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In Which the Baby Jesus Fights Santa Claus

December 26, 2011
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A number of years ago I ran across an amusing rant (published online, naturally) that “explained” that Santa is an anagram of Satan and that since they also share a color scheme (Biblical citation needed) and some occasional references to “Nick” they are, in fact, the same person. Obviously, this is absolutely crazy and someone needs to Google “Saint Nicolas” and then maybe “crazy fusion of saints and awful elf myths”. However, the author was right to point out that Santa has more or less stolen Christmas from Jesus. Certainly, when I was little it wasn’t the Christmas Eve service that I looked forward to but the presents. Jesus seemed to have brought us the need to dress up, sing songs, and maybe a bunch of candles whereas Santa, even though he didn’t exist, brought Playmobil pirate ships and Legos. If, at that tender age, I had been forced to choose whose eschatological Kingdom I was more intrigued by I might very well have chosen Santa’s. Jesus was a necessary chore, a friend you had to thank for the socks of Incarnation. Sure, you liked Jesus, but socks?

A few days ago a woman stopped by our door and dropped off some cookies. That was nice of her and I’m reasonably sure the cookies aren’t poisoned even though I don’t know her from Eve. However, as she handed me the cookies (“Just being neighborly”) she asked me if I was looking for the best gift for Christmas. Honestly, if I wanted a Playmobil pirate ship I’d buy myself one. My initial reaction was to assume that she was a Jehovah’s Witness since they’ve been targeting our house. Instead, it turned out she was an ordinary Christian who wanted to make sure I was saved. It makes me think of Jesus being a chore. You bake a lot of cookies, give them out to people who haven’t ever seen you before, and attempt to engage them in a stilted, awkward conversation aimed at either verifying that they have “accepted Jesus into their hearts” (without, notably, verifying that you mean the same thing by this) or attempting to get them to do so. For me, at least, that would be a chore.

Christmas, in fact, looks a lot like a chore. My wife has been stressed out since roughly November trying to make sure we have the perfect gift for everyone without breaking the bank. Nothing I (or the recipients of her care) can say will stop her from wanting to do this but, honestly, it’s not very manageable. She’d love to pick out the perfect gift for one or two people at a time but everyone we’re related to at once? I only got out of doing this because I defended a dissertation in early December, a legitimately stressful thing to do that allowed me to beg off taking on addition chores. But that’s the point – chores.

We spend all Advent looking forward to the glory of the Incarnate Lord. Or, at least, we spend the fraction of Advent we spend in church looking forward to the coming of our Lord. Much of the rest of Advent we spend buying presents and figuring out travel arrangements or cleaning the house for guests. So Advent is over. Christ our Lord has come to us as a glowing baby in a manger. We’ve paid Santa his danegeld as well and that’s come off for good or ill by now. You know who likes their gifts and who doesn’t. So, whose eschatological Kingdom are we hoping for? At the beginning of Advent hope was our theme. Did we get something worth hoping for and, if so, and from who?

Perhaps we’re verging over into crazy person territory again, pitting Jesus and Santa against each other like that (a magnificent ten-round fight ending when the angel of death passes over every house on the “nice” list). However, there’s a serious element to this. First, who won this Christmas? Was Santa Christ’s servant, bringing cheer and togetherness, or was Christ shoved aside by Santa on the rampage? See, this is the critical thing: Santa does compete with Christ for our allegiance every Christmas, but so does government, romantic love, and self-preservation. All of these things have their place and that place is to perform functions for God not to be God. We are great idol-makers and Santa’s place as a Christmas idol doesn’t make him (necessarily) any more evil than a carved rabbit-god makes rabbits evil.

Second, a fitting end to our Advent series, whose way is worth living out? Did Advent deliver? What does this (or should it) look like? Advent’s hope is fulfilled (partly) – how will we live that out? Is Christmas the high point or are we now living (as the church calendar suggests) in a post-Christmas world, the Anno Domini?

One critical question here is what that would look like. What is special about the Incarnation? If our theology has room only for Jesus’ death (as in some dispensationalist frameworks where Jesus’ teaching is for a different age) then Jesus’ birth is about as exciting as the sound-man setting up before the band plays. It’s necessary, but it’s not part of the main show. If, conversely, we speak only of Jesus as a great moral teacher then, again, the Incarnation is a bit useless. God doesn’t need to incarnate to gain a human mouthpiece – the prophets had been doing a fine job. Obviously, Jesus is both the one who, in his death and resurrection, breaks the power of death and hell and also the best of moral teachers. However, there must be more to the Incarnation. The thing we celebrate is not God going over the top to be heard or setting up for the main event. It is a necessary part of the main event. Specifically, in the Incarnation God becomes one of us. He becomes relatable to us.

I’ve focused a good bit on the inner life during Advent. However, the crux of that life is in the man Jesus. His is the life that we are trying to emulate. He is the one who shows that it is possible not merely to obey the dictates of a distant master or accept His gifts but also to live out the life that God offers. Because God has become one of us we know that He is, in some way, like us. During the iconoclast controversy the iconodules (those who favored the use of icons, pictures of Jesus and the saints, in worship) pointed out that if God had become man he had adopted a form that could be painted. They were not trying to paint the thing so far beyond us that it could not be imagined but the human who, somehow, embodied all of the that. In Jesus we see the great bridge between God and us. Elsewhere I have compared salvation to becoming fish fit for a new, watery world. To continue that metaphor it is in Jesus that we see that a human can actually become a fish. One of the lines to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” reads “veiled in flesh the Godhead see”. While this is acceptable phrasing for a song, part of the point of the Incarnation is that Jesus is not just the Godhead veiled in flesh. He actually is human and God at the same time. We have not found that the sort of being that lives in God’s life has found a wonderful mask and human suit but that God has a way of being human that is truly human and yet impelled by God’s own Spirit. This is the hope of Advent, realized in Christmas.

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