Advent–the calm during the storm

If frantic preparations for Christmas are wearing you down and sapping your holiday joy, stop for a bit, take a deep breath, and enjoy a little dose of Advent.

Centuries before businesses and families began putting up Christmas decorations in mid-October, the Church created a pre-Christmas season called Advent. Stretching three to four weeks, Advent always begins on a Sunday and always ends at sunset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The theme of Advent is not counting down the days to Christmas; Advent is time to consider why Christ came to this world. The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah are considered, as is the work of John the Baptist. Advent hymns tend to be calm and reflective—“Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel,” is a well-known example. Blue or purple cloths are placed on the furniture at the front of the church. These colors represent the somber tone of the Advent season; but they are also royal colors, saluting the coming of Christ the King. Congregations that do not have Wednesday night services year-round often have special Advent services on Wednesdays as well as Sundays.

A relatively recent tradition for the season of Advent is the Advent Wreath. It takes several forms, but it is always a circular candelabra parallel to the floor rather than vertical, often decorated with evergreen branches, holding either four or five candles. If there is a fifth candle, it stands in the center of the circle; the other four are arranged equidistantly at the edge of the circle. The central candle is always white; the outer candles are either blue or purple, except that sometimes one of the four is pink. An Advent wreath can be used in the home or in the church. The first Sunday of Advent, and all the days of that week when people are present, one outer candle is lit. The second Sunday of Advent, and the days following, two outer candles are lit. The third Sunday of Advent advances to three candles; if a pink candle is used, it is lit this week. The fourth Sunday of Advent, and the remaining days until Christmas Eve, all four outer candles are lit. The night of Christmas Eve, the four outer candles and the white candle in the center of the wreath all are lit; after the service, the wreath is put away until Advent returns. (Some churches put replace the blue or purple or pink candles with white candles and continue to light the wreath during the twelve days of Christmas.) Various writers have proposed names or themes for the candles, but no single version has been widely accepted.

Some Christians speak of the Lord’s three Advents. Old Testament believers waited for the promised Messiah to come; their waiting was rewarded with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his first Advent. New Testament believers await the glorious appearing of Jesus on the Day of the Lord, the last day of history as we know it. This is often called the Second Coming or Second Advent of Christ, although the Greek word “Parousia” describes an appearing rather than an arrival; Christ is present today, but unseen. His presence constitutes the Third Advent. When Christians gather in his name, Christ is with them. When forgiveness is announced, Christ is present to grant his forgiveness. He is present in Baptism, and whenever a Christian remembers his or her Baptism, Christ is there to bestow forgiveness. He is present in a special way in the Lord’s Supper, also granting forgiveness and eternal life.

There are two overlapping Christmas holidays that overlap. The world’s Christmas of buying and selling, cooking and cleaning and decorating, singing about Rudolf and Frosty and Santa Claus, comes to an end on December 25, Christmas Day. On that same day the Christian Church begins the twelve days of Christmas, celebrating not just the birth of Jesus but also his Incarnation, the fact that he became human to rescue and redeem sinners. If Christmas were merely the birthday of a notable historical figure, it would not be worth all this attention. But the victory of Good Friday and Easter—the Lord who vanquished death and is risen to prove his victory—gives greater meaning to the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

Yes, we need a little Advent, right this very moment. May we find tidings of comfort and joy in the Advent of our God. J.

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It’s beginning to sound a lot like….

My youngest daughter jinxed my car radio this week.

We were traveling together Tuesday afternoon, and I was listening to my favorite radio station. It’s an “Adult Contemporary” station which plays hit music from the 80s and 90s up to the present—usually with a minimum of talk, although the morning drive hosts do tend to chatter, and they have give-away contests with listeners phoning in to get their voices on the air. But I digress….

I made a comment about the song that was playing, and my daughter remarked, “You’re lucky they haven’t started playing Christmas music wall-to-wall,” to which I agreed. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday they started playing Christmas music “24-7” as they periodically announced, “from now until Christmas Day.”

I may be a curmudgeon, but I don’t hate all Christmas music. I am fairly tolerant of Christmas music at the right time and the right place. I once knew a man who was retired and who played Christmas music twelve months a year in his basement while he added to his model train landscape and tinkered with the trains. I think that if and when I retire, I might get into model trains. I’d listen to my own favorite music, though—classical one day, Beatles the next, and hits from the 80s some other days… and in December, Christmas music. But, again, I digress….

I will say one good thing about the music I’ve heard on this station Wednesday and today: they are mixing a few carols in with the secular Christmas songs. Christ the Savior is being proclaimed along with Frosty and Rudolph and Santa Claus. My patience with Christmas music is generally exhausted when only the secular songs are played.

