Santa Claus Saves Christmas
by the Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee, South Bend Christian Reformed Church, South Bend, Indiana
Christmas Day 2005
Since I tend toward being a “bah, humbug” sort of guy when it comes to Christmas, I’m surprising myself and you this morning with a sermon entitled “Santa Claus Saves Christmas.” Of course, I’m not talking about the fake department store Santa, or the famous jolly Coca-Cola Santa. I’m going back to the real one. Well, as real as we can make out anyway—I’m talking about St. Nicholas who is the prototype of everything Santa Claus.
I’ve always had a little place in my heart for good old St. Nick because it’s said that the whole Santa Claus business came to America from the land of my ancestors, Holland. There, December 6 is still celebrated as Sinterklaas Day (Dutch for Santa Claus) with all the rituals of gift giving we associate with Christmas. I’ve always wished that we could have our St. Nicholas Day early in December and get all the gift giving out of the way so Christmas could be dedicated to celebrating the birth of the Savior.
The reason Santa wears a red suit is the ‘original’ St. Nicholas (who is still highly venerated in the Orthodox churches of the east) was a bishop, and bishops came to wear red (scarlet) robes. As far as we can tell (and the historical record here is far from clear) Nicholas was born to a wealthy family late in the [3rd] century in Patara in ancient Lycia, which is now the beautiful western Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Later he moved to the nearby capital of Myra. The saintly act that made him famous is the story how he saved three young sisters from a life of sin. Their bankrupt father, having no money for a dowry, had consigned them to prostitution. Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window on three successive nights, thus saving them for a respectable marriage. His secret act was, of course, later discovered.
He was elected bishop of Myra at the age of 30 and gave away all his wealth. Unfortunately this was just before the terrible persecutions under emperor Diocletian, and Nicholas spent some time in prison under torture. He was released under Constantine’s reign, and resumed his post as bishop.
Now here’s where Nicholas’ story intersects with Christmas. Legend has it that the Bishop Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea, the great Council where the church hammered out the cardinal doctrines of Christ’s humanity and divinity. (We’ll recall them as we say the Nicene Creed later.) The two great protagonists of the Council were Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, a popular preacher and theologian. We know lots more about them than about Nicholas. (I think that if I were a filmmaker and had lots of money behind me I’d love to make an epic film on the Council of Nicea. There would be thrills and fights, political intrigue and ecclesiastical drama, and great characters, like Arius, and Athanasius, and, of course, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.)
Arius was not only a theologian but a clever marketer as well. He composed a defense of his position in verse and prose that he called “Thalia”. From these he is said to have published songs for sailors and other travelers, in which his teachings were popularized and spread. Arius’ mantra was this: “There was a time when the son was not.” In other words, Jesus was not the divine Son of God. As a cultured Greek, he could not abide the idea that God would actually become human. Athanasius, a fiery young theologian from Alexandria, argued furiously that Jesus Christ was the very Son of God, “God from God, light from light, etc.” Now, the story goes that good St. Nicholas was firmly on the side Athanasius and the Bible. As Arius made his case at length before the enthralled Council, Nicholas became more and more upset. Unfortunately he could think of no better response to Arius’ heretical musings than to walk up and punch him out. Not a very saintly act, I suppose, but let’s allow that he did take his orthodoxy quite seriously. The Bishops were aghast, and had Nicholas cool his heels and his brain in jail. That night in jail, and here we get deep into legend, Jesus and Mary visited Nicholas, presumably to thank him for his pugilistic support. So, and I know it’s a real stretch, that’s how Santa Claus saved Christmas. But, hey, it’s Christmas Day, and we should lighten up anyway.
But there’s a serious matter buried under all this legend. If Arius’ mantra was that there was a time when the son was not, John’s gospel begins with the opposite assertion: There was never a time when the Son was not. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” It’s called the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ (that is, he existed as God the Son before his incarnation). As abstract as all this sounds, it simply means this: God came crashing into our world at Christmas. And if God came crashing into our world, then we are saved; so let’s celebrate.
Carol Zaleski, professor of religion at Smith College, reminded me in an article this week that there’s something fitting, if unbalanced, about the raucous Christmas we Christians are constantly decrying. “Christmas descends, like the Word of God, into the midst of our debauchery, frenzy and exhaustion. Christmas spoils the peaceful, recollected Advent we had planned … . The light of Christ cannot be contained. It stirs up our disordered hearts and unleashes our passions even as it heals them.”
