“Nana, why are there tears on your tree?”
The third candle in the advent wreath, the pink one, represents joy. Not the passing gladness of the season, but the joy Jesus came to bring. Freeing. Stabilizing. Soul-lifting. Permanent.
So why do I hang tears on our Christmas tree? The question came from the smallest ladybean, jiving to the music of the Pentatonix as her siblings and I decorated our slender pine.
After over a decade of helping me with the tree, the oldest grandchildren understand that while I let them add the ornaments, I direct their placement. (Excepting the black Styrofoam airplane that a certain twelve-year old grandson shot into the upper branches this year – then insisted I leave there as his unique contribution to the festive efforts.)
But as I direct, I tell stories. Stories of the ornaments themselves, of my own childhood Christmases and their mama’s too. But especially stories of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season.
Almost every ornament on our tree represents an element of the nativity story. I love to tell it; to help my daughter and her husband in their role of weaving firm threads of faith into the lives of their growing children. To build a stalwart core of Christian belief that can strengthen them for eternity.
The ornaments lay strewn on our ancient black trunk. We’d already hung the white angels I’d purchased as a young bride, the cardboard cherubs the Preacher and I found in San Francisco, the narrow angels (dubbed anorexic by our then teenaged son), the miscellaneous angels, the glass nativities and the tiny crystal pendants – the tears. Four-year-old Lois had noticed those.
“Okay, why do I put tears on this tree?” I asked the older children as we hung them. “Anybody remember?”
Several answered at once. “Because Herod killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem!” “Because it was cold in the barn?” “Because Jesus came to die for our sins!”
We discussed the ‘problies’ as we hung the final ornaments. My fingers lingered a moment on a memorial photo of my mother, always concerned about her beloved children. Probably Mary’s mother cried tears of concern, I thought. Probably Mary herself cried tears of joy. Probably Joseph cried at first, tears of misunderstanding and disappointment.
And probably even Elizabeth, the pregnant mother of Jesus’ cousin, the prophet John, wept. Amazed and filled with wonder. According to scripture, when the also expectant Mary met Elizabeth, John leapt for joy within his mother.
As an adult, John strode the hills of Galilee, calling people to to prepare their hearts for long-awaited but now-arrived Messiah. To repent of their sins and be baptized.
John the Baptist, considered by Catholics as the patron saint of joy, got it right. Regular, genuine, heartfelt confession releases us from the entangling chains of sin and pride, replacing them with quiet humility and the unsurpassed joy of knowing God has forgiven us.
The angel, speaking to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, said, “For behold I bring you good news of great joy, for all people.” (Luke 2:10)
The pink Advent candle reminds us of that joy. But the tears on my tree remind me of its source.