Some years ago, when I was a student at seminary, in the 1980s, we sang a piece of poetry that sounded medieval, but was actually the 18th century; it’s from England and is called Jesus Christ the Apple Tree and is sung as a Christmas Carol. It sounded medieval to my ears because it had a strong mystical element in it; the poem refers to the Tree of Life mentioned in Genesis and the apple tree in the love poem of the Song of Solomon. Some of the lines:
His beauty doth all things excel
By faith I know but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
For happiness I long have sought
And pleasure dearly I have bought
I missed of all but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the Apple Tree
I’m weary with my former toil
Here I will sit and rest a while
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
It’s got kind of medieval sound to it, at least the tune that I learned.
We sang it once or twice in Ontario, but I don’t recall singing it here in Nelson. Maybe next year. I loved the mystical sense of it, comparing Jesus Christ to an apple tree. It sounds very Eastern, in fact.
I have been deeply influenced by the Eastern Orthodox branch of our Church, the mystical theology that comes from minds that aren’t influenced by Western thinking and logic. My closest friend is Ukrainian Orthodox and I studied Maximos the Confessor, who is not well-known—to the West—a scholar from the Early Church. He is extremely well-known to the East. And the likes of Origen and Iranaeus and others who spoke a different language to the likes of Western Theologians or even the Reformers.
One important emphasis in the Eastern Church, different from the West, is that God created the universe and saw that it was good. According to the mythic story in Genesis, God created the Garden of Eden, likely full of apple trees, and yes Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, but even so, the garden is a celebration of God’s creation. The Eastern Church always celebrated this Original Blessing to use Matthew Fox’s expression. Incidentally, the Celtic Church followed the Eastern Church in this thinking, and there were other pockets in the West that followed this more mystical meaning to life.
The idea of Original Blessing is that God, God’s love and creation cannot be separated and that all is good. In other words, one could say that the incarnation of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us particularly in Jesus, as we say at Christmas, is neither a miracle nor anything extraordinary; it is merely the natural extension of the understanding of God as Creator and the idea that God is revealed in creation and indeed, God is at the very heart of creation and each of us.
Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem is an extension of the idea that creation bears the image of God—we bear the image of God. God is incarnate in the world in which we live, including us! The significance of Christ then—and what we celebrate tonight—is the amplification and redefinition of what it means to be human and to bear the image of God in us. The incarnation occurred at the moment of the Big Bang and Christmas is our reminder and invitation to live fully our incarnated lives.
Part of the more mystical emphasis of the Eastern Church is that there is no separation between the creation we see around us and the divine spark of Godliness in it. There is no opposition to God and creation; it is not either/or. All is one. There is no duality in God and in the world we see around us—indeed the world that we are part of. If you want a fancy word for it, scholars call this panentheism—God (theos) within (en) all things (pan).
Mark Heim, a theologian who teaches at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale University, wrote in a commentary on the book by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, about Incarnation. He wrote, “The world and humanity are from the start pregnant with God. Mary’s meeting with Gabriel, rather than a supernatural event of shock and awe, could seem that way only because we have grown so far out of touch with our own origins and nature.” This is the miracle that we celebrate tonight summed up in Christ’s birth: the world and humanity are from the start pregnant with God. We are pregnant with God!
If you want an example of how the West, in particular, has used the idea of the fall and the separation of creation into us and them, look no further than the climate crisis we are facing; it is part and parcel of the West growing out of touch with our origins and nature, with our Godliness. We in the West have lost touch with the mystical idea that we are incarnational beings. Christmas is our invitation back into that reality and to radically change the way we live, treating the creation of which we are a part as God’s self, or as the environmental theologian, Dr. Sally McFague would say as the very body of God. As we mistreat the world around us, as we mistreat ourselves, we mistreat God’s very self!
But you didn’t come here this evening to hear a dissertation about theology from me. In the incarnation of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, I’m making the claim that every birth is an extraordinary and miraculous event. Every animal born, every new plant that springs up, every new life that begins is extraordinary, for it is a celebration of the incarnation of God in the world once more. It is a return to the re-creation of the universe and hearing again the words, “And God saw that it was good.” And with respect to Jesus, the remarkable life of Christ is an invitation to us to share our good gifts in recreating, with God, a world that is pregnant with justice, peace-filled, and even joyous for all life to prosper.
Christmas is our invitation to celebrate the gift of life—all life—for in a mystical way, all life is birthed again in the stable stall in Bethlehem. And if we are genuine in celebrating God’s presence in all that is life, Christmas is our invitation to take our lives seriously as well as the life of the world, to feel the gratitude that flows naturally from our hearts. Christmas is our invitation to step forwards in striving for climate justice, for us to see the Christ in each other and the face of the world in which we live and in which we are a part.
The birth of Christ in Bethlehem is the cosmic rebirth of all life… a birth into a new way of being, a birth into a new perspective, a birth into deep gratitude, a birth into action and peace.
May you witness the Christ, born in Bethlehem, born at the moment of creation, and born anew in you this night of nights. May we live the full and miraculous incarnational lives that God invites us to live, as one, with love and compassion! Amen.
 See Mark Heim’s article in the Christian Century: https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/rowan-williams-sees-creation-through-human-divine-christ.