down the road.

One shouted, "Cæsar will hear of this!"

Marcellus thought, yes, Cæsar will certainly hear of this!

Amen.

5Mk 15:39