There truly are two holidays called Christmas. One marks the coming of God’s Savior to rescue and redeem the world. The other is about gifts and decorations and the winter solstice. Because they happen around the same time, people tend to blend them together. But the tradition of the Church since ancient times has been to celebrate the holiday of Christmas with twelve days, beginning on December 25 and extending to January 5. The four weeks before Christmas are called the Advent Season. When observed in the traditional way, Advent is known for somber hymns and for Bible readings about why we sinners need a Savior. This year Advent begins on Sunday December 2. Tomorrow is not yet even Advent yet: it is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, also known as Christ the King Sunday and as the Sunday of the Fulfillment. We will not be singing about the baby in the manger or the herald angels for another month inside the church.

Yet because of the blending of the two Christmases, the tree will be going up early in December even in the church building; and the children’s Christmas pageant will be in the middle of the month, before school dismisses and families begin traveling to other places for the holidays.

On the second day of Christmas, the radio station will return to its usual music. By the sixth day of Christmas, many families will have taken down their decorations and put them in storage until next November. In our house, the tree and other decorations will remain out at least until after the twelfth day of Christmas; some of the more durable decorations will stay up until Candlemas, also known as Groundhog Day. But once again I digress….

The Last Sunday of the Church year is a time for the Church to consider cosmic eschatology: the glorious appearing of the Lord, his Judgment, and the dawn of his new creation. One of the hymns we will sing tomorrow is the harvest hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” which begins with talk of the worldly harvest and then shifts into a discussion of the harvest of the earth on the Last Day. When this hymn is sung on Thanksgiving or the night before, people tend to focus only on thanksgiving for earthly blessings. Sung again on the Sunday of the Fulfillment, people will change their focus to that final harvest that awaits us all. Then we are ready for Advent, another way to regard the coming of our King. We will not let the world rush us; we will leave time in the hands of the Lord. J.

Update and season’s greetings

I cannot predict my WordPress status for the next several days.

My home computer and WordPress are not interfacing well. When I go to my Reader page and try to scroll, the screen alternates between freezing and rolling uncontrollably, making it hard for me to click on a visit button before it escapes my pointer. Since I will not be able to use my work computer for the next few days, I may have problems visiting all the blogs I love and enjoy.

I have a project in mind, though, that I will try to post over the twelve days of Christmas. It involves picking up where I left off with Martin Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. The next topic will be prayer.

If I don’t have the opportunity to visit your site and wish you a Merry Christmas, please accept my best wishes all that same. May the Lord bless your celebration of His holy days. To Jesus be the glory. J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

Advent

Last year Christmas was on a Sunday and the season of Advent was as long as it can be—twenty-eight days. This year Christmas is on a Monday and Advent is as short as it can be—twenty-two days.

In traditional congregations, Advent is a time of preparation, not merely for the celebration of Christmas, but for the presence of Christ himself. When Advent is treated as a countdown to Christmas, it provides little comfort or peace. Advent can instead be an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the world’s mad rush toward its Yuletide observances that overlap the Christmas holiday. For many worldly Americans, the season of Christmas begins in mid-October (or, at the latest, on Thanksgiving) and lasts until the sun goes down on December 25 (or perhaps lingers a few days longer, maybe even to the end of the year). On the traditional Christian calendar, December 25 is the first day of Christmas and eleven more days follow that belong also to the Christmas season. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas and all the other days that happen between the First Sunday of Advent and sunset on the night of December 24, Christmas Eve. (For that reason, traditional Christian churches this year will observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the morning of the 24th and Christmas Eve on the evening of the same day.)

The word advent means “coming.” Commonly, Christians speak of the season of Advent as threefold, involving a past Advent, a present Advent, and a future Advent. From a human point of view, the distinction is useful. The spirit of Advent Past recalls the Old Testament believers waiting for the promised Messiah, including John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. This Advent Past comes to fulfillment when Christ is born in Bethlehem and proceeds on a rescue mission which takes him to a cross and a grave in Jerusalem. The spirit of Advent Present recalls the ways Jesus is present for his people today: in the power of his Word, the Bible; in the proclamation of forgiveness in his Church; and in the Sacraments of his Church—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The spirit of Advent Future directs attention to the Day of the Lord, when Jesus will appear in glory with all the angels of heaven and all the saints. The dead will be raised, the Judgment of the Lord will be announced, and the new creation will begin—an eternal wedding feast of Christ and his Bride, the Church, and an unending celebration of the victory Christ won in his first advent and now shares with his people through his present advent.

