Happy Liturgical New Year! I first explained what I mean by this phrase back in my first year of pondering on this blog. Rather than recap those thoughts, I want today to share some of my reflections on something Richard Rohr said at the final CAC Conspire conference earlier this year (about which I blogged back in October).
As I noted in that October post, Fr. Richard spent some time reflecting on the Seven Themes which form the basics of his teaching. In his second theme, Foundation, he talked about God as Trinity and Jesus as the face of God. During Conspire, he described God as the ground of our being and the Trinity as a flowing relationship of love. It all sounds lovely and wonderful, especially if we understand what he means by “ground” and if we have love-based relationships in our lives to help us imagine how wonderful that might be.
But then Fr. Richard said this: “For Americans, the practical operative image of God is Santa Claus…an old white man with a nice white beard, sitting on a throne, making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. That is the operative image of God and it’s pure heresy.”
Of course, if we walk around our neighborhoods right now, looking at holiday decorations, or enter half the stores in town these days, we see plenty of Santa Claus images. He’s everywhere. I agree with Fr. Richard that the idea of Santa Claus (and that “naughty or nice” maxim) has infected too much of our culture, to the extent that it impacts the unconscious assumptions we carry with us when we walk into church to worship, or out into the world to share God’s love.
Unfortunately, that “naughty or nice” theme doesn’t tend to get us thinking about love, does it? Instead, we end up focused on perfect performance, and doing what’s right so we get rewarded instead of punished: sweets in our Christmas stockings instead of coal. For me, at least, that feels so far from the basics as we read them in scripture, that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.” This is the deeper message of this season, and it has become lost in modern commercialism and controversies over what makes a real Christian—bringing us back again to doing what’s “right” instead of dwelling in love.
Then there’s Fr. Richard’s reminder that Jesus is the face of God. This season of Advent is paradoxically about both remembering and awaiting the incarnation—when God decided to have a closer connection with us by becoming one of us. In the history of the world’s religions, this is a truly radical idea. For the powerful leaders in most of history (ancient Egypt and Rome, for example), the goal was to become gods. In stark contrast, Christianity states that God wanted to become us! And not just human, but one of the common people, poor and impoverished, rather than a powerful pharaoh or emperor. That’s the face of radical, unconditional love.
Christmas is most definitely not about our modern understanding of Santa Claus. When we reduce our relationship with our Creator to the question of being naughty or nice, we do risk heresy, because we lose touch with the basics of the Christian faith.
This year, whenever you see an image of Santa Claus, I invite you to pause and consider the very different ideal of radical, intimate love that would lead the God of the universe to become a fragile baby—to become one of us. When you see an image of Jesus in the manger, remember that you are looking at the face of God.
How might going back to such basics change your experience of the holidays this year?