Christmas is More than a Birthday

In the midst of the busyness and commercialism of the season, the reminder from church signs comes: Jesus is the reason for the season. The yard decorations declare: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” It’s baby Jesus’s birthday, and we don’t want the consumerism and shininess of the season to overshadow this in our hearts. All of this is right and good, and it is all true, as far as it goes.  Indeed, there’s something beautiful and romantic about the simplicity of the manger scene–of a baby being born to a poor mother and wrapped in swaddling clothes, while his father looks on in joy and the shepherds come to celebrate. But I wonder whether we sometimes allow the sentimentality of the season to stunt our appreciation of the magnitude of what Christmas means. I wonder whether we have, in an attempt to convince the world to “keep Christ in Christmas,” unconsciously minimized the scandal and the glory of the manger into a neatly packaged nativity scene that is far easier to swallow than the full reality of its meaning. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, yes. But what we celebrate, really, is not something as mundane as a birthday.

We celebrate that God is here: that the long promised and long awaited Emmanuel (“God with us”) figure foretold by Isaiah has come at last. After decades and centuries of exile and seeming hopeless abandonment, God fulfills his promise to Israel. The baby in the manger is the culmination of the history of the nation of Israel, and the focal point of God’s redemptive activity in all of world history. We celebrate that through this child the eternal has invaded the temporal, the holy has entered the sinful, and the Creator has entered into his creation. In the form of a helpless infant who is born into poverty and utter rejection, Perfection enters into the corruptible. God has become man. 

It is not expected, it is not predictable. No one anticipated this. It is not cliché or sentimental—this is God the creator lowering himself to become one of us. This–and only this–is what gives meaning and hope to our very existence. Have we understood this? Do we truly celebrate it? Or do we allow ourselves to sink quietly into a yearly winter routine, insisting on the holiness of the day but forgetting the reason for, and the absolute weight of, holiness?

The birth of Jesus is not incidental to the rest of the gospel story. It is not merely preamble to important stuff that will come later. At Christmas, the eternal and almighty Creator of all that exists comes to us in the midst of our broken, sinful and hopeless world in order to begin setting things right. I fear that we too often disassociate the baby Jesus from his identity as Creator and as YHWH, the God of Israel. But as John’s gospel reminds us, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In Acts 17, Paul proclaims to the Greek philosophers that “In him we live and move and have our being.”

In the baby whose birth we celebrate, God has come. God has become one of us.

At Christmas we celebrate more than a birthday, more than a nice story about a baby being born in a manger. We celebrate that through this baby we are reconciled to our Creator. We celebrate that he has come for us, to make us whole again and to restore his creation. We celebrate because it is grace that he has come. We celebrate that the baby brings with him the kingdom of God, invading and overcoming the broken kingdoms of this world. We celebrate his death and resurrection, and the life that begins at Christmas.

You can also check out this post at the FWCM website.

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Why I Won’t Do Santa with My Kids

I wrote a term paper on St. Nicholas this semester, in which I set out to determine whether or not there was a genuine tie between the third-/fourth-century saint and Santa Claus as we have come to know him. Though I had always assumed that there was a pretty soundly established connection between the spirit of Santa and that of “the real St. Nicholas,” my conclusion ended up being a resounding “No.” All this actually has very little to do with why I won’t do Santa with my kids, but it’s on my mind and it has contributed a bit to the thought process. For more on the historic Saint Nicholas, ask to read my paper. Or you can check out this blog by my friend and former boss, Dr. Eric Costanzo.

My sentiments against Santa don’t come from a combative “keep Christ in Christmas” stance, in which we stubbornly demand that a world full of people who don’t know Jesus must celebrate his birth. If the world celebrates Christmas as a holiday of consumerism, our job is not to chastise, but to demonstrate an alternative that is radically different and points to the kingdom of God. I think that alternative starts by doing Christmas differently, and I think part of doing Christmas differently means leaving Santa behind.

