December 18, 2006

The Message of Mistletoe
Pastor George Van Alstine

I once was a Christmas purist. As a young pastor, I thought it was important for us to remove all the pagan and commercial elements from our celebration of Jesus’ birthday so the truth of the gospel could be seen clearly.

Of course, all the modern Christmas fables would have to go, like Rudolph and Frosty and the Grinch. Santa, his elves and reindeer were a tradition formed out of numerous pre-Christmas pagan elements, even though the old guy had been “baptizedâ€? with the name of an obscure medieval saint. The Christmas Tree was adopted from northern European tree-worship cults, some of them even involving human sacrifices. The very date of Christmas, December 25, was originally a pagan Roman holiday. One by one, some of my favorite Christmas impressions became suspect and finally fell to my puritanical axe.

Finally, even the authentic Christmas story itself had to be carefully examined. Were there three wise men? The Bible gives no number. In our Christmas pageants, how can we have them stand next to the Bethlehem manger alongside of the shepherds, when they actually visited Jesus up to two years later, probably in Nazareth? When Martin Luther wrote the familiar carol “Away in a Manger,â€? why did he say of the Baby Jesus, “no crying he makesâ€?? Did Luther think it is sinful for a baby to cry and that the sinless Jesus could never cry? The Christmas purist must be theologically accurate.

I had been on this purifying-Christmas journey for only about two years when I realized that it was a dead-end approach. Rather than making Christmas more wonderful, I was robbing it of its glory. Over the years since, I have come to realize that the true meaning of Christmas is not so puny that all these other seasonal legends and traditions can obscure it. Instead, the true meaning of Christmas is so powerful and robust that it can infuse even pagan and commercial elements with spiritual meaning. So now I see the Baby Jesus as “infectingâ€? Rudolph, Santa, Christmas Trees and old pagan traditions, rather than the other way around.

Mistletoe is the final test case. This plant, that lives off the branches of other trees, was considered holy by the Druids long before Christianity came to England. The Scandinavians and Germans also included it in their pagan worship. Its magical/medicinal properties were believed to be effective with everything from epilepsy to fertility. The mistletoe plant is parasitic, living by sucking the juices out of a hardwood tree, sometimes killing its host. Where does the name “mistletoeâ€? come from? “Mistâ€? means dung, excrement, and “toeâ€? is short for “twig.â€? The plant’s seed looks like a bird-dropping on a branch, and later a twig grows from it into an entire parasitic plant. So those who named it saw it as the bird-poop plant.

All this kissing-under-the-mistletoe stuff is based on a legend of the Norse god Baldur’s tragic death by a sharpened sprig of mistletoe. The love of the other gods was enough to renew his life, and the kissing symbolizes this. A number of northern European tribes built from this the use of mistletoe as an excuse for a bit of naughty flirting.

Most old pagan traditions that are part of Christmas have subsequently been given Christian meaning. The Christmas Tree is an evergreen, so it reminds us of everlasting life. The holly adds red berries to the evergreen leaves, and this speaks of the blood of Jesus. The ancient human fascination with astrology gave way to the Star of Bethlehem, and now all the decorative stars we see at Christmas remind us of Jesus, the Light of the World.

But mistletoe is hopeless. I have not been able to discover any tradition that has been able to Christianize this plant in any way. It just hangs there at Christmas as a stubborn pagan leftover.

And yet, I’m ready today to claim even mistletoe for Christmas. This life-sucking parasite reminds me that I am totally dependant on the grace and love of Jesus, having no spiritual life without him. The fact that mistletoe is named after bird-droppings reminds me of Paul’s description of his human accomplishments without Jesus as “rubbishâ€? (Philippians 3:8). That’s the polite English translation; Martin Luther put it more graphically in his German translation: ein haufen mist (“a pile of manureâ€?—“mistâ€?/“mistletoeâ€?; get it?)

Even the kissing fits in. Jesus came in the flesh—in the real flesh. This is how the Savior pours his life into the needy parasite. He redeems the praying part of me, but he also redeems the kissing part of me. He renews me, body and soul.

So mistletoe has its place in the Nativity scene, maybe hanging from the eaves of the stable roof. It represents me, the parasitic fleshly me whom the Baby Jesus came to save.