Saturday, November 18, 2006

Here comes...Grace Claus?

It's a Christmas song we all know well: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Santa is a fun event for children, right? And that's why we think nothing of mixing the message of Santa Claus with the message of Jesus' birth, right? I mean, they are both about gifts, aren't they?

Let's take a look at the lyrics to this song:

You'd better watch out!
You'd better not cry!
You'd better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.
He's making a list
and checking it twice.
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.


He sees when you are sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!

It actually sounds like someone to be afraid of--he's always watching me? I have to be good all the time because he knows if I am not? What if I make a mistake?

Again, we Christians participate in Santa Claus just as much as anybody. But is it really something that coincides with our Biblical beliefs? Receiving presents from Santa is dependent on whether we are good or bad--dependent on what we do. Yet we are taught that our God is a God of love and grace who gives to us simply because He loves us and not because we have earned what we receive.

Isn't it a mixed message we're sending? How can both messages fit together on the same day? Does anyone else find it as confusing as I do? I have to be good to receive presents from Santa and there isn't a grace clause (ha! no pun intended, but it gives me a good title for this posting!) when it comes to him, is there? It's either presents or coal; that's it.

Yet when it comes to God, He is all about grace. His love and gifts are never dependent on what we do. They are only dependent on His love for us.

So who would you rather visit you this Christmas? Santa Claus? Or Grace Claus?

What would Jesus want for Christmas?

Ah, the Christmas season. The decorations go up, the presents get wrapped, people are in a mad frenzy to get everything done. We eat too much, stay up late, hope for snow. The house smells of cinnamon and pumpkin pie and the stores start early with Christmas carols and one can't help whistling or humming or singing along. Such a happy, joyful season, isn't it?

But amid those hoped-for happy feelings there lies the stress of shopping and wish lists and trying to please everyone. We agonize over what presents to buy each person and most often, instead of putting much thought into them, we simply ask them what they want and we buy it. There is little surprise, and, often the gifts are forgotten within weeks, if not days. Do you remember what you bought or were given three years ago? I didn't think so.

So why do we give these gifts that do not last? Well, because it's Jesus' birthday! We give gifts because the wise men gave him gifts! Right? That's what I've always heard, anyway. But something doesn't sit right with me about this explanation. Let's take a look at the Bible.

In the four gospels, Jesus' birth is mentioned in only two of them: Matthew and Luke. Of those two, it is only Matthew that mentions the wise men. Matthew 2:1-12 reads as follows:

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

One of the first things we notice is that nobody knows where exactly Jesus is, only that the messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. The wise men are told to "search diligently" for the child. Secondly, we later see in verse 16 that Herod has all children aged two and under killed. From this we can see that the wise men probably did not arrive on the day of Jesus' birth (which probably wasn't anywhere near December 25th anyway, but that's a different story).

When the wise men enter the house (not a stable, mind you; that is in Luke's gospel) they do give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). We also have no idea how many wise men there are--only that they give three gifts.

So, from this text on Jesus' birth, we see that Jesus was given three gifts, all unasked for. But what do we do on Christmas? We make out wish lists. We buy people all kinds of gifts, more and more and more, not just three. All "in honor of Jesus' birthday". But is it really? How does it honor Jesus? If we give gifts because the wise men did, then wouldn't it make more sense to maybe give gifts to the same person they gave them to? What would Jesus want for Christmas? Something tells me he doesn't have an wish list like I do. What did he ask for from people? I can't really find anything.

What did he give to people? He gave gifts of healing, of comfort, of hope. But he didn't limit it to one day of the year; it was year-round work for him.

So I ask you: why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on giving presents on one day of the year when the basis for it is so slim? We Christians are just as guilty of buying into the materialistic mentality of the "Christmas season" as anyone, even though we like to satisfy ourselves by saying that it is about Jesus. Is that what Jesus would want for Christmas?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch...

Tonight as I flipped through the television channels, I happened to catch the original cartoon of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. It was cute and funny, just as I'd remembered, and the message was still the same--that Christmas would still come without any presents. And then we learn how the Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day (it was two sizes too small to begin with) and he returns the presents he'd stolen and even carves the roast beast.

It made me wonder what a Christmas without presents would be like. Would we still think of it as Christmas? Would our hearts shrink to the size of the Grinch's, or would we allow them to also grow three sizes? Christmas is SO commercial--lists of wants and decorations going up as early as makes me cranky each year.

But what if we had a Christmas where we did something odd like read and discussed the Biblical Christmas story, where we didn't worry about getting someone the perfect present that would be forgotten about in two weeks, or really pondered the meaning of what it means to have Jesus come into our lives unexpectedly? What would that kind of Christmas be like? And so that is the challenge this year--how can we focus more on the true meaning and less on the meanings we have come to attribute to it?

Perhaps we should become Grinches ourselves and take away the trees and decorations and presents and see what happens. Would Christmas still come?