Showdown at the Sacred Grove

November 30, 2023 at 3:06 PM


“Let us stand fast in what is right and prepare ourselves for trial. Let us neither be dogs that do not bark, nor silent onlookers, nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead, where the battle rages, let us find ourselves. Run towards the roar of the lion! Run towards the roar of battle! That is where Christ's most glorious victories shall be won!”

—Boniface of Crediton (675-754)


     It was a cold Sunday evening in early December when a young man found his way into the mission camp of Boniface. Snow was on the ground and over the evergreen trees of the forests that covered the landscape of what we now call Germany. But in this third decade of the eighth century, the Germanic tribes living on these lands were deep in the grips of paganism. The trees, in particular, held special religious significance to these pagan peoples. Most sacred of all was the Sacred Grove, located near the modern-day city of Fritzlar in northern Hesse. In the center of the grove stood Thor’s Oak, the most sacred tree of all. 

     Well, three days ago it had stood there. Three days ago, on Thursday, Thor’s Day to the local pagans, Boniface had stood at the foot of the tree with an axe in hand, ready to chop down this oak of Thor. 

     The local pagans, however, were not afraid of this axe-wielding missionary. They knew that Thor would protect his sacred tree from harm. With the first stroke of his axe, Boniface would no doubt seal his own fate. Thor, the God of thunder and lightning, would strike him down, and they would be rid of this Christian once and for all. 

     But as the axe sunk into the trunk of the tree, nothing happened. There was no thunder. There was no lightning. Thor’s Oak was being chopped down and there was no one to deliver it. Finally, the tree came down with a loud crash. The Oak lay on the ground, and Boniface stood over it, completely unscathed. 

     It was a bold move on Boniface’s part, to be sure. Some would even say it was foolhardy. No sane missiologist would ever endorse this strategy! But when all was said and done, the people had seen a dramatic display of the impotence of their false object of worship. Still, widespread conversion would not come just yet. Dramatic as it was, the felling of the sacred oak was only the beachhead moment in this missionary endeavor. 


     That Sunday evening, Boniface and a small group of disciples were beginning their celebration of Advent. As the pagans around them were bewildered by the recent display of impotence from their god Thor, these Christians would meditate upon the coming of Christ. But they were quickly interrupted by the young man we mentioned earlier. He told them of a sacrifice that was to be made to the false gods in the sacred grove that very evening. His own sister was to be offered as a vestal sacrifice that night to the gods of the forest! The young man had seen the boldness of Boniface at the oak of Thor three days’ prior. If anyone could put a stop to this madness, he could. 

     And so it was, as darkness fell on the countryside on the evening of the first Sunday of Advent, Boniface, the young man, and a group of disciples swiftly made their way from the mission camp to the Sacred Grove. Upon their arrival, they found the young man’s sister tied to a stone altar, with a priest about to start the ritual sacrifice. Boniface lunged at the priest, tackling him to the ground. The priest was bewildered as he laid there in the snow. Boniface arose to his feet and began boldly proclaiming the gospel to the Germanic pagans who had gathered for the ritual ceremony. He told them of another sacrifice, an ultimate sacrifice that had already taken place for sin. They didn’t need to sacrifice virgins to the gods of the forest. The One True God, who made the forest and all things, had sent His only Son to be sacrificed for sins. They had no need for a sacred grove, for this final sacrifice for sin had been made on a tree at Golgotha 700 years ago!

     To make his point even clearer, Boniface began cutting the branches off the fir trees in the sacred grove. He began distributing the boughs to the members of the gathered crowd. He told the people to take the fir branches home, to adorn their houses with them, and contemplate the once for all sacrifice that had already been made when Christ hung upon a tree. One by one, the crowd dispersed. The priest stood by dumbfounded, powerless as Thor himself. 

     Over the coming weeks, Boniface and his Christian disciples continued to meditate on the coming of Christ. The pagans, too, were reminded of Christ’s sacrifice as they looked at the fir boughs that Boniface had sent them home with from the sacred grove. One by one, by a mighty working of the Spirit of God, they began to place their faith in Christ. On Christmas, these new converts formally renounced their pagan ways as they were baptized upon their professions of faith. 


     As the years passed, every Christmas season, these former pagans, now Christians, would decorate their homes with the boughs of evergreen trees. They put up these wreaths upon their doors and houses not so much to celebrate the destruction of paganism but to memorialize the provision of Christ’s coming. 

     Indeed, evergreen trees began to be associated with Christmas celebrations throughout Germany, and eventually throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Some 800 years later, Martin Luther, a distant descendant of these Germanic people, adorned a fir tree with lights, as a reminder of Jesus, the light of the world. Critics of these practices, whether it be Boniface’s Christmas Wreath or Luther’s Christmas Tree, entirely miss the point when they observe that the evergreens once had significance among the pagans. Boniface understood that an important part of the task of discipleship is imparting a thoroughly Christian understanding of the world. God, not Thor, determines what things actually mean. The trees do not belong to Thor. Trees, just like the rest of the earth and all its fullness, belong to the True and Living God. Symbols in God’s world are to be understood in accord with God’s revelation, whether these things be bread, wine, trees, or—in our day—rainbows. 

     So as you celebrate the coming of the Savior this season, with holly and ivy, wreaths and trees, yule logs and all things red and green, I hope you’ll remember the futile sacrifices that Boniface put an end to at the sacred grove. But more importantly, remember the sacrifice of Christ, who redeemed His people from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us as He hung upon a tree. That was the only hope for those ancient Germanic pagans, and that remains the only hope for you and me.