In the winter of 1510, the merchants of Riga, Latvia, hauled a tree into the center of the marketplace. They decorated it with roses, symbol of the Virgin Mary. They danced around the tree in celebration of the Christ-child’s birth, and then they set it alight in a blaze of glory.
That was the first Christmas tree, as far as anyone knows. I wonder if anyone there had in mind the burning bush in Exodus 3 that prefigured it. After all, for over a thousand years the Church had been seeing in the burning bush, a type of the Virgin birth:
“What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin…. As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century, “On the Birth of Christ”).
“The Unburnt Bush” is a traditional Orthodox title for Mary, and she shows up as the burning bush in Eastern Orthodox iconography, in western medieval art, in liturgy and in hymns.
Here is one example – notice Moses there on the left, who some Church Fathers thought got a spiritual glimpse of what was to come, when he saw the burning bush. In a similar way, we wait in Advent for a “bush” to flame with life:
“The Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”–God with us (Isaiah 7:14)
As if the virgin birth wasn’t enough of a miracle, in Mary, God entered humanity without burning or destroying it. (Sin combusts like tinder before the holy, consuming fire of God.) And now, baptized into Christ’s death, we can receive God’s presence in us in the Eucharist — and we can be lit by the flames of the Holy Spirit — without being destroyed. The Byzantine monk and poet St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) wrote eloquently about this:
I share with trembling joy in the divine fire,
I who am only hay,
And oh, such a strange miracle…
Without being consumed I continue to burn
In a beautiful flaming light
As did once, the burning bush.
Knowing this, I think I will never see a Christmas tree the same again. Alight, as though on fire but not burnt, not consumed. A picture of the miracle that I, an ordinary girl, can be filled with the life of God.