It's Christmas time! The much anticipated holiday when we all (old and young) eagerly await the arrival of our cherubic hero, Santa, seated regally on his magical sleigh ever committed to that impossible task of visiting each and every home and showering us with the magic of the season - gifts and stockings laden with the returns from our holiday wishes. Our families and friends all gathered together to celebrate with feast and fellowship, for this is Christmas! Everywhere you turn there is evidence of the season - inflated snowmen and lit reindeer adorn front yards; lights, wreaths, and bows outline many homes; and decorated trees, garland and holiday candles furnish many of our homes and offices as witness to our participation in this grand event. Across the country, Salvation Army representatives - "Santa's Soldiers" - collect donations and ring their magical bells. Our nation's malls, bulging with frantic shoppers, herald their masses with music celebrating Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph. Inside you can almost picture the veritable miles of lines of children awaiting their hopeful chance to sit on Santa's lap, share their magical wish for Christmas, and receive a candy cane and picture with jolly ol' St. Nick. Truly magical!
Imagine a poor family arriving into your town just prior to the holiday from a faraway land. A family that has never participated in our festivities and holiday celebration. A family to whom each tree and wreath and Santa is foreign and not understood. Imagine seeing them staring in disbelief and wonder at the flurry of activity before them - the lights and the music and the crowds. How would you explain to them our holiday preparation and celebration? How would you convey the story of Santa dressed in his red and white? Of reindeer and chimneys and gifts wrapped in bows? Of snowmen and Christmas elves and red nosed-reindeer? Imagine the parents, curious and humble and awe-struck by the decorations and music and parties and food. Now picture their son, almost a man, quiet and observant, his hair long and slightly unkempt, his hands and feet rough and worn from the journey. And as you go to shake his hand, you feel the imprints of nail marks that once brutally pierced his palms and wrists. What would your explanation be?
I propose that we could all benefit from being a bit more naughty this year in the eyes of Santa Claus. That we dedicate ourselves to stealing a bit of his thunder and his celebration and giving it instead to this family of foreigners. I think their story is equally magical and awe-inspiring - worthy of our time, attention, and praise - perhaps even our celebration. Let's take a closer look at each of the members of this special family:
It's like a headline from any newspaper in the country. A young woman, single and not working, engaged to be married - finds herself pregnant. The man she is to marry is not the father. She lives in a land and at a time where such an act and offense is punishable by stoning, or death, or banishment. Imagine having to explain your circumstance and condition to your soon-to-be husband. Imagine the fear and frustration and faith needed to have such a conversation with him, with his family, with your friends and neighbors. She's with child and faces a future of uncertainty, potential ridicule and public humiliation, and pain. This is Mary.
Now picture the man, employed and respected in his community, in love with a woman he looks forward to marrying. And she comes to him prior to the marriage and she's pregnant. And she claims it's a miracle as she's still a virgin and that the father is God. Putting this story and situation in modern-day perspective, what reaction might we expect from this man? Anger? Heartbreak? Disbelief? Now see the man believing the woman and taking her as his wife. See them departing their homeland to travel over mountain and plain for tax obligations. And the man is unprepared - he doesn't have lodging for their journey. His wife is tired, hungry, in pain and he has neither the means nor the reservations to provide her a bed or pillow, scarcely enough for a meal. He's forced to seek shelter in a barn, placing his wife amongst the cattle and sheep, the musty and dank smells of hay and poop and barnyard animals. But he loves his wife and does his best to make her comfortable and warm. This is Joseph.
And their baby is born. There in that small town of Bethlehem in that barn near an inn, in those poorest and humblest of circumstances. No bed, no blankets, no epidurals, no sterilized equipment, not even a doctor or nurse present to assist. Miraculously he makes it. And he's healthy, and happy, and strong. And he's different. He is perfect, without blemish, without flaw, without complaint, without sin. And almost immediately he is hunted by those in power, believing in signs and prophecies that he poses a risk to their claims of nobility. And other children around him are murdered by soldiers owing loyalty to those in power. So Mary and Joseph, loving their son, keep him in hiding, fleeing their homeland and country to protect their young son. And he has few toys. And he has fewer friends. And he is often alone. This is Jesus.
Room for Both
So let us keep our traditions, our celebrations, our festivities. I don't suggest that there is harm in Santa, or Rudolph, or Frosty. I simply believe we need to steal back a little of the time and attention granted to St. Nick and return it to its rightful owners. To remind ourselves of the miracles that occurred on this day of celebration, and to recall the cast of characters that played an important role in that miraculous story. To remind ourselves of that foreign family visiting us at Christmas time - the mother, the father, and child. And to make sure our holiday season and the traditions we offer our families and children are more than just snowmen and stockings and Santa.
Away in a manger,
no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus
laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the heavens
looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
Merry Christmas, everyone! May the spirit of the season touch us all. May we pause to remember and pray for those 26 souls and their families, including 20 precious children, whose lives were cut short. But may we also take comfort in the fact that they are returned to their Savior, whose birth we celebrate this season. God bless...