Like all human beings, Christians move through time, from past to present and from present to future. Jesus is the Son of God. He created time; he exists outside of time, unchanging and eternal; he moves through time in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. When Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Time is included among “all things,” so that the Son of Mary could eat with Abraham and wrestle with Jacob. The Son of Mary, hands scarred by the nails that held him to the cross, could shape the earth into the body of Adam and sculpt a woman, a teammate for Adam, from one of Adam’s ribs.

As I wrote here, the future advent of Jesus is not a return, because Jesus is always with us. His appearing to judge all people and to inaugurate the new creation is an important teaching of the Bible and the Church, but for Jesus it is a reality that has already occurred. As Christians wait for the fulness of the victory that was won in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says that we already have abundant and eternal life, we already belong to the kingdom of God, and we are already children of God (through the adoption purchased by Jesus on the cross). John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he {Jesus} appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The puzzle of time as it relates to Jesus and to his people cannot fully be solved this side of the Day of the Lord, but the season of Advent allows us to rest in the assurance that all is solved and secure in the hands of the Lord. J.

Santa’s helper

One December afternoon a number of years ago, I stopped by a nursing home to visit a member of my church. She happened to be attending a holiday program in the cafeteria, so I stopped by there to see her. The residents were being entertained by a jolly plump man in a fancy suit. No, the suit was not red, and the jolly plump man did not have a white beard. Santa was present, but he was not entertaining anyone. He was leaning against the back wall of the room with a bored look on his face. The man with the microphone was wearing a gem-spangled white suit. He had dark hair and long sideburns. He was singing one of his big hits—I no longer remember if it was “Love Me Tender” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or which song it was.

Yes, the King was upstaging good old Santa Claus, and Santa did not seem to appreciate it one bit. But that passing moment opened a new chapter in my family’s holiday lore. Since that day, I have told my children that Elvis lives at the North Pole with Santa. During the year, Elvis makes toys for Santa to bring to children on Christmas Eve. Elvis helps Santa manage his database recording who has been naughty and who has been nice. Elvis is Santa’s helper, and if you thought Santa is assisted by elves, you have simply been hearing that name wrong all these years.

Of course we will have to rewrite some of the Christmas songs and poems and books. The man in red and the man in white are a holiday team, working together so that none of us has to face a Blue Christmas. Together they deck the halls, ring the bells, and rock around the Christmas tree. Together they bring Christmas joy to every girl and every boy around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas decorations shows Santa kneeling in prayer at the manger. Surely someone can create an image that has Elvis also at the manger, kneeling to honor the King of kings. That scene would go a long way toward bringing to the world the real meaning of Christmas.

To each of you, and to all those who are special to you, I wish a very Merry Christmas. J.

 

First Friday Fiction (a little late this month)

Dear family and friends,

It has been great receiving your Christmas cards this year and reading your letters. Congratulations on the spectacular accomplishments of your children and on the wonderful vacations you have taken in the past year.

Our older son graduated from college eighteen months ago and is still looking for a job in his field. If you know of a laboratory or corporation that is hiring chemists, please drop him a line. Meanwhile, he continues to develop his skills mixing paint at Home Depot, which at least supplies him money for rent and groceries.

Our daughter left college last winter and spent three months in the hospital. They have changed her medication a couple of times, and she seems to have stabilized. Of course some days are harder than others for her. She was employee of the month at the McDonalds on the highway in October. Meanwhile, she remains very popular, as she receives letters and phone calls nearly every day from collection agencies that want to discuss her student loans and medical bills.

Our younger son is adjusting to life at the military academy, and his parole officer believes that he has turned the corner in making good decisions. Best of all, the owners of the car have dropped their lawsuit.

The Mrs. and I were not able to get away for a vacation this summer, although we did spend some pleasant Sunday afternoons at the free museums downtown. We also had some pleasant hikes at the two nearby state parks. We did have the opportunity to travel out of state in September for the funeral of my mother-in-law, and we agree with everyone there who said that the family ought to get together once in a while for happier occasions.

My back is steadily improving from last year’s fall down the stairs when the dog attacked me. What a relief it was to learn that the dog did not have rabies! I carry a can of pepper spray on my route now, but I haven’t had to use it yet. Of course the bag of mail has gotten a lot heavier the last two months with all the advertisements and holiday greetings. It’s such a pleasure to be back on the job, though, that I really don’t mind the extra weight.

The Mrs. sends her greetings. She has decided to stay with the housecleaning business for the foreseeable future, although most of her coworkers are younger than she is. She says that she could write a fascinating gossip column for the paper about the things she has learned about people by cleaning their houses.

I guess that’s about all the news from our household this Christmas. We wish you blessings for the new year, and we hope that 2017 is even better for all of you than 2016 has been.

Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.