December 9, 2007

Matthew 3:1-12

I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of Santa Claus. When asked at the women’s breakfast a few weeks ago to name what I like and dislike about Christmas, I quickly answered that I love Christmas carolling and Christmas worship, and I hate Santa Claus. Well, perhaps that’s putting it a little too strongly. I don’t like the white-bearded, red-suited Santa character created by Coca-Cola and promoted by malls and everyone else trying to sell us as much stuff as possible every December. I don’t like the way the Santa Claus phenomenon has taken over our celebration of Christmas to such an extent that many of our children equate Christmas with “getting presents from Santa.”

Ask a child today to name a special memory of Christmas, and I’m quite sure that almost every child will name a toy or other gift that he/she received for Christmas in a previous year. The gifts named will probably include video games and gaming systems, name-brand clothes, DVD’s, TV’s, and other expensive items. They probably won’t include the gifts of hope, joy, peace, or love, the gifts of family, friends, food, or health. And they probably won’t include the greatest gift of all — the gift of Jesus’ birth into our world.

At his best, Santa Claus is meant to inspire generosity and gift-giving, which seems quite reasonable. But rarely do I encounter a child who wants to tell me about a gift that he or she is giving to someone else. And every year, children are invited to write letters to Santa Claus — not for the purpose of telling Santa about the needs of others, but rather to enumerate all the things they want to get for Christmas themselves. I have trouble with the Santa Claus myth that says Santa brings presents to children who are good, while in reality, rich kids (whether good or bad) get piles of stuff they don’t need, while poorer parents struggle to buy the expected toys and feel bad when they can’t provide all the stuff their children asked “Santa” to bring.

In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He calls the people of Judea and Jerusalem to repent — to turn away from their sin and towards God — because the Kingdom of heaven has come near. We hear John’s message of warning every year on the second Sunday of Advent, and every year we are challenged to find ways in our lives to prepare the way of the Lord into our world.

I don’t think that the commercial, materialistic, gift-delivering Santa Claus that is promoted in secular Canadian society serves well to prepare us or our children for the coming of Christ into our world. Santa prepares us to want stuff, to expect stuff, and to value stuff over and above the real reason why we celebrate Christmas — the birth of Christ.

On this second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist calls us to repentance and invites us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming into the world. And although the Santa Claus we see in advertising may try to lead us astray, I have to remind myself often that Santa Claus as we know him, is based on the story of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra of the late third century. St. Nicholas, himself, might just be able to help us get ready for Christmas — to prepare the way of the Lord.

Nicholas was born in the year 270 to a relatively wealthy family, and he became the Bishop of Myra in Anatolia (which is a part of modern-day Turkey.) Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, and there are several stories surrounding his life and ministry that led to his being remembered and revered. Nicholas’ life also inspired a number of other characters known for giving gifts to children, including Father Christmas, Santa Claus, and others in various parts of the world.

In the most famous story about St. Nicholas, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in the absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him.
But being too modest (or too shy) to help the man in public, (or perhaps knowing the man too proud to accept charity), Nicholas went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window opening onto the man’s floor.

One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters “comes of age.” Invariably, the third time the father lies in waiting, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have St. Nicholas say it is not Nicholas he should thank, but God alone.

According to the story, people in the area where Nicholas lived began to suspect that Nicholas was behind a large number of anonymous gifts to the poor. He was giving away the inheritance from his wealthy parents. And after he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously as he had done. Such gifts were often attributed to St. Nicholas.

In the spirit of St. Nicholas, we would not teach our children to make lists of the things they want for Christmas. We would invite them to join us in quietly, anonymously giving gifts to the poor and those in need.

On a poster associated with the “Buy Nothing Christmas” initiative, there is an image of Jesus with these words: “Where did I say that you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?”

I know that it’s a big challenge to try to simplify our Christmas celebrations. It’s hard to scale-back all the gift exchanges and stocking stuffers and presents for family and friends. It’s fun to buy stuff for our kids and grandkids, and it’s what we’ve always done too. But I really do think that it keeps us turned away from God. It promotes happiness based on material things and teaches us to value things instead of people. It’s the reason why a Christian child when asked about his earliest memory of Christmas told me excitedly, “It was the year I got my first game-boy!”

John the Baptist prepared the people for Jesus’ coming by calling them to repent — to turn away from their sin and back to God. John did not come with a nice, happy, Christmas-y message. He yelled at the people and called the religious ones “a brood of vipers” — perhaps because they had an even greater responsibility for living faithful and righteous lives, and they weren’t doing it.

Though John shows up in the lectionary every year, John almost always gets left out of most people’s versions of the Christmas story. We usually want Christmas to be about cute little shepherds and angels, wise folk bringing gifts, and a quiet sleeping baby. Today we encounter John the Baptist out in the wilderness, wild-eyed, crazy John, yelling, challenging, calling us to repentance, calling us to change.

This Christmas for us can be like any other. We can do the shopping, decorate the house, gather the family, and open the presents. We can even sing a few carols and throw in a church service for good measure. It will all be very nice. But this Christmas, we have an opportunity to respond to the call of John the Baptist, to prepare for Christ’s coming into our world. We have an opportunity for repentance, an opportunity for change. With God’s help, we can turn not only our hearts and our lives, but also our Christmas celebrations back to God.

Let’s not prepare ourselves and our children by making lists of stuff that we want and rushing to the malls. Let’s prepare the way of the Lord into our hearts, our families, and our world by making Christmas about giving to those who are truly in need.

The good news of Christmas is that when we were truly in need, when we were lost, when we had turned away from God and wandered in darkness and sin, God sent us a Saviour in Jesus, the Christ. God gave us the gift of Christ, not because we were good, but simply because we were (and we are) children of God.

This Christmas, let’s share the gift of Christ with all who are God’s children. Let’s teach our children that Christmas is about giving, not getting. And may the kingdom of heaven come near. Amen.