When I was a kid my mom began a tradition that broke up the monotony of January and began to awaken in in me and my siblings excitement and anticipation for a day that topped even Christmas. She used this tradition to shape our little hearts, teaching us to hope and reminding us that although our stockings had been boxed up and our presents were losing their luster, the best was yet to come.
My mom taught us about trees.
We learned that at the dawn of time in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were surrounded by trees. Big trees, little trees, colorful trees, blossoming trees, fragrant trees, fruit trees, and a forbidden tree. We learned that God created humans with the capacity to choose to love him, and listened with dismay when Adam and Eve decided God wasn't good enough, powerful enough or trustworthy enough to obey, and ate fruit off the tree he forbade.
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit off the forbidden tree they rebelled against the Giver of life and chose death. For thousands of years after Adam and Eve's rebellion humans have continued to run into a head-on collision with death and destruction. In the midst of our self-created chaos God pursued restored relationship with his headstrong people. He gave us the law to help us live peacefully in community and to show us how impossible it is to live rightly without his help, with the hope we would run back to him. He even sent prophets to proclaim a promise that would change everything: "A Savior is coming to save you from your sins and give you new life!"
My mom wanted us to fix our eyes on this promise, and so each January she got out the saw and dragged our dying tree outside where we solemnly sawed off its branches and then cut its trunk in half under a gloomy winter sky.
As we sawed, we talked about trees some more. Because God is the Master Redeemer, and although a tree played a significant role in ushering death into the world, God used a tree to conquer death and bring us new life. When Jesus was nailed to the coarse, splintery wood of a tree, sin was also nailed to that tree, so that sin doesn't have to be our slave-master anymore and we can have victory over death.
Once our tree was bare and sawed in two we stored it away in the garage, and we waited. We waited for Spring, when brooks would gurgle, birds would chirp from their blossom-bedecked perches, and we could tie the pieces of our Christmas tree into the shape of a cross, put it in our front yard and set a sign on it declaring, "He is Risen!"
My mom always gave me the privilege of arranging flowers around the base of the cross. That splash of color against the rough wood of our little cross reminded me that winter does not last forever, and death does not have the last word. I am free to live fully and flourish the way God intended back when he created humans in the Garden of Eden, because of the cross. And one day I will meet the Giver of Life face to face in a place where there is no sorrow or death, and nothing is drab and dreary. Because the best is yet to come!