Christmas Thoughts - Santa

It is a mistake to underestimate Santa Claus. He didn’t get a part in the Bible, but he’s sure a big part of Christmas.

On Christmas Eve there is a children’s service here. It’s one of the biggest of the year. Children and chaos abound, and the atmosphere is charged. We sing, we laugh, and we tell stories of cribs and candles and Christmases past. We also have Santa.

For years I’ve had trouble with Santa. No, it’s not the reindeer parking problems or the resultant pooh… it’s finding Santa himself. It takes a special person to don the red suit, and frankly some of them haven’t been up to it. There’s more to being Santa than sticking out your stomach, chuckling ‘Ho, ho, ho’, and answering smart seven year olds. But – and this is the interesting bit – Santa is never a flop. He never falls from the grace the children extend.

On Santa’s entrance – from the roof of course – the energy levels rise. Whatever he says is listened to. Whatever he does is received with rapt attention. The power of Santa is quite formidable.

Many people take a low view of Santa. He is paraded in every shopping mall in the country encouraging people to buy, and buy more. He doesn’t say, “Pay off that car you drive” or “pay that phone bill”. No, he’s saying buy new and buy now things we know we could do without. Santa is a slave of rampant consumerism.

Then there is the bribery brigade. “Listen boys and girls, if you aren’t good [read: do what I say] then Santa won’t come this year.” Santa’s morality is reduced to the suspect morality of these parents. Everything in life has to be earned. Including love. Including Santa.

Max, my neighbour, also takes a low view of what he calls “the Santa myth”. He objects to the portrayal of vertically challenged people merrily working in cramped sweat shop conditions. He objects to reindeer being used as promotional aids with no benefits accruing to the threatened herds of Northern Europe. He objects to an obese elderly man being given, firstly, license to enter any home or premise, secondly, a monopoly on the disbursement of gifts, and thirdly, an annual parade in his honour. Santa to him is a symbol of inequity.

The original Santa was, of course, a saint. Dear old wealthy Bishop Nic lived in the ancient city of Myra and gave generously to others. One story has it that an angel visited him one night and said, “Nicholas, you must take a bag of gold to the pawnbroker’s, for he is very poor and has three daughters. Unless they have a dowry, they will be sold into slavery.” Nic took the gold and rushed to the pawnbroker’s house where he discreetly dropped it through a window. Naturally, the parents were overjoyed; now their eldest could marry.

As you would expect in a good story this angelic visitation and discreet dropping of gold happened three times. But on the third and last drop the Pawnbroker, curious to discover the identity of his benefactor, locked all the windows of the house. Nic not being short of ideas climbed up on the roof and deposited the bag down the chimney.

It’s a story about sympathy for those in poverty, about practical assistance, and innovative delivery systems. It’s about compassion. It’s about shedding wealth. It’s about the virtue of anonymous giving – a virtue that in our modern world of sponsorship seems almost quaint.

Personally I take a high view of Santa, and not just to infuriate my neighbour Max [which it does]. I simply believe in Santa Claus. And, like most beliefs, it has been refined and tempered by experience, especially year by year sitting with children at Christmas and trying to explain in simple, precise language the meaning of life, faith, and flying sleighs.

There comes a time in most children’s lives when some of the mathematics of Santa seem insurmountable. Consider the number of children in this city, the quantity and size of presents, the dimensions of your above average sleigh, the distance from Auckland to the North Pole, the aerodynamic potential of reindeer… So, inevitably the questions arise: “How come…?” “How does he do that?” And, looking at me as though I was deranged, “Do you actually believe in Santa Claus?”

If the inquisitor is worth their salt they won’t stop there. “What about the down the chimney bit eh?” “Yep,” I reply, “I’m into it.” “Look Glynn,” my young friend continues, “our chimney is designed for someone who only eats lettuce. It has a metal pipe of some 20 centimetres in diameter. Are you telling me that Santa can squeeze down that?”

