I remember when we were kids at Christmas. Every December my sister, Cathy, and I truly believed that Santa Claus was coming again this year. And we’d try hard to be good in those weeks leading up to the big day.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, while mom and dad were making those last minute preparations, Cathy and I would be filled with the warm, giddy feeling of excited anticipation. At last, we’d put out our offering milk and cookies, and then pretend to go to be early. But when all the lights of the house were turned out, we’d sneak out of our beds, creep down the hallway, and peak around the corner to try catch a glimpse of red cap, black boots, and white beard rustling near the tree. But, apparently still too early, we would go back to bed, and gradually drift off to sleep dreaming about the joys of Christmas morning.
Then one year, early on Christmas morning, my sister came in to awaken me from my slumber, a look of dismay on her face, to pull me down the hallway and point into the darkness of our family room. There, in the shadow of the Christmas tree, was a lone figure, carefully placing packages, one by one. And although it was still dark, the figure was unmistakably recognizable: Daddy.
Donald Guthrie says there are three stages in a person’s life: first he believes in Santa Claus. Second, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Third, he is Santa Claus.
One of the all time great Christmas movies is called “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen. It’s a really a great flick for getting you in the holiday spirit. Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin: a middle-aged divorced guy who’s trying to figure out what to do with his young son (Charlie) on Christmas Eve. After a strained evening together, Scott finally calls it a day, and after putting his boy to bed, gets ready for bed himself. But as he does, Scott hears a racker (a clatter) up on his roof. When he goes out to see what the matter is, as fate would have it, he sees Santa Claus up there. Thinking it’s a burgler, Scott yells at Santa, who promptly gets startled, slips and slides off the roof to a snowy demise.
The soon-to-be-former-Santa melts into the snow, leaving only the red suit and a card, the fine print around the edges of which states, in effect, `In case of accident death, whoever puts on the red suit, forgoes the rights of any former identity to become the new Santa Claus.’ Of course, standing out in the winter night in his jammies, Scott unwittingly puts on the suit (without reading the fine print) and the dye is cast. A fateful transformation begins.
After a night filled with comic errors in the Christmas present delivery business, Scott Calvin (the new Santa Claus) and his little boy, are whisked to the North Pole, where they encounter the magic and mystery of Santa’s workshop, with his minion of helper elves.
And, while his son immediately embraces the magic of all that’s happening to them, Scott is in total denial, and keeps saying that they’re both just dreaming it all.
When he ultimately repeats that notion to one of the elves (who looks like a little girl of about 10 although she tells the new Santa that she has shoes older than him) she tells him, that his inability to accept this new reality is not at all surprising, since most adults have trouble believing in the magic of Christmas. “It just seems to sort of outgrow them,” she laments.
“I see it,” Scott says, looking at the mystical kingdom of the North Pole outside his Santa’s bedroom window, “But I still don’t believe it.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” says the elf. “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.”
At what point in our lives does that transition take place? At what point in our lives do we stop being able to see what we truly believe in and believe only in what we we wrap up and put under the tree ourselves?
St. Augustine wrote, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
Some years ago, while serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio, and flying home to Wichita every Christmas (typically on Christmas morning), I had no sooner gotten to my parents house, when I received a phone call from a parishioner from my church, who tearfully informed me that her husband had unexpectedly died of a heart attack that very morning.
I spent the next 36 hours or so making the necessary arrangements, and two days later I was flying back to Cleveland to officiate at this gentleman’s funeral and comfort his family, knowing that Christmas would never be the same for them again.
There are thresholds that we cross over in life, from which we can never return; experiences which often shatter the illusions that are part and partial to childhood. And, unfortunately, most often the innocence and purity of faith become collateral damages during that transition.
Leaving most adults, during this magical season, to recapture only faint echoes of the abiding joy and hopeful promise of Christmas vicariously through their children.
Poet Laureate Billy Collins expresses our grown-up dilemma poignantly in his poem, “On Turning Ten”. He writes:
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light—
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chickenpox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
By drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
Watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
Against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
I always used to think it strange for our common lectionary to begin this happy season with the prophecy by Jesus on His Apocalyptic Second coming.
The Little Parousia, it’s called; and, when I first started preaching, every year I would find myself resisting what seemed like an unnecessarily traumatic inauguration for our holiday festivities. “What kind of a tone is this to set, heading towards Christmas?” I’d ask myself. “All this talk of darkness and destruction!”
I don’t know about you, but I really preferred to see God as sort of a `spiritual Santa Claus’, someone who brings us all the best gifts in life; not some kind of `apocalyptic Ebenezer Scrooge’ who threatens to potentially rob of us everything.
And that’s definitely not the image Madison Avenue wants to promote. I mean, you won’t see any `Apocalypse Float’ in the Macy’s Christmas Day Parade. (Willimon)
Although the official start to this holiday season is now hordes of shoppers trampling over one another and tearing department stores to shreds – all of which the merchants seem to love, by the way.
We’ve been systematically trained us to `look for’ certain things during this time of year. And to ignore the presence, at least for a while, of any other, darker realities that persist just below the surface.
So it becomes all about toothy, smiling strangers, and tinsel on artificial trees; about well-scrubbed children and well mannered adults, all gathered around the star-topped altar of happiness, hoping that one bright and dazzling day will some how make up for all the crud we’ve had to put up with the rest of the year. But it never does. The best we can hope for, it seems, is kind of an extended time of blissful delusion and brief respite through mass denial.
Obviously, none of us sitting here today can deny the pain of life or the reality of suffering or the exigencies of skin and bone and blood. But the question is: How can we learn to see again that under the skin, indeed, there yet is light?
This morning, I was remembering another parishioner of mine in Cleveland. Diane and her daughter Dawn had held vigil together for many months one year, with Diane’s mother (Dawn’s Granny), who suffered from Alzheimer’s and had long been in the throes of a slow march towards death. Granny passed away, the week before Christmas. A few days later, as we walked back to our cars from the grave side service, falling snow quietly blanketing the cemetery, Dawn remarked that Granny was with God now; and that was the very best Christmas gift he could have given all of us.
Perhaps it shall ever be the fate of pragmatic, somewhat jaded Christmasers, to be led back to the heart and the true spirit of Christmas through the innocent joy and pervasive hope of children everywhere who still believe in Presence of Light and the Power of Love.
Santa’s elf and St. Augustine were right: “Believing is seeing.”
It’s just that we tend to forget that this Christmas story we retell each year is a very dramatic, traumatic, and even graphic story of human suffering and human need.
It’s about a God of Light that pierces the darkness of the world with a bright Morning Star. It’s about Hope being born into a bleak winter scene that the promise of new life may shine forth.
It’s a story of apocalyptic proportions: an Infant Prince of Peace coming into a world of violence, infanticide, oppression and poverty.
Which is exactly why he had to come.
And for those of us who have seen many Christmases, and now know the depths of the darkness, that Light should shine all the more brightly.