As a preface, I’m not married and I don’t have kids. And I don’t presume to give parenting advice to those who do. If you have kids and do Santa, you have far more wisdom and experience than me and I defer to your judgment. But I do remember pretty well what it was like to be a kid, and a lot of my reasoning stems from reflecting back on my experiences as a child and an adolescent. A lot of it also stems from more recent observations, as well as experience in ministry and the Christian academic world.

I’ve come to the conclusion that when we talk about Santa Claus, it bears a strange resemblance to talking about God. Santa sees what we do and how we behave; to believe in him requires faith, and he has some serious power to be able to pull off Christmas. So for me, a big part of the Santa question is what we may be simultaneously (and most likely unconsciously) teaching children about Jesus when we tell them about Old St. Nick.

Santa and “Being Naughty or Nice”
The most readily apparent way that I think there’s unintentional overlap between doing Santa and teaching children about Jesus is what I’ll call the “behavior modification heresy.” One of the most basic characteristics of Santa is that he sees you when you’re sleeping, and he knows when you’re awake. Further, he knows if you’ve been bad or good; so be good, for goodness sake. It’s one of the most recognizable lines in all of Christmas tunes, and it’s the basic framework for the Santa Claus myth: Santa brings gifts for children who have been good, and coal for children who have been naughty. This tradition dates back to around the Reformation era, and let me tell you, there’s some weird stuff in old European Saint Nicholas lore. But the purpose was the same then as it is now; Santa’s primary role is behavior modification. Children are bribed into being nice instead of naughty, with the promise that this change in behavior will bring with it great material rewards. We teach our children for the first five or ten years of their lives that there exists an essentially omniscient, god-like figure who keeps track of our rights and wrongs, and doles out rewards or punishments accordingly.

Watching. Always Watching.
Watching. Always Watching.

There should be a clear red flag here for those who know Jesus. By embracing this system, it seems pretty straightforward that we teach children to view their behavior according to a system of material reward and punishment. We train them to believe that if they are good, the god-like Santa will bless them, and vice versa. But this notion goes against everything our Lord says about himself and his gospel. The punishment/reward system is how the world functions, but not how the kingdom of God operates. In the kingdom of God, we understand that our good works cannot earn us God’s favor or reward. We have realized that we are hopeless to ever be “good”, and that Jesus has loved us anyway. I don’t believe we can expect children to sort out these two opposing messages when it comes to judging their behavior.

Certainly, there is a need to teach children right and wrong, and to reward and punish them in an appropriate way. But I think there is simply too much convoluted language when it comes to Santa. I don’t think we can expect children to grasp both the Gospel of Grace and the Naughty and Nice List. One will win out, and I think it’s more often than not going to be the wrong one.

Santa and “Faith”
There’s a story in my family that goes back to when I was in kindergarten. It has been told at every family gathering between November and February since 1995, and I couldn’t even venture a guess as to how many times I’ve had to sit through it. I don’t actually remember the event, but I told my mom about it when she picked me up from school on that fateful day, and I’ve not been allowed to forget it since. It seems that the bully of our class decided to tell the rest of us that Santa Claus wasn’t real. As the leader of the opposing camp, it fell to me to defend the rest of our views on the man in the red suit. The good little five-year-old philosopher that I apparently was, I responded: “Look, Brian. We’re not saying Santa is real; we’re saying he could be.” Freaking precious, I know.

As a highly logical child, I knew that Brian had a pretty good point. I had thought about it before too–it was hard to fathom one person going to every house in the world in a single night, and from what I understood, the North Pole wouldn’t be a great place to live. But I really wanted to believe in Santa, and the idea that he didn’t exist was just depressing. So when I was confronted with a convincing argument against what I had always been told and what I wanted to believe in, the only thing I could do was to go on believing in spite of the evidence. The only thing I could do was to acknowledge the difficulty of my position, but respond by saying “You can’t prove he isn’t real, so I’m going to go on believing in magic because I want to.” After all, that seems to be the spirit of most Christmas movies. From Miracle on 34th Street to The Santa Clause, the theme of nearly all Santa films is about believing in him despite the evidence. Just take little Susan Walker’s line from Miracle on 34th:

"I believe... I believe... It's silly, but I believe."
“I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe!”