“Well,” I respond, girding myself for the challenge, “tell me how your favourite music group can sing their stuff through cyberspace, enter your computer, and morph themselves onto a CD for you to enjoy whenever? And you think a bit of chimney pipe is a problem?” Around now my young friend will roll their eyes, code for ‘my silence is not my assent’. Failure to appreciate the fertile imagination is as big a problem in our society as consumerism.

The better questions for the young inquirer to ask are about meaning. For Santa means giving. Giving to others. Giving to those we don’t know. Giving with no strings attached - including no reciprocating gifts.

Santa is about dreaming that nothing is impossible when it comes to helping and sharing. No elf, no chimney, no amount of snow, or consumerism, or cynicism, is going to stop it. This is why I believe in Santa Claus.

The Santa saga is more powerful than any factual findings by the geek who sat for three consecutive Christmas Eves with a telescope and camcorder on a rooftop. Santa inspires and encourages the best in humanity, the best in you and me – selfless giving to others.

Christmas is simple really: Give what you can and then some. Don’t believe in the barriers to giving. Set your imagination free. Dream of a world where all can have enough and be satisfied with it.

These are the gifts that Santa brings time and again, time and again.

Christmas Thoughts - Mary

“With God all things are possible,” said the angelic Gabriel to a distressed Mary. Viewers of the recent movie Nativity might paraphrase Gabriel’s message: “With technology, cinematic license, and funding all religious fantasies are possible.”

Nativity is a marked improvement on its forebears, particularly in its portrayal of the repressive governance of Palestine and the patriarchal culture that impacted on women. However Nativity reminded me of a parish Christmas pageant, uncritically splicing the two infancy narratives together and using unbelievable tricks to explain the miraculous. Unlike the parish pageant though Nativity masquerades as history.

Liberal scholars have for decades told us that most of the supposed facts of the nativity are fictions. Angels, wise men, heavenly hosts, the census, Bethlehem… are all part of the story-telling craft, weaving meanings derived from Jesus’ life back into his birth. It makes for great stories, encapsulates great truths, but is lousy history.

As for the paternity of Jesus, these liberal scholars denounced the biological miracle thesis that Nativity went to some length to replicate. We all know that fertilized eggs don’t drop from the sky into wombs, despite what some in the Vatican think. Joseph, said these scholars, was the most likely father.

Scholarship has since moved on, now less concerned about history and more concerned about what the texts actually say. It makes no sense, for example, for both Matthew and Luke to sow doubt about Jesus’ paternity if Joseph was his actual father. The scandal that accompanied the pregnancy, as the movie Nativity showed, would have diminished if Joseph had owned up. Indeed the pregnancy of a betrothed girl by her fiancĂ© was viewed as more positive than negative, for it was thought to guarantee children and ensure the male line.

Who then was the father? For those who like to use God, as the movie does, to explain the supposed unexplainable please note two things. Firstly, the words used by Gabriel “come upon” and “overshadow” have no sexual connotations. It’s not saying that Mary had sex with the Holy Spirit. Secondly, divine paternity and human paternity are not mutually exclusive. God is the power of all life. In other words, as with King David being called “Son of God”, it is possible to have human parents and still be hailed as of divine origin.

There has been growing acceptance during the last decades of the validity of Jane Schaberg’s work. Jane teaches at a Roman Catholic university. She posits that Mary was seduced or raped, a child was conceived, and that God owned, and declared as blessed, both mother and babe. When the Magnificat sings that God has looked with favour on the lowliness of Mary, and the Greek word for lowliness usually is translated ‘humiliation’
[i], one has to ask how she was humiliated. Illegitimacy, despite the indoctrination of multiple Christmas pageants, is probably the answer.

