This column originally appeared in the December 16, 2016 Fairmont Sentinel.
The main figures of Christmas could not be more distant, distinct, different from one another.
In one corner, a quiet baby is placed in a manger, wrapped in strips of cloth. An adoring virgin mother feeds him; a faithful stepfather watches over his young family in wonderment; shepherds silently shuffle in, squinting to see the tiny child. Angels had announced his birth, numerous times during the previous months; Mary, Joseph, and shepherds all heard and heeded their words, although no angelic appearances grace this quiet scene.
The baby is born in answer to God’s promise, a promise that was first spoken when the first people committed the first sin against God in that Garden of Eden; the baby is born in fulfillment of millennia of prophecies; words that had been accepted as God’s Word have finally been fulfilled, just as God had promised time and again.
Grace is found in the Son of God made flesh; the Prince of Peace is born, to reconcile God and sinful humanity. The forgiveness God promised would be accomplished through the physical body of this Jesus on the cross and guaranteed through his literal resurrection from the dead (just as King David had prophesied.) The gift is free, with no strings attached; the Son of God and Son of Mary has rescued people from never-ending death in hell.
And in the other corner? A jolly man in a red suit. Most of the details have sprung from song: Don’t pout, don’t cry, because he’s coming. He sees you, asleep or awake; he knows what you’ve done, so be good.
The gifts he brings are generally found under a tree, along with his jolly cry “To all a good night!” Good little girls and boys receive good things, while those on the naughty list might receive only coal in the stocking.
Do you worry that you’ve made the naughty list? Don’t despair. This jolly ol’ elf can be bought off with some milk & cookies, maybe a nice letter that tugs at the heartstrings, emotions bolstered by the movies which encourage us to simply believe in the magic of Christmas.
The differences could not be greater. The stakes could not be higher. Let us, for a moment, suspend our sentimentality so that we may consider what each figure teaches our children.
Neither figure is seen doing his work; one may be found at malls across the country during the season of Advent, while the other is found in Word and Sacrament. Neither is physically seen Christmas night; the Son of God has withdrawn his visible presence, while the children are tucked all snug in their beds when the other comes down the chimney.
And children are taught, from little on, to have faith in both; One, eternal God in the flesh, born at a specific time in history and point on the map; the other, never seen and perhaps even disbelieved as trickery in later years. Does our teaching of Mr. Claus undermine our teaching of the Christ?
Look at what they promise. The jolly elf promises gifts . . . actually, not. He promises rewards, payment in exchange for being nice and good. (But don’t worry, it’s not as though the stakes are really that high; the worst that’ll happen is some extra fuel for the grill.)
Jesus Christ promises forgiveness. Unconditional. It does not depend upon your work, your effort, your decision, your life-change, your emotion. Your standing with God depends entirely and solely upon Jesus Christ – the Son of God in the flesh, through whom you have been reconciled to God. Freely rescued from eternal hell, because he himself paid the deadly cost that sin demands.
If Christmas were only, ever, always about sentimental feelings and re-capturing the wonderment of yesteryear – either figure might do. Family traditions and holiday memories are elements of this season that we all treasure (including yours truly.)
Can both figures be equally celebrated on Christmas? Should we teach our children these two figures – one, grounded in story, song, and movie; the other, found in Scripture and history and eternity?
To answer that question, I simply ask: Which figure would you want at your deathbed? The one promising conditional earthly reward, or the One promising unconditional, eternal peace?
O come, let us adore him – Christ, the Lord!