This Sunday I closed out our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by taking a look at St. Nicholas, who received a mystical encounter with the Risen Christ after his ‘You talking’ to me?’ moment at the Council of Nicaea. I used the screen behind me to convey the parenthetical comments you see in the text- my little homage to the finale of Cobert.
You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it here.
Speaking of Mary’s Song, we listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan.
(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)
And I’m not picky or narrow-focused, I’m a fan of genres of music. Blues, Bluegrass, Bakersfield Country, Indie, Jazz, Clash-era punk- you name it, I’m a fan of it all.
(All = not Pop, Contemporary Christian or Baby-Making Smooth Jazz)
I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job.
(Job = unpaid hobby for which no one else answered the want ads)
I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.
(Good Home = my apartment)
Every last album.
(‘Every’ = except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates)
I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You’
(Cliche, I know).
Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.
I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and more songs in iCloud than South Dakota has legal residents. I love music, and we’ve raised our boys to love music too.
And, as parents, we didn’t waste our time with lamo kids’ music like Raffi or Baby Einstein or Jack Johnson.
No, the first song Gabriel danced to at 16 months old was Nirvanna’s single ‘Lithium,’ which is ironic since lithium is exactly what I felt I needed after I changed his diaper.
My boys- they love music too.
Gabriel could create a playlist on the iPod before he was potty-trained. Alexander, before he knew his consonants from his vowels, knew all the words to every Ben Folds Five song.
(Even Ben Fold’s cover of Dr. Dre’s ‘B#$%$@! Ain’t S$%^’ = #badparent)
Gabriel even cried crocodile tears when he discovered that his beloved White Stripes had broken up the year he was born.
They love music.
It may be true that boogers are just one of the many things my boys eat with their hands, but from the age when other kids are stuck singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ they’ve known to look down their noses at anyone who listens to Billboard topping pop. I call it my curriculum of cool.
(Well, I will now)
I mean- I can’t teach my boys to change the oil, hang a door or rewire a light switch, but I can team them that no homo sapien worth his thumbs should ever waste their time listening to Taylor Swift and that subscribing to Sirius Radio is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.
(Least amount of effort possible)
My boys- they love music.
We love Christmas carols too.
We’ve got 211 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting the 5th of July. There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond’s ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Buble.
No, my boys love music so they know any savior worthy of worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe and Wynton Marsalis.
Our favorite Christmas song- favorite because it drives Ali (my wife, their mommy) crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-crazy- is Bob Dylan’s angelic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’
‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ written in 1934 for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show, is our favorite Christmas song and because it tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret, Bob Dylan’s is our favorite version of it.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?
Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’
Shouldn’t a pastor and his kids be arm-in-arm, on the front lines with Bill O’Reilly, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?
But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.
I mean- sure, Santa apparently turns a blind eye to shaming and bullying among his Jim Crow reindeer. Sure the only difference between his North Pole workforce and a coal mine in Matewan, WV is one of height.
(Where else would his coal come from?)
I mean- sure, Santa rides in a carriage in the 21st century like a colorblind Amish man.
Sure he’s ‘happily married’ (in an Ike and Tina kinda way) to a wife whom he apparently doesn’t allow to leave the house; meanwhile, he trots the globe wearing what, on anyone else, would be considered a porn star costume.
But hey- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?
So, no, I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus.
If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground.
(The true miracle of Christmas?)
And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.
I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. I don’t think it sets up our children to question everything else once they learn the Claus con.
Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith- biblical faith.
So I’ve never had a problem with Santa Claus.
Until the other day.
The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- to himself as much as to me:
‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’
‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.
‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’
‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’
‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? ‘If,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’
And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse looked not a little like Satan himself.
Every year we complain about how the carols and the decorations and the advertisements begin around Arbor Day. We complain about materialism and greed and stuff- how more and more it’s gotten to be about getting more and more. We complain about ‘Happy Holidays’ and the ‘War on Christmas’ and how Jesus is the reason for what’s become a secular season. We complain about all of it, but the one thing we don’t complain about is the one thing we should rail against.
Because what could be more antithetical to the Christmas Gospel than this whole idea of kids sitting on Santa’s lap or elves sitting on shelves or God sitting in heaven watching us, judging us, deciding what we deserve- before he decides what he’ll give?
‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’
Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is ‘while we were still naughty, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’
The Gospel is that ‘He became sin who no sin; so that, we might become the righteousness of God.’ That’s 2 Corinthians 5 and the Christmas Gospel corollary to it is ‘God became human; so that, we, who are no good through and through, through him might receive the gift of salvation.’