You can read the rest of my article at http://www.stmatthews.org.nz/?sid=74&id=681

Further reading:
1. Schaberg, Jane The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Sheffield Phoenix Press 2006.
2. Summary of Schaberg’s work
3. Reilly, Frank “Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the Problem of the Illegitimacy of Jesus” http://muse.jhu.edu/about/publishers/indiana
4. Spong, John Born Of A Woman: A bishop rethinks the birth of Jesus, New York Harper Collins 1992

[i] The word is used in Genesis 34:2, Judges 19:24 and 20:5, II Kings 13:12, 14, 22, and 32; and Lamentations 5:11. These passages all address rapes.

Christmas Thoughts - Shepherds

There were some hands camped out in a paddock nearby, keeping an eye on their mob of sheep that night. Their eyes popped out on stalks when an angel breezed by and lit up the sky like Xmas-in-the-Park.

“Jeepers!” they said.

The angel replied, “Stop looking like a bunch of stunned mullets. Let me tell you what’s going down. Today in a one-horse town over the hill a kid has been born. No ordinary ankle-biter. Gonna turn the world upside down. You’ll find him wrapped in a blankie and lying in a feed-trough.”

And before you could say, “Gimme a break!” the whole sky was filled with more angels than Aucklanders in a traffic jam, and making just about as much noise.

When eventually the whole show had moved on, the hands looked at one another: “Reckon we’d better check this out.”

The Christmas story is more than a slice of ancient history. Its power reaches across time and culture to speak even in our language. It’s a story that can both comfort and challenge.

The country location of this angelic announcement was offensive. The appearance to the shepherds happened not in the holy temple in Jerusalem where religious, financial, and political power coalesced. Rather it happened in some unnamed rural setting, among people of little wealth.

The country location tells us that God’s business doesn’t revolve around the ‘Wellingtons’ or ‘Washingtons’. Nor is God closeted, and cosseted, in fancy Cathedrals, colleges or holy cloisters. God is out and about. God is not just in flash places, but also round the back, in the kitchen of life, among ordinary people, pitching in, using the tea towel, and having a natter.

In 1850 John Everett Millais, one of the English artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites, painted his Christ In The House Of His Parents. He tried to realistically depict the lowly life of a carpenter and his family – tools and wood shavings clutter the earthen floor.

The painting met with a storm of protest. Fancy the idea of Jesus living in such an unhealthy and primitive environment!! Millais threatened the boundaries of the class-structure still firmly embedded in 19th century English society.

The agrarian location of the angelic visit caused similar offence.

Shepherds were likewise offensive. While the word ‘shepherd’ may evoke Christmas card and nativity pictures of sandaled saints adorned in white headdress, caring souls with lambs tucked under their arms… the reality was otherwise.

Shepherds were a dodgy lot. Shifty. You wouldn’t buy a used camel off them – you might burn yourself on the bridle! They were known for their fencing, and I’m not talking about the sport or No. 8 wire. Maybe the words ‘crook’ and ‘fleeced’ originate from those times? Shepherds were social undesirables. In general they had the social standing of our tow-truck drivers or repossession agents.

The insertion of shepherds in the birth narrative alludes to the connection between the baby Jesus and the great King David, who was called from tending sheep to ascend the dizzy heights of monarchy. It’s the old poverty to power, or rags to riches theme. This little baby, born in a Bethlehem shed, was the one who would be great.

Yet the theme, as you read the whole gospel, works in reverse. The greatness of God, as seen in this baby and the adult Jesus, chooses to associate with marginal and undesirable people. Jesus was building an upside-down kingdom full of nuisances and nobodies. His vision was for a huge Christmas party, with plenty of good tucker – lamb, Pavlova, mince pies, joy, and laughter - to go around. A party where everyone, particularly those who were vulnerable, suffering in poverty, or despised by religion and society were made especially welcome. The sign on the door read: “Losers Welcome”. And the winners didn’t like it.

The shepherd story has a simple message really. God turns up in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people and saying the most unlikely things. You’ll probably find God round the back rather than out front, pulling weeds rather than pulling rank, looking grubby rather than looking grand. If God can visit shepherds God can even visit you, and just might.

