(As Delivered at the St. Stephen’s University Christmas Banquet, December 2007)
I’ve been asked to give a brief devotional tonight, particularly related to Christmas, and even more specifically to your time away over the holidays.
I recalled a Christmas memory that serves as the foundation for what I’ll share in the next few minutes. The memory pertains to a particular Christmas day that stands out among the 42 Christmases I’ve experienced thus far.
Santa, We Have A Problem
I was about seven years old, as I recall, and at a typical, early December dinnertime, my parents announced to us our Christmas holiday would be spent with my grandparents in northern Pennsylvania. Now, to both adults and children, a Christmas trip, especially with grandparents involved, can mean some very rich experiences – experiences with food, relationships and gifts.
Wait. Gifts. Trip. Santa.
Dear Santa, we have a problem.
Allow me to explain my distress. Ever since I was old enough to wonder, my parents told me that Santa was real, and Santa was the one who brought the Christmas presents. I did find Santa to be a rather quirky benefactor, in that the cookies we left out on Christmas eve for him were often only partially-eaten and the glass of milk only half-emptied. I used to think, “Any right-minded adult or kid would wolf down the full feast of confections available to him in the middle of a long night of gift delivery.” Something about Santa, I decided, must not be quite right.
Santa would also occasionally leave a note of thanks for our thoughtfulness at leaving him the sugary comestibles. Even though I myself was just learning to write, I remember noticing that Santa’s scribbles looked very similar to my male parent’s handwriting. In fact, I often imagined that the smiling eyes of Santa must have looked very similar to my father’s, especially when he was playing an impish trick of some sort on his children.
Santa Knows My Address
Suffice it to say that I had learned to trust Santa. I knew sure-as-shootin’ that come Christmas morning, cookies or no cookies, our tree would have under it at least a few packages that had my name written on them (often in that same, father-esque script).
You see, Santa knew our address. I had sent it to him every year as the return address on the letter. Santa knew where we lived. Santa would be there for me, because he knew me, and I somehow knew him. We had an understanding. I write him letters, I act civil to my siblings, and he shows up in my living room with toys. As long as I lived at 242 Oak Hill Drive, Middletown, Pennsylvania, USA 17057, Santa would show, sure as snow.
But this thought began to grow over the course of our dinner in my now troubled little mind. What if Santa came to our house as usual, and we weren’t home? How would he know where we were? He didn’t visit old people, I was sure of it, and my grandparents were the very definition of the word old. I loved my grandparents, that’s for sure, but at some stage I was sure that Santa had checked his list of old people, and there they were, left out of the Christmas delivery route forever. If we were at my grandparents house, Santa would never find us.
I piped up. “Okay, Dad,” I said, “you and Mom have a way to tell Santa where we are this Christmas, right? What’s your plan? Are you going to leave a map? What are you going to do?”
The Last Christmas Ever
My father was very comforting: “Oh, he’ll know where we are, Danny. Santa always knows.” (To this day, my family still affectionately calls me Danny, even if they try to honor the fact that I’ve grown up into a Dan. When they try to say “Dan,” it feels funny on their lips and comes out “Dan…ny.”)
“How will he know?” I asked, utterly dissatisfied with the paternal answer. The word paternal, and the word patronizing, have a similar root. “He’ll know,” he said again with those flickering, smiling eyes – this time with a firmness that seemed to say “Just trust me.”
How could I trust him? Too much was at stake. What if he was wrong? What if Santa came, found an empty house, and high-tailed it out of there for good, forever, leaving nothing? If I was jilted like that, I’d never come again to that house. That would be the end.
Then it hit me. This could be the last Christmas ever! No, wait. Last Christmas would be the last Christmas. This would the Christmas after the last Christmas ever. This would a Nothing! An absolute, nada, noway, nohow Nothing! On the Best-Memories-Of-Childhood scale, it would be a zero, a zilch, an empty wasteland of unfulfilled Christmas dreams strewn across a barren, muddy tundra.
The Long Journey To Nowhere In Particular
A few weeks later, distraught, I crawled into the car for our 4,296 hour ride (this is only 2 hours in adult-time), and began our journey to No-Christmas Land. “There are barely any homes here, no real addresses,” I remember thinking as our old chevy wagon buzzed along the highway.