That is what the world (particularly the modern and postmodern Western world) calls “faith”–believing in things that you want to be real, even if it doesn’t make any sense. This is relevant to Santa, because we tell children for the first four to ten years of their lives about something that is utterly unbelievable. And if they start to doubt, we tell them that the trick is just to believe– “Of course Santa is real, if only you believe in him.” But then they reach an age at which they realize that this is not how the world works, and the rug is pulled out from under them. They have been told their whole lives to simply close their eyes and believe harder, but when the fantasy finally ends, they feel how silly it was for them to have believed in something so outlandish. They realize they had no good reason to believe aside from the fact that they were told to, and they are right to feel that they should not operate this way anymore.

Fast-forward eight or ten years in a child’s life, to the point at which they begin to explore what they should believe about the world and the nature of things. I don’t know about you, but when I reached this point, I had an experience that was eerily similar to realizing that Santa wasn’t real: I realized that I had quite literally no reason to believe in God, except for the fact that I had always been told he was there. It occurred to me that I didn’t actually have any evidence for any of what I believed. It was a terrifying realization; the rug of my whole existence was pulled out from under me. For a time, my only reaction was to acknowledge the difficulty of my position, but respond by telling myself, “You can’t prove he isn’t real, so I’m going to go on believing in God because I want to.” It was only after several years of intense doubt, during which I ran about as fast as I could in the opposite direction, that I was brought back into faith by reason and experience. And I’ve found that this is a startlingly common experience for people in my field.

I’m not nearly naive or reductionist enough to say that as adolescents we all have the conscious thought, “By George, this whole God thing is just like Santa Claus! I’m not going to believe it anymore!” But I do think that the way we are told to “believe” in Santa Claus has an impact on how we are told to “have faith” in God. With Santa, we are taught from the earliest years of life that to “have faith” means to “believe in spite of the evidence,” and this carries over into how we approach the bigger questions of life–is it any wonder that so many kids leave church as soon as they leave home? Yet this is decidedly not the kind of faith that Christ calls us to, nor the faith that we are expected to have. We are never told to bury our heads in the sand and “just believe harder” when doubts come. Paul tells us to use discernment, and to be as wise as serpents. When we are told to step out in faith, we are invited to follow Jesus and allow him to prove that he will catch us. Faith in a properly Christian sense isn’t blind acceptance of doctrine or authority. Rather, as C.S. Lewis penned, it is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

Belief in Santa is blind faith based on the authority of others in spite of the evidence, and this kind of faith leads nearly inevitably to disillusionment and frustration. We must be careful not to train our children to think that belief in Jesus is the same thing, and when it comes to doing Santa, I doubt very seriously that we can have our cookies (and milk) and eat them too.

If you do Santa with your kids, I’m not calling you a bad parent. If your parents did Santa for you like mine did, I’m not saying that your family is wrong. Maybe your family does Santa in a way that you consider fruitful, and that’s entirely okay. But what I am saying is that we must not mindlessly go about doing things as the world does them, without examining how it may reflect on our Lord.

Black Friday, Advent, and Why Christians Must Choose One or the Other

As you no doubt know, today is Black Friday—the day after Thanksgiving, on which the whole world buys as much as it can fit into its collective shopping cart. As you may or may not know, this weekend also marks the start of Advent—the season of the church calendar leading up to Christmas. The two don’t always fall this close together: Black Friday is of course the day after Thanksgiving, and Advent Sunday is the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas. So while they don’t necessarily back up to one another, it’s quite common that they will; and as I reflected this week on how close together the dates often fall, I was struck by the absolute contrast between Black Friday and Advent. And the more I contemplate the two, the more convinced I am that as Christians, we cannot do both—we must choose one or the other. We must decide between a Black Friday spirit and an Advent spirit.

Today is Black Friday. There is no escaping the knowledge of that. Advertisers have been informing us of its impending arrival since October. Today, they tell us, is when we must do our Christmas shopping: now that Thanksgiving has passed, we can turn our attention toward preparing for the next holiday. Now that we’ve taken time to reflect on how thankful we are for all that we have, we can enter the marketplace to compulsively purchase as many material goods as our credit line allows. Because what we have is not enough. We need more. What we have is old. We must have this year’s version. Our closet full of clothes is not satisfactory—we must have more. Our entertainment is not entertaining enough—we must have bigger, better, newer. And we must have all of this now. We cannot wait.

