Terrible Christmas trees. Derby - this year's winner.
"It looks awful. Why bother? It does not look festive at all. Take it down along with all the railings. Embarrassing to be from Derby." So as we enter December, we have our first awful Christmas tree story. In fact, just a few moments ago (life has since moved on) it was the lead piece on the BBC news website with the startling heading “Derby cordoned-off Christmas tree 'an embarrassment.'” Such stories are now part of the annual ritual of the Festive Season. No doubt you will remember “the cold blue lights and scrappy tree” from Buxton in 2015 while the white 20ft tree in Stockton was branded the “worst in Britain” some two years earlier. This particular sapling was compared to a dunce’s hat and upside down ice cream cone by the locals. Just google “embarrassment town Christmas lights” and you’re in for a treat! However, my favourite was located in the small Pennine town of Whitworth, not far from where we used to live in Rochdale. There the worthy councillors erected just one solitary illuminated reindeer atop a lamppost. At least I think it was a reindeer. It might have been a snowman. He was called Barney and took pride of place not just on BBC North West Tonight but in the hearts of the people of Lancashire. People travelled far and wide to gaze upon Barney. In fact, only last Friday we gathered at the entrance to Ormskirk parish church to witness the turning on of the lights of Ormskirk’s Christmas tree, erected by public demand after last year’s demise. I think the £980 for the tree was raised by public subscription following a determined campaign by Our West Lancashire. Clearly town Christmas trees occupy a very special place in our culture, a public statement to which people identify very strongly. Hence the annual coverage of the scandal of tatty trees. However, the obvious question is Why? So today with the world in turmoil – Yemen, the difficulties for the Irish border from Brexit, RBS decimating their branch network, the sufferings of the Rohingya people – remarkably the BBC national website leads with a poorly displayed Christmas tree in the East Midlands. Something is happening here which I’m not sure I understand. It may be because in this complex and turbulent world we need an easy moan. “Just look at our Christmas tree!” You don’t need a degree in economics or a working knowledge of Asian politics. It’s local, it’s there and above all, it’s ours. For as human beings we need something visual to focus our attention, even our beliefs. This was the tension right through the Hebrew scriptures as God reveals himself. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:1).
Notice ‘Hear” and not ‘See.’ But the people of Israel wanted to be able to see this God who had entered into a covenant relation with them. God of course knew this and so, for example he demonstrates his presence with them in the wilderness with “the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.” (Exodus 13:22). But at its basic this is the God we cannot see for the simple reason is that he is God. The ongoing temptation for the people of Israel, and now for us, is to construct our own graven image – to see God (or our version of him). Hence the second commandment against idols. But as the New Testament writer to the Hebrews realises, this God we cannot see gives our faith in him a special quality: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). So what do we look at? Where is our focus? John begins his Gospel: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18) Astonishingly Jesus himself tells his disciple Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) Quite a statement to say the least. So when we celebrate Christmas, we decide to focus not on our Christmas tree (and all that it represents) but on Christ on the tree, crucified for us. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) There is our true celebration.