December 13, 2014
I remember the third time we took my son to see Santa Claus. Not so much the first and second times — he basically didn’t know what was going on and Santa was just another stranger. But by the third time, he was beginning to piece together who Santa was. For my three-and-a-half-year-old, Santa was not the great wishing machine he is now. No, at that age, Santa was a huge man in weird clothes that we had told him was always watching whether he was good or bad. If you can see Santa in this light, you can empathize with why he cried and desperately ran away. At that age Santa is scary.
As we approach Christmas this year, my son is no longer afraid of Santa; he is very excited. He has a list of wishes that he is sure will be coming down the chimney for him. He is less interested in seeing Santa as understanding the elaborate physics behind how he travels so fast and squeezes so small, and keeps reindeer in a land that can’t grow much food. In a few years, Santa will have gone from being terrifying to passé.
For all practical effects, we can often approach God in just the same way: less worried about encountering God than how God manages the elaborate metaphysics of allowing for free will, why there is evil, and how God squeezes into a little baby’s body. And if you can describe your god as Santa, then you can be pretty sure that you have made this god according to your image.
I wonder what would happen if we worked on recovering the ability to experience God as terrifying. Again and again in scripture we read, “fear of the LORD.” Perhaps we need to recover that appreciation and reverence. Then perhaps Christmas won’t be like a wrapped present that we already know what is inside (because we put it on our list). And maybe we could be surprised with a truly astonishing gift.
The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland.