I WAS DRIVING to work when a song on the radio caught my attention. In country style I was treated to a theological lesson: "God is our Santa Claus," a voice crooned, "each and every day." The words, sung half in a self-satisfied and half in a whiny and wistful tone, acquired for me the force of a revelation. I had a flashback to my three-and-a-half-year old son's big eyes as he was rattling off his Christmas wish list: "I want a forklift, and a cane so I can walk like an old man, a dog bone, and ... hey, dad, you know what, I also want a saxophone and a trumpet." Images of frenzied Christmas shoppers came to mind--human beings like giant ants, racing in all directions and returning home with more stuff than they can carry.
I was also reminded of a recent exchange about "moral shopping," or moral Christmas shopping. "What do you think about the idea that we should go to New York and shop, and shop more than we otherwise would, to help the city out of its post-terrorist attack economic slump?" I was asked.
"It's a great way to make you feel good about your own acquisitiveness, a suggestion tailor-made for an economy that operates on the principle that we all must eat as much cake as possible today if we are to get any tomorrow," I replied.
Christmas, it seems, is all about getting things. The God whose coming into history we celebrate at Christmas must therefore be like Santa--all ears to hear every one of our wishes, and then he presents us with an infinitely deep bag full of gifts just for us. A Santa Claus god for a Santa Claus culture.
"And a sword will pierce your own soul too." This is what the old man on whom the Holy Spirit rested told Mary, the mother of Jesus, as he was holding her infant. Given this conclusion to Luke's Gospel, the sword in Mary's soul cannot refer only to the coming conflict surrounding the mission of Jesus. The sword must mean the nails that pierced his body and held it to the cross. So Christmas is about an infant born for a mission that will take him to a cruel death.
But we like to keep our religious feasts neatly separated. At Christmas we celebrate the gift to humanity of the most precious of all possessions: God--and with God, we hope, everything we desire--all lying in a manger. At Easter, we celebrate the death of the Incarnate One for our sins and pains and his giving us new life by the power of his resurrection. But although we have to tell the story of Christ one event after another, we cannot celebrate Christ's birth without being mindful of his death--even if this spoils some of the fun. To celebrate his birth properly does not mean simply to receive a benefit but to be drawn into a mission. …