This time of year we who are pastors spend a lot of time trying to tell everyone it it’s actually Advent, and not the Christmas season. We push back against all the Santas and presents and Christmas carols and say “not yet!” We know we’re not going to win, but we fight the good fight anyway.
Which makes what happened at my church last Sunday all the more fitting. Midway through my sermon, Santa Claus, that symbol of cultural Christmas himself, walked through the back door and sat in the last pew. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Santa attends my church nearly every Sunday. He just had an early gig on this particular day and he did what I encourage everyone to do if they need to: he came to church in his work clothes.
One small child on the front row turned around, saw Santa, and looked completely delighted. After worship she wrote him a letter, and gave it to him. He sat with her and talked about what Christmas really meant, and how it wasn’t all about him, but about how Santa and all the gifts were just a symbol of something even greater. It was sweet and funny and deep all at once.
Afterwards I thought about the ways the church tries to fight culture. Or, we try to co-opt it for our own needs. A few years ago I became disturbed by the proliferation of (rather creepy) yard displays featuring Santa kneeling over Jesus in the manger. Was our need to reclaim the season so great that we needed to commission these plastic theological rebuttals?
I’d like to think we in the church can do better than that. I’d like to think that when Santa, or anyone else, walks through the doors, we will welcome him and learn what we can from his journey. I know that the little girl who Santa talked to the other day in church heard the Gospel in a new way. Not because Santa evangelized her (I have it on good authority that this Santa also talks a lot about the miracle of Hanukkah to those who will listen) but because an adult took time to sit with her, and listen to her, and to tell her what he saw in this season that was good.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a guy in a red suit to do that. We all have an Advent story to share that comes from our own experiences. Even if we’re not flying down from the North Pole, we have a story of light and love to spread this time of year. Don’t be afraid to share it, and don’t hide who you are from the world. Even from the back row, it can bring unexpected joy and meaning.