If you go looking for God here are some hints: Firstly, avoid powerful people who think they can stuff God in their pockets. Secondly, don’t discount those in trouble with the law or who tell you about seeing white-winged apparitions. Thirdly, be mindful of the little things in life, like babies and animals. That which is small, local, fragile, and unpredictable is, in God’s upside-down scheme of things, often where hope is to be found.


Defying Sense

You get some cents. But it also defies sense. Why should you receive money for teeth? Teeth aren’t recyclable or usable in a commercial sense. There is no economic reason for the recompense.

Jim, my friend, is also suspicious about the recompense. “Why,” he asks me, “must we mark each transitional stage in a child’s life with gifts? We give them gifts at birth, baptism, and birthdays. Money, money, money. Why can’t we value children differently than this? Isn’t the Tooth Fairy just a manifestation of capitalism: everything has a price - even teeth!”

There is some sense in what Jim says. Yes, we could try and close down the whole gift-giving industry putting the Tooth Fairy, Santa, the Elves, and hundreds of Warehouse employees out of work. We would also close down part of ourselves. The part that wants to give to others.

In Tooth Fairy thought the cents, the coin under the pillow, is undeserved. It is gift. It is not earned. The tooth doesn’t earn money. But the gift does acknowledge the pain of the past. And it is a vehicle for the giver to express practical compassion.

The role of Tooth Fairy non-sense is to help us live out and encourage each other in compassion, undeserved giving, and providing recompense for pain and hardship. Justice needs to be cultivated, and at some point needs to be about cents.


Simple Theology - courtesy of the Fairy

There is a myth that most children discard somewhere around the age of eight: the Tooth Fairy. They write off the Tooth Fairy as nonsense. The cents gained from the story have been spent. It was good while it lasted. Now on to other things. It’s like a cell-phone with no battery: throw it into a baby’s toy box and forget it!

I like the Tooth Fairy. She or he performs a simple function, for no apparent reasons, inspired by no apparent motive, save to compensate children for the pain they have endured in shedding a tooth. The Tooth Fairy stands for justice.

There are many questions one could ask of the Tooth Fairy and her/his admirers. A seven year old interrogates his father:

“Dad, prove the Tooth Fairy exists?”
“Well, Johnny your teeth disappear from under your pillow and money appears.”
“I know. You do it.”
“So, you think I’m a fairy?”
“Ahhh.. Yes.”
“Well, I know it seems difficult to believe but the Tooth Fairy is bigger than me.”

And so continues the dance between logic and illogic, between sense and nonsense.

The more sophisticated seven year old moves the questions up a notch:
“Dad, what use does the Tooth Fairy have for teeth?”
“Dad, what’s the going rate for teeth and who sets the rate?” [I have yet to hear an adult-to-adult conversation on this one].
“Dad, why must my tooth go under a pillow? Why not leave it beside my bed? Why’s the Fairy into pillows?”
“Dad, why does the Tooth Fairy leave money?”

The last question, in particular, is one that, similar to the opening of a curtain, allows the world to be seen differently. The horizon starts to expand. The Tooth Fairy leaves money as an acknowledgement that children suffer pain. That such suffering is as unfair as it is inevitable. The Tooth Fairy is a mythic figure of compassion and justice.

Tooth Fairy theology, when you think about it, has some great advantages:

1. It’s simple. Teeth for money. Only a pillow required. No sophisticated belief system with creeds, clergy, and churches.

2. It deftly avoids the politics of dress, gender, body, and religion. Our imaginations shape the Tooth Fairy. S/he doesn’t need a historical, cultural context, or a pouncy red suit with matching beard and reindeer, in order to be authentic. S/he can just do their own thing: conservative or camp, trendy or trashy. The Tooth Fairy fits every size, every political persuasion. S/he is user-friendly.

3. The Tooth Fairy has a single message: practical recompense for pain.