This week I read an article about the world’s ugliest Christmas tree. The title titillated, or if not quite titillated, at least intrigued. Before I could read the article, obvious questions arose. Where might that tree be? Who is to say what “ugly” really means? How can a tree be ugly? And then I read the article, only to find out that the tree is in Rome. And I thought, “Of course.”
Now I say this not to make fun at Italians, but rather to complement them, for it is in part from my more than simply occasional travel to Italy that I have come to realize, first of all, that taste is obviously variable and, secondly and more importantly, that one needs to be flexible. One should be so because life is too short to get all worked up over the small stuff, even when the small stuff is something quite large, an apparently unattractive oversized Christmas tree smack in the middle of Piazza Venezia, which is itself smack in the middle of Rome.
But from this particular Christmas tree I was reminded of something else, something that I think has broader application than that taste is variable and that one lives best if one is flexible. I was reminded, yet again, that each thing in our life and each person really represents something or someone else. A Christmas tree obviously does not represent itself—that is the mistake that some of the folks who saw the tree and complained made—but rather that it represents something more important.
According to liturgical expert Frank Senn the notion of a tree used symbolically at Christmastime developed “in Germany in the sixteenth century.” Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the [protestant] Cathedral of Strasbourg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539. . . .” So Protestants are likely ultimately responsible for the origin of the tree, an origin whose symbolism Pope John Paul II understood and expounded upon, viewing the tree as symbolic of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. That tree, Christians believe, was restored through Christ’s sacrifice. Interestingly that that selfsame pope was the first to introduce the tree to the Christmas décor of St. Peter’s basilica.
But the third lesson is not that Christmas trees are good for Protestants and Catholics alike, but rather that the tree symbolizes something greater than itself and that nearly everything else does, as well. Let me explain. It has not been uncommon for me to talk to someone about church and have them say that they prefer to go out on a walk on Sunday morning because they (correctly in my view) are better able to infer that there is a God from the beauty of nature round about them than from a dusky, dank old church pew. The idea that a tree or butterfly represents its creator actually is an idea that St. Paul himself once touted when he wrote that people have no excuse not to infer that there is a God, “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Not that I am advocating missing out on the dusky, dank pews, for they have their own luster, as Rev. Dr. Senn, the expert in liturgy cited in the previous paragraph, would no doubt agree. But more on that some other time.
And each person, like each tree or each butterfly, is not quite his or her own, either. We might think we are—particularly when we are a teenager and we feel that we have no further need of our parents or when we hit a mid-life crisis and think we have no further need of our employer or our spouse or our whole family, sometimes, and in extreme cases, our entire life, for some folks change jobs, get divorced and even fall out of touch with their children at the onset of middle age, possibly because they have, for the first time, become aware of their own mortality. But even in those bad moments of the mid-life crisis or the cocky teenage years we represent not just ourselves, but our parents, our community, and if we are lucky enough to have had a religious background, our church, synagogue, temple or mosque. And we all, whether we know it or not and whether we know Him or not, represent God. For he made us just as he made the tree or the butterfly, which represents him.
That small inference from a Christmas tree in Rome, is actually a very important piece of information. For an “ugly” tree can, merely by what it represents, instantly be transformed from what the world calls ugly to beautiful. Lizzie Velasquez, who has also been in the news recently, is not regarded as “the ugliest woman in the world,” as some cruel folks have dubbed her, but as the most beautiful, for she represents God in a way much more visibly than those who have no idea that they incidentally represent God, as well. Lizzie knows she does, and she speaks about that fact not infrequently. When she wakes up in the morning she sees in the mirror a child of God, just as one should see, in that lofty tree in Piazza Venezia, not a tree less than comely but the tree of life, the Garden of Eden restored. Either the stable in Bethlehem was a place of squalor or place of hope. Either Golgotha was a place of tragedy or a place of triumph. If the latter for both of those sentences, then Lizzie Velasquez is a beautiful person, perhaps the most beautiful, and that giant, lumpy Italian tree is, well, in Italian, non solo bello, ma bellissimo.
 Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: 2012) 118.
On jobs, see http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/06/29/retirement-life-reimagined-usa-today-survey/11135523/. On the divorce rate, see https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2013/article/marriage-and-divorce-patterns-by-gender-race-and-educational-attainment.htm.
 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-being-called-the-worlds-ugliest-woman-transformed-her-life_us_56213be0e4b02f6a900c1d0c. See also, https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2014/November-2014/Lizzie-Velasquez