My grandparents lived in a humble borough called Gowen City, near the larger city of Shamokin. That area of the state is known as the “coal regions” to most Pennsylvanians, and to a distressed Christmas child is the remote, nether region of the world. While the area is quite populated, and life carries on as usual in a small American town, I could only see a landscape riddled with rundown, abandoned homes and large looming coal hills.
I remember staring out the window at the wintry hills along the trip north, nothing in front of us but a little highway rolling like a zipper over the forested inclines ahead. “Nobody lives here,” I mumbled. My only solace was the hope of seeing one of my favorite cousins, and playing with his Christmas presents. And cookies. There were always the cookies.
On Christmas Eve, we finished the night with a warm cup of hot cocoa and a few of Grandma’s hockey pucks. (Editor’s Note: The cookies were actually called Angel Cookies, and rate a whopping 10 on the “how long they have to be soaked in hot liquid before they begin to be soft” scale. My brother, sister and I swear you could’ve used them for an NHL game in a pinch. Their sister cookie, another of Grandma’s specialties, were called Michigan Rocks. You get the point.) After shuffling upstairs, I snuggled under three thick comforters with my older brother and sister in the chilly front bedroom.
“Do you think he’ll come?” my sister whispered. “No,” I said. “He’ll never find us.” My older brother chimed in with a torturous grin: “You’re right. He won’t find us… because he doesn’t exist.” I punched him, and rolled over to bury my face in the pillow.
Found On Christmas Morning
The next morning at about 5 am, with low expectations and the faintest shred of hope, I jumped out of bed and gingerly tiptoed down the hard wooden stairs of my grandparent’s home. A sharp u-turn at the bottom of the stairs would reveal either my worst nightmare, or my moment of salvation. As I spun around the corner, tethered to the banister pole at the bottom of the stairs, I saw the tree. Beneath it, presents glistened in the flashing colored lights.
“I don’t believe it,” I thought. “Santa found us. Santa knows where old people live. He knows where my grandparents live. And, he knew we’d be here. Santa looked for me, and Santa found me. Santa looks for people, and Santa finds people.” The cookies, half-gone once again, made me feel as though I had at least offered a small token of thanks to my chubby, fur-faced friend. My father later assured me, “Santa is no dummy, Danny. Santa knows where you are. Santa always knows where you are.”
The Faith Of The Pursued
Christmas is either the celebration of the most definitive event of human history, or it is nothing. Christmas cannot simply be a part of the Christian story. It simply will not bear such limitation. It is either the celebration of the redemptive incarnation of God, the pivotal event of all human history, or a it is a horrible sham.
Christmas is a declaration in a bustling world of religion, irreligion and feigned religion, that it is not primarily people who look for God, but rather it is God who looks for, and finds, people. It defies the stance of the religious pursuit. It is the faith not primarily of the seeker, but of the sought. It is the story not primarily of the finder, but of the found.
Our faith is not one in which the human being pursues God, and ascends to him when we’ve unlocked the secret worship code that opens the relationship. Your faith and mine rests on a God who descends into our reality. This is a God who pursues us and finds us – no matter where we live, no matter where we go.
This Christmas, you and I are not dealing with a God who, like an old relative, hopes you have a nice time with family or friends between terms, and that you attend a church service in the middle in order to either recall important moral ideals or nostalgically recover your childhood. We’re dealing with a God who has pursued the human race since the beginning of time, and who finds you and I no matter where go, or how far from home we stray. Jesus is God’s declaration that God pursues, and we respond.
God is seeking you, even now. Are you willing to be found, and to embrace all the encounter will mean?
Raise Your Christmas Expectations
This Christmas, expect to be pursued, and found by God. Make yourself available to the unique encounter that is waiting for you. The reality of Emmanuel, God with us, will come crashing into your soul if you’ll make space for reflection.
Reflection on what? The unique story, in all of historic human experience, that God descends into flesh and blood, pursues us, and finds us – all of us – right where we are.
Colossians 1:15-20 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”