The Legend of the First Christmas Tree

1 Cor 13:1-13


See longer version at


Our scripture lesson is the beautiful love poem from St. Paul. It celebrates the joy and commitment of love.  I struggled with what to say about this well-known passage and not sound repetitive or inane.

When I was here at Woodbridge last Gertrude asked me if the cross of the crucifixion was made of pine. My immediate reaction was no. You wouldn’t expect the cross to be of pine, because as far as I know pines don’t grow in that part of the world. But after I spoke to her, I remember a story I wrote a long time ago that in fact suggests that the cross could have been of pine.

More importantly through, the story attempts to bring out the deep faith meaning of Christmas can and how it is the start of our faith journey, not it’s end or reason. Christmas celebrates that love became incarnated in Jesus. Yet often we celebrate Christmas in isolation from Jesus’ ministry and passion. We conveniently forget that Christmas is just the start of something dangerous.

Christmas needs to be the celebration of God leading us to deep faith that we can sustain through thick and thin. Christmas needs to be a renewal of our commitment to follow Jesus’ inclusive, peace-making, loving path as celebrated in Paul’s love poem.

So here’s the legend of the first Christmas tree. I’ll leave it to you to see how love incarnate works its way in this story.

It starts in Germany. A Roman centurion, Marcellus stands in the bitter cold, looking across the frozen Rhine. Aquilo, the god of the north wind, rustled through the bare, denuded branches, arriving cold and sore on his face. A legionnaire comes for him. He’s to report to the Tribune. He turns and heads for the First Cohort’s headquarters.

There he is told that he is being transferred to Judea. Divine Caesar Augustus has ordered a census. Everyone must return to the town of their origins to register and there will be a lot of people on the roads. Quirinius, the governor of Syria needs extra troops and Marcellus is to be one of them.

Marcellus went back to his tent, pitched before a tall evergreen. He spread his blanket over the pine cones and went to sleep. The next morning as he rushed to get ready, he did not notice a pine cone caught up in his rolled up blanket. He mounted Neptune, his horse, and began his journey east.

When he arrived in Judea, the roads were already crowded. He was to go to Hebron, but it was late and so he stopped at Bethlehem. The inns were full, but they would have to make room for a Roman Centurion. He banged on the door of an inn. Someone shouted at first in the local tongue, then in Greek, “There’s no room!” But when he banged again and the proprietor saw he was Roman, he made room for him and told he could stable his horse in the back. He went around back to a cave that served as the stable and settled Neptune. He went back to find the innkeeper arguing with a well-to-do couple. When they saw Marcellus, they stopped arguing and went to the common bed.

In the middle of the night he was awaken by a rooster crowing. He opened his eyes and saw it was deep night. It didn’t make sense that a rooster was crowing. He thought he heard a baby crying and singing in the back of the inn. It sounded like a whole chorus. He saw a light out back coming from the stable. But he was tired and went back to bed.

In the morning he went to the stable to fetch Neptune. There he saw a very young mother asleep with her new born baby. The father slept near by. Marcellus saddled up Neptune. As he left, he didn’t notice the pine cone drop out of his bed roll onto the ground outside the stable. He started off on his journey’s last leg to Hebron.

But the pine cone stayed behind and it grew and grew and grew over the years. People and donkeys came and went, but the little tree was never trampled. It grew and watched over the birth place of the Child of Love. It grew tall and strong, always standing 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. Women followed men to the stable. Slave followed master. Samaritan followed Jew and Jew followed Roman year after year. The burdens of life grew heavy in that strange and prophetic land.

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 …

And Marcellus? Well, over the past 33 years his excitement for the new land wore off. Command by command, fight by fight, prisoner by prisoner, he was worn down. Never a defeat, never a victory, these people seemed to never tire of fighting. 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.

But recently, something had changed …

There was the time he was heading back from Caesaria. Neptune was weary, so he had ordered a local Jew to carry his supplies. Roman law required the peasant to carry his pack a mile. The Jews understandably resented this enforced, unpaid labor. So when he had gone a mile, Marcellus told the Jew he was free to go. The Jew didn’t go; he volunteered to carry the pack another mile. What was this all about? What local peasant would even begin to think of helping a hated Roman? He called the Jew up to walk beside him. He needed to know what this foolishness was. And so he heard about Jesus and his concerned for all people, friend and foe… Then he heard about his friend’s beloved slave being healed by Jesus, even though his friend was also a Roman …

At last they caught the chief of the insurgents, Barabbas. They bound him and began the journey back to Jerusalem.

On the way back Marcellus stopped at Bethlehem and the old inn he had stayed in that first night 33 years ago. He saw the great evergreen rising up. It reminded him of Germany. Then he saw the innkeeper bargaining with the carpenter from Jerusalem that does work for his troop now and then. The carpenter counted out 30 silver denarii into the innkeeper’s hand. He picked up his ax and chopped down the evergreen.

Days later, Jerusalem was swarming with people from all over. It was Passover. Marcellus had been assigned to the Praetorian Guard at Pilate’s palace during Jesus’ trial. Now Marcellus needed a cross and so he went to his carpenter for one…

Marcellus’ soldiers stretched Jesus out on the lying cross. He 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.

Weeks later, Marcellus was ordered to a new command in Hebron.  Once again he had to pass through Bethlehem. He stayed at his usual inn. He saw the stump of the evergreen tree. Already new limbs, fresh and green were sprouting from it.

As he was leaving the next morning, Marcellus heard shouting and turned Neptune around to see. A crowd was yelling at a young couple with a baby heading out of town. Some shouted, “Kill them!” Another shouted, “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, “Caesar will hear of this!” Marcellus thought, yes, Caesar will certainly hear of this!

Christmas is just the beginning. Love came down to us and then was taken away by our unwillingness to be one with that love. But even afterwards, even today like the Jew who carried Marcellus’ pack and Marcellus himself at the end who covered for a young couple, we are called to carry on now the love of Jesus. It can be fulfilling. It can be wonderful. It can also be threatening.

What we say and what we do will be measured against what Jesus really said and really did. Only our faith can carry us through come what may.

God’s grace and love be with you …