Take Christmas lights, for example. Remember when they were big fat multi-colored bulbs? Now they are sleeker and more elegant and understated, making those old bulbs seem vulgar and wasteful by comparison. Wasteful like the gold, frankincense and myrrh the Magi brought to the Christ child. As Zaleski says, nothing can be more vulgar to the progressive mind, which thrives on spirituality lite, than the idea that God became human. The very idea that was so distasteful to the cultivated Arius.
But if there was no time when the Son was not. If Jesus, born of Mary, is the eternal Son of the Father, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, of one being with the Father,” then God actually entered our world at Bethlehem’s stable. Then this world and all of us wayward human creatures have been snatched from the jaws of death. And then there’s room for all kinds of raucous rejoicing. God is with us, and we are saved!
But there’s more to celebrate even than that God is with us. God is with us. Just as much as we celebrate the divinity of the child born at Bethlehem, we also celebrate his humanity. The eternal Word became flesh. In the incarnation God is forever changed. Echoing the Gospel of John, Athanasius insisted that Jesus Christ always existed as the eternal Son, one being with the Father. And since the Son was not always incarnate in human flesh, his birth at Bethlehem marks an entirely new era in the life of God. God and humanity are now welded together in Jesus Christ so that you can’t have one without the other. That’s brand new, folks!
After the birth of a child, every new mother takes some time when she uncovers the tightly wrapped blanket and examines her baby; I mean she studies every detail with loving wonder. I imagine that Mary too uncovered her baby, as much as she could in the cold, dank cave. She examined him from head to toe. She caressed his tiny body; touched his perfect little fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn’t so amazing to her, and to Joseph, but to me the most amazing sight she laid her eyes on was the stub that protruded from his belly, the withering umbilical cord that had sustained his life in her womb, and through which he received her nourishment, her very life. When you really think about it, this is the amazing thing. The child has a belly button.
We all have a bellybutton. It’s either an innie or an outie, but that doesn’t matter. What does it tell you? It says that you are part of the human family. There was an umbilical cord that bound you to your mother, and through it you were nourished. Her blood, her oxygen sustained your life, her antibodies protected you. When you were born the cord was cut, and you became an independent person, but the bellybutton reminds you that you are tied to her, and to the whole human family. You are not really independent. In that baby lying in the manger at Bethlehem God now has a bellybutton. God is tied to the human race.
When Christ was born at Bethlehem, an entirely new human being appeared. Humanity got a new start. To put it crassly, the DNA of our fallen humanity was united with the very substance of the divinity of God’s eternal Son. In Christ, God came to this earth and lived the authentic human life for all people. He died our death and rose again to live forever. And in our baptism everything that happens to Christ happens to us.
Butler University theologian William Placher once wrote how he noticed on a visit to Washington that people defined themselves by their connections. “I went to prep school with the Vice President’s son.” “That cabinet secretary used to be my boss, and she still remembers me.” He noticed that after hearing those comments from Washington he began to hear the same kind of thing all over the place. “I studied at this graduate school with the famous Professor Smith.” “My office is right next to the boss’s corner office.” “I used to play basketball with that famous star.” But, says Placher, all these claims are trivial next to the one we can all possess in our baptism. “I share in the humanity of the eternal and divine Son of God. I’m a brother to Jesus Christ.” As the apostle Peter boldly says, through Christ “we are participants in the divine nature.” (II Peter 1:4)
We are part of God’s family and he is part of ours. An indissoluble marriage of divinity and humanity has taken place when Jesus joined us as our brother. And because God is now human we have hope. God won’t cast us off, God won’t turn his back, or he would be denying his only Son, his very self. Jesus Christ, our human brother represents us all now in the intimacy of his loving relationship with the Father. That’s the astounding miracle of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas every year. Christ, our bellybutton brother, is one with God. Now nothing can separate us from God’s love, for in Jesus Christ, we join in the community of the Holy Trinity.
Charles Wesley captures the awesome truth in that beloved Christmas hymn we will sing,
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time, behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity,
pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.
OK, I admit, we don’t owe all this to St. Nicholas, but look, at least we have a story to tell our children that makes Santa more than a bearer of toys to little boys and girls, and connects him with the Lord Jesus Christ.
By the Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee, South Bend Christian Reformed Church, South Bend, Indiana. Used by permission.