When I was a little younger, this was the time of year I put on a familiar red costume, stuffed a couple of pillows down my trousers, and made an annual appearance as Father Christmas at a local Playgroup. As my sleigh bells rang out, before I’d even entered, I often heard the patter of tiny feet as some of the 3 year olds made a dive for the table, under which they could sit in safety. It was often hard to coax them out, even the promise of a present sometimes not enough. But what else can you expect when this big, strange man looms into their life once a year. The four year olds tended to be a little more blasé, coming up to collect presents like old hands, but even then there was a wariness. After all Santa is not all sweetness and light: he’s the guardian of children’s morals, as it says in the song the toddlers would happily sing:You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry; you’d better not pout and I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, and checking it twice. He’s got to find out who’s naughty or nice, Santa Claus is coming 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. You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry; you’d better not pout and I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. As they get older you discover children learn to play the system – learn that, whatever the song and the growns up may say, there is nothing to fear, that the moral code of naughty and nice is largely an empty threat (they’ll get their presents whatever). And so innocence is slowly lost, a childhood fantasy left behind, at least until you have children of your own and you play along to watch the wonder and joy in their eyes – a wonder and joy you perhaps wistfully wish you had yourself.
Like teenagers beyond the stage of believing in Santa, as a society we like to think we have grown up a bit about what we believe – God is after all a bit like Santa, isn’t he? – a strange man evoked on odd occasions, used to terrify and subdue, in a vain and false attempt to enforce moral order: an old man you never see, but who nevertheless sees you; who holds a register of when you are bad or good. But we’ve grown up now and that God is dead. We wheel him out from time to time for the kids, but as a living reality? – No thanks: we are better off without him.
Santa and God are for the children, we like to tell ourselves, to provoke their wonder and joy, and perhaps to keep them in order. A lot of the joy of Christmas we experience as adults is about giving the kids a good time, as we must. But here we are at midnight, and apart from some choristers, without the children,– what do we celebrate, what evokes our wonder and joy, particularly if God, the God who’s keeping a list, is a childhood fantasy left behind. Who then is born this night?
A baby is born this night; a babe presents himself for our gaze, and as babies do, demands a response. Tonight is about the birth of Jesus but it is also about Joseph as he wraps him with fumbling, unpractised hands, in swaddling bands, and lays him on an exhausted Mary’s breast; it is about that moment in childbirth when excruciating and unbelievable pain gives way to the profound joy of a little one nuzzling upon you, even as you try and work out how the milk might begin to flow. It’s about a child beginning to scream out of need, for food, for comfort, for who knows what. Tonight is about Mary and Joseph taking the first untutored steps at learning to be attentive to what the child needs so that they can respond; it’s about the movement into that knowledge that there is now a mysterious other person dependent upon you, who will grow and demand things of you that life cannot prepare you for. Tonight is about God’s need for people willing to hear and respond in love, grow into maturity through their fumbling, hope-filled response to God coming among them. Tomorrow morning can be for the kids; tonight is about grown-up things: a screaming baby and people in touch with joy and wonder, pain and birth, fear and love, the most basic realities of life. People setting out on on a journey that this child will ask of them.
For this baby keeps no simple list of right and wrong to keep us in our place; yet if we pay attention and respond, as he and we grow into maturity, we will learn something of what is right and wrong, we will be taught a new language of love and given new life. For in this child heaven comes to earth, and the divisions that separate us are overcome and healing offered. Here is joy that can break open our tired and weary hearts. Pay attention and we will learn what it means to heed one another’s needs, to respond in love, to lose our selves in worship and service, for in that response God is encountered and known. For God is not One who simply sits above us, noting our every move and slip: Rather the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Amen.