These days "The Lord of the Rings" is hot, with Tolkien's compelling trilogy suddenly big-time (for a second time) on the big screen. Central to the story are hobbits - kindly gentle four-footers with the birthday habit of giving presents to all their friends. Not a bad practice, and it means friends get good at receiving.
We're less good at it than hobbits. Too often lost in the Christmas snatch-and-grab ("Is this all?"), we tend not to receive well - and tend not to open our arms to God's greatest gift, His redemptive action in giving mankind His son.
Jews don't believe that - nor Muslims nor Buddhists nor Taoists nor Zoroastrians; ditto agnostics and atheists. They all are free to believe whatever they choose in this America, thank Heaven - an America now greatly challenged yet an America founded as a Christian nation. Despite our secular humanists (even our secularized religionists) declaring Christmas nothing more than a Christian co-option of a pagan saturnalia, Christmas in America is fundamentally a celebration of Jesus' birth.
One either believes Him to have been the son of God, or not. The historical record shows he lived. Jewish yet universal, young yet eternal, and certainly one of us, while a boy he likely swung on the gates of Galilee as youngsters in many somewheres do today. Later he became an example undimmed by the passage of 2,000 years: simple yet profound, gentle yet strong, and - Christians say - a man yet God.
Jesus' tragic progression to the cross was an act of volition and sacrifice in the cause of humanity. He knew - he taught - that compromise has no place in the search for righteousness. It is a timeless message and one we cannot hear too much, especially in this (still) post-9/11 hour.
He also taught morality - the law of shoulds. He urged his listeners not to let their lives slip away in dedication to, or in pursuit of, irrelevancies. Against the pessimism of the mind he urged the optimism of the heart and the will. Against all-pervading negativism (such and such cannot be done, the anguish and evil of this life never can be changed) he preached embracing the all-encompassing yes.
And the lesson of the cross? The Romans employed it as simultaneously a means of execution and a symbol of man's vassalage and earthly wreckage. Jesus employed it to demonstrate that however seemingly ignominious, a life touched by grace is a life transformed.
If Jesus represents the eternal, the spiritual values, the permanent things, what about Santa? Some say he embodies gratification and the material. But no.
Maybe Jesus and Santa are equally creations of the imagination. Maybe, too, Jesus is the son of God and Santa one of His secular expressions - Santa himself an emissary bringing the gifts of warmth and joy so central to Christmas, gifts all of us want to receive while few know how. We are deprived of Christmas if Jesus, whom it is essentially about, is not part of it. But He is part of it - through Santa Claus.
And so, the ancient summons:
"The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light."
We live our lives too much in haste, fatigue, anxiety, and grief - too often darkly, adrift from our moorings, wracked by worry, indecision, emptiness, and distress. Whether he is working for Jesus, for himself, or for our best hopes, Santa briefly dispels all that. Great glad tidings he brings. He turns the darkness into light, fills the air with warming softness, touches us at least for a moment with transforming grace.
Those are his real Christmas presents. Get ready - be ready - to receive.