[This post previously appeared on Times and Seasons.]
Once upon a time, three little trees stood in a forest high on a mountain, dreaming of what they would be when they were grown.
The first little tree looked up at the stars twinkling like diamonds in the night sky. “I want to hold treasure,” it said. “I want to be filled with gold and decorated with jewels. I will be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!”
The second little tree looked down the mountainside at the ocean far below. “I want to be a strong sailing ship,” it said. “I want to travel mighty waters and carry powerful kings. I will be the strongest ship in the world!”
The third little tree said, “I don’t want to leave this mountaintop at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me their eyes will raise up to heaven, and they will think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world!”
Years passed, and the trees grew. And then one day, three woodcutters climbed the mountain.
One woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful! It is perfect for me.” With a dozen swings of his axe, the first tree fell.
“Now I shall be made into a beautiful treasure chest,” thought the first tree. “I shall hold marvelous treasures!”
Another woodcutter looked at the second tree and said, “This tree is strong! It is perfect for me.” With a dozen swings of his axe, the second tree fell.
“Now I shall sail mighty waters,” thought the second tree. “I shall be made into a strong ship fit for powerful kings!”
The third tree felt its heart sink as the last woodcutter approached. It stood straight and tall and pointed bravely towards heaven. But the last woodcutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me,” he muttered. With a dozen swings of his axe, the third tree fell.
The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter took it to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter was not thinking about treasure chests. Instead, he cut and carved the tree into a simple feedbox. The once-beautiful tree was not filled with gold or decorated with jewels. It was covered with dust, and filled with hay for hungry farm animals.
The second tree rejoiced when the wookcutter took it to a shipyard. But the shipbuilder was not thinking about mighty sailing ships. Instead, he hammered and sawed the tree into a simple fishing boat. The once-strong tree was too weak to sail the ocean. It was taken to a little lake, where every day it carried loads of dead, smelly fish.
The third tree was confused when the woodcutter took it to a lumberyard, where it was cut into strong beams and then left alone. “What happened?” the once-tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted to do was stay on the mountaintop, grow tall, and make people think of God.”
Years passed, and the three trees nearly forgot their dreams.
But then one still and silent night, golden starlight poured over the first tree, as a young woman placed a newborn baby into the feedbox.
“I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered.
The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the clean and shining wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said. And suddenly the first tree knew it was holding the greatest treasure in the world.
And then one humid and cloudy day, a tired traveller and his friends crowded into the small fishing boat. The traveler fell asleep as the second tree sailed quietly out into the lake. But a thundering storm arose, and the second tree shuddered, knowing that it did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through the fierce wind and rain.
The tired traveler awoke. He stood up, stretched out his hand, and said with a strong voice, “Peace, be still.” The storm stopped as quickly as it had began. And suddenly the second tree knew it was carrying the King of heaven and earth.
And then one terrible Friday morning, the third tree was startled as its beams were yanked from the old lumberyard. It flinched as it was was carried through an angry, jeering, spitting crowd. It shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands and feet to her. It groaned as the man cried out in agony and died. It felt ugly and harsh and cruel.
But at dawn the next Sunday, on the first Easter morning, the earth trembled with joy beneath the third tree, and it knew that God’s love had changed everything.
It had made the first little tree a beautiful treasure chest. It had made the second little tree a strong sailing ship. And every time people looked upon the third little tree, they would think of God.
That was even better than being the tallest tree in the world.
(This old folktale is my favorite Easter story; I can never get through it without weeping. A good illustrated version, the one we own, is here.)