I learned a considerably valuable lesson last week in the pulpit; of all the places in the world in which it remains offensive to declare, “Santa is not real,” Sunday worship still manages to rank fairly high.
To be fair I did not begin my sermon with any ill intent. I am not a Christian version of the Grinch who is bent on ruining “Holiday spirit” in the lives of millions of children or some cynical, old, cantankerous codger who suggests Christmas is nothing more than a bunch of pagan rituals high-jacked by Constantine. To the contrary, I like Christmas quite a bit, and I have preached a great number of sermons about the need for the church to learn from the culture around it how to celebrate this season to the fullest. I have often talked about the missional opportunities of Christmas, the historicity of St. Nicholas, and the voice we lose when we chose to shout through megaphones in the marketplace to shame people into believing “Jesus is the reason for the season.” To be quite honest, I like to think of myself as a fairly culturally-whimsical Christian. At least, I use to.
But there I was preaching a sermon last week in the season of Advent, at a decidedly Evangelical church (a Presbyterian one at that), in the heart of the Bible belt when I began to speak about the less-than-truthfulness of Saint Nick. As I did so the crowd shifted nervously in their seats. Some let out uncomfortable laughs while casting even more uncomfortable glances around the sanctuary. Others averted all of us by simply looking down at their shoes or their hands while wringing them nervously in their laps. Some flashed wide-eyed gazes at their innocent children while hiding their fear behind insincere smiles that attempted to communicate “he is just kidding honey.” One of the boldest in the bunch simply got up and ushered his child out.
All of this occurred, mind you, before my introduction was even finished.
Yet, despite all its discomfiture the moment served as a fitting illustration, perhaps a better illustration than any I could have conjured on my own, of the message I actually came to bear. My original intent was to reflect on the often overshadowed glory of the first Advent, and the way in which our failure to ponder the sheer impossibility of Christmas actually tempts our hearts to believe fairy tales that are far less mythical than the truth of the Gospel.
The thunderous silence of the sanctuary confirmed that the story of a man dashing down chimneys with a sack full of gifts and a little holiday spirit trumps the excitement of the Incarnation. For some, the story of elves and reindeer is the one we would rather tell our children, maybe it is the one we would rather tell ourselves.
While I have real opinions on whether or not you should tell your children Santa is real (perhaps another post for another day), suffice to say here that no matter how exciting, or fantastic, or mythical or impossible the story of Santa may be, the story of the Incarnation is infinitely more so. Infinitely. That God would become a man is a blasphemous claim worthy of anathema in nearly every world religion throughout history. That his joining us here on Earth would come by way of an unwed Jewish teenager, that he would first see the world he created through human eyes from the bottom of a trough in a borrowed hog pen, and that the only ones who would recognize his coming would be shepherds and pagan magicians, is simply divine comedy of the highest order.
As Frederick Buechner once wrote in his seminal work on preaching Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale:
“There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome…That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, the one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still….that once upon a time is this time, now…and the ones who are to live happily ever after are…all who labor and are heavy laden, the poor naked wretches wheresoever they be.”
That is the better story for the Church this season. It is the better story for the world, and it is only story worth telling.