This is the spirit of Black Friday. It is a holiday of consumerism. Its foundation is a refusal to be content, a refusal to rest, a refusal to wait, a refusal of peace. It is an anti-holiday.

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On Black Friday, all of the systems of the world that are opposed to God come together to promote a day of greed, consumerism, and selfishness. These things are what make up Mammon, a Hebrew term for the wealth and compulsive greed of the world. Where the English translation reads, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24, Luke 16:13), Jesus says literally, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Mammon is what makes the world go ‘round. It is the driving force behind ambitions of worldly gain, and the source of economic corruption that causes disparity and injustice. Jesus makes it clear that Mammon is in fundamental opposition to the kingdom of God that he has established. The people of God are called to live differently—to abandon Mammon and to serve the risen Lord instead.

Two days from now is Advent Sunday, the beginning of Advent. It marks the start of a season of expectant waiting—a season in which we hopefully and patiently anticipate the coming of Jesus. We look forward not only to the Christmas celebration of his birth, but also to the time when he will come again to heal the broken world and make all things new. And as we anticipate these things, we learn to wait for God in our own lives; we learn to hope and to pray, and to prepare ourselves for what he will do in us. This is the season of Advent. It is a season of patience–a time of rest, peace, and joyful expectancy.

Advent

The sad truth is that a lot of Christians don’t know this. Most Protestant Christians don’t really even know what Advent is. Prior to the last few years, my only knowledge of Advent was the Advent Calendar on our refrigerator growing up that counted down the days until I finally got my presents. Rather than pressing into the hopeful season of patient spiritual growth at Advent, we have too often substituted the feverish pursuit of Mammon during the Christmas season. We miss the beauty and the blessing of Advent, because we do not know how to wait.  We enter Advent hungover on Black Friday.

More is at stake here than a legalistic rejection of a secularized holiday season that doesn’t “keep Christ in Christmas.” It is foolish and counterproductive to insist that a world that does not know Christ must remember and celebrate him. No, what is at stake here is a foundational issue of Christian identity and purpose. As followers of Christ, we are commanded to serve God instead of Mammon—to choose to live in the spirit of Advent over against the spirit of Black Friday. Jesus leaves no question here as to where our allegiances must lie. We do not serve the kingdoms and the systems of Mammon; we are citizens of an altogether different kingdom, and this kingdom does not operate on greed and manipulation. It is the kingdom of God, and its operating principle is the love of our Savior.

In this kingdom, we are instructed not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear (Luke 12). Instead, people are commanded to sell all they own and give to the poor (Matt 19). We are commanded to leave behind all that would keep us tied to this world (Luke 14). The citizens in the kingdom of God resist the kingdom of Mammon by resting in the provision of our Father; by denying ourselves and sharing with those who have need. We are called to be salt and light to a dark and dying world (Matt 5).

This is what is at stake, and this is why the Church must choose between Black Friday and Advent. We are called to do things differently than the world. As such, we must choose between the impulsive greed of Mammon on one side, and patient rest in God on the other. In the kingdom of God, “I want it” is no longer an adequate motivation for spending our resources on something. So the question is, Can we throw ourselves headlong into Black Friday today, and come before our Lord in the spirit of Advent on Sunday? Can we indulge our every impulse for worldly goods one day, and come with a heart of patience and expectancy the next?

It seems clear that the answer is no, we cannot. Now, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with shopping on Black Friday, any more than on any other day. But we must distinguish between going shopping on Black Friday and going “Black Friday Shopping”. We must choose whether we will worship the god of consumerism or the God who comes in simplicity to be born in a manger. We must decide between an attitude of greed and a heart that waits patiently on the Lord. We cannot serve both God and Mammon, nor can we observe both Advent and Black Friday.

For an abbreviated version of this post and lots of other great stuff, check out the First Woodway College Ministry blog, here.