I have often heaped scorn on the “kill-joys” who want to stamp out “Santa Claus” and other features of Christmas that bring back some of the happiest memories of family and childhood.
But I must confess that in recent years I have become more sympathetic towards them. And I have become deeply disturbed by the lack of proportion in the message Christmas celebrations now convey to our children and grandchildren.
Back in 2004 Muriel Porter wrote in The Melbourne Age about friends of hers who took their young son to see the Myer department store Christmas windows. He was engrossed by them, carefully following the story of The Polar Express - a story he knows well - from scene to scene. Then he came to the window depicting Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. The nativity tableau was quite new to him. “So what’s the story here then?” he asked his parents.
Porter went on to point out that the boy belongs to “the second generation at least that has almost entirely missed out on learning the basic stories of the Christian faith, the religion that shaped Western civilization.”
However, this lack of proportion is not only an issue from a cultural point of view. It is an issue because it obscures the basic Christian affirmation that when Mary and Joseph, and then the shepherds, looked into the manger, they might have seen a human baby, but they were actually gazing upon God.
The story of what God has done for us is so big that just thinking about it will occupy us for eternity. But it is also simple enough for a little child to grasp.
We who had been made “in God’s image” decided to run our lives and the world around us independently of him, turning this beautiful creation into the gutter of the universe, and turning family life and friendships into a relationship jungle.
We pushed God out of our lives. We lost our inner bearing, and experience an aching emptiness at the centre of our being.
But we also experience a deep spiritual longing, for in our psyche we instinctively know that things should be different.
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the stupendous act of God in closing the gap between himself and us. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Could God forget the work of his hands, the masterpiece of creation? ‘When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ These words of the apostle Paul ring out with particular eloquence as we contemplate the wondrous event of Christmas.”
God the Father sent his Son into our world as a little baby, born in the kind of poverty known only too well by most people who have ever lived. He shared his life with us, he touched us with his love and healing; then he died on the cross in our place so that we could be free and reconciled to the Father, satisfying the deepest of our inner longings.
I love the way that in so many church buildings the cross or crucifix ends up being seen in relationship with the Christmas Crib. Sometimes unintentional, it is always a reminder that Bethlehem and Calvary belong together, that Christmas, far from being just a sentimental story, is the coming of Jesus our Rescuer, Redeemer and Saviour into the world. When we really see that, when the scales fall from our eyes, we can never be the same again. Whatever tradition we belong to, our hearts are touched, and we exclaim with Charles Wesley:
He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace—
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
I think that Christian families who decide to keep Santa and his reindeer should do so with a real sense of proportion, making sure that the way we celebrate Christmas doesn’t obscure the Gospel message that it is really about Jesus, who came to give us life in all its fulness (John 10:10).