The Gospel is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’
John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ.
And then kept giving all the way to a cross.
That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I want my son to know it- to know that God loves him regardless if he’s bad or good or shouts or cries.
I want you to know it too, to know that God loves you whether or not you’re naughty or not so nice. I want you to know that Christmas has nothing to do with how good you are.
And, since you’re all in church today, I want you to know too that you getting this gift from God- it doesn’t mean that you’re good, doesn’t make you good.
For goodness sakes, that’s what we mean by the word ‘grace.’
God doesn’t give us what we deserve and God gives us more than we deserve. That’s the Gospel and it wasn’t until the other day that I realized how that Pavlovian song about a bourbon-bellied fat man wreaks all kinds of naughty on our understanding of Christmas.
And I’m sure ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is just one example of how our message has gotten all messed up.
So now my Christmas Playlist numbers 206 songs not 211- gone are the covers of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Mavis Staples and Run DMC.
I won’t sing it anymore. Or play it even.
And before you accuse me of being one of those reactive ‘War on Christmas’ clergyman, you know who else wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’
That is, the real St. Nicholas. The real St. Nick would never sing that song.
The real St. Nicholas, in case you didn’t know, was a 4th century Christian Bishop. A would-be martyr, St. Nick was exiled and tortured under hostile Roman Emperors, one of whom gouged out Nicholas’ eye, trying to compel him to recant his allegiance to Christ.
But you know how I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’
The real St. Nick was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he helped write the words of the creed we recited this morning. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas encountered a rival church leader named Arius, who was later denounced as a heretic.
On the council floor, Arius argued passionately that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is not the fullness of God, that Jesus is not God made flesh.
I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ because it only took him a few minutes of listening to Arius pontificate before jolly old Nicholas started to turn red with anger and only a few moments more before he stood up and strode down to the council floor and then, with all those vicars of Christ looking on, he punched Arius in the teeth, as though they were both in a Martin Scorsese film version of their lives.
And for it, St. Nicholas quickly found himself on the Emperor’s naughty list. He was thrown in prison. He was stripped of his vestments. His beard was shorn, burnt off.
But while he was chained, naked, in a prison cell, Nicholas received a mystical vision. The Risen Jesus appeared to him, smiling upon him, and restored his beard and gave him a bible.
In other words, the real St. Nick lost his cool, cold-cocked a heretic and, after he gets thrown in the clink, he gets a thumbs up from the Risen Christ.
Don’t you see- Santa is the original Bad Santa. But even when St. Nicholas was naughty, Jesus came to him and gave.
Gave him grace and mercy.
And so I know- not even St. Nick would sing that song about St. Nick.
Because Nicholas staked his life on the Gospel claim that the Jesus who said ‘I do not condemn you’ and the Jesus who said ‘I came to seek and save sinners not the righteous’ and the Jesus who said the Kingdom is exactly like a Father’s embrace of a child who’s lost their way in all kind of ways…
That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.
God in the flesh.
I know St. Nick would not sing that song about St. Nick because Nicholas gave his eye and his beard and his status and was ready to give his life for the Christmas Gospel that when God comes to town in Jesus Christ, the gift he gives he gives to the naughty and to the sinners and to the traitors and to the liars and to the narcissists and to the addicts and to the bigots and to the cowards…just like you and just like me.
‘Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa, right? If we’re good.’
I love music. All kinds.
But ever since the other day I’ve pared down my Holiday Playlist to 206 Christmas Cuts.
Santa Claus may still be coming to town but he’s not doing it on my stereo anymore.
And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.
Of course, Gabriel suggested that if the song’s message was so contrary to the Christmas Gospel then rather than forbid the song and expunge it from iCloud, I should write my own song- a song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ that even the real St. Nick would sing.
‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.
But even though I love music, I quickly discovered that writing a catchy jingle-jangle song about a one-eyed celibate with a singed beard and anger management problems, who pimp-slaps a fellow cleric over incarnational theology and gets a slap on the back from the Risen Christ as a reward…that’s a harder song to write than you might think.
Not to mention, it’s hard to find rhymes for the word ‘Christological.’
As much as I might like to write my own song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ one that proudly proclaims what the real Nick knew so well- that we are, all of us, all naughty and all loved; that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more- as much as I might like to write that song, I can’t.
I’m a music fan not a music writer.
Instead of verse, I’ll have to stick to prose.
I’ll have to figure out a way to communicate that message not in a catchy, 2 minute jingle but in the everyday, humdrum words and actions of my life.