Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Santa Christ

Written by Sinclair Ferguson
The world as well as the church will hold its Christmas celebrations this year. We may be aware of the shallow and secular spirit of the worldÕs celebrations, but do we realize that an even more insidious influence may invade the church and cloud our understanding of JesusÕ coming into the world? This article by Sinclair Ferguson, well-known pastor and professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was taken with permission from Tabletalk, December 1997. For further information please contact Ligonier Ministries 1-800-435-4343 or visit www.ligonier.org; in Canada 1-800-563-3529I or visit www.ligonier.ca
I took the hand of my toddler son (it was two decades ago) as together we made our way into the local shop on the small and remote Scottish island where earlier that year I had been installed as pastor.

It was Christmas week; the store was brightly decorated and a general air of excitement was abroad. Without warning, the conversations of the customers were brought to a sudden halt by a questioning voice from beside me. My sonÕs upraised index finger pointed at a large cardboard Santa Claus: ÒDaddy, who is that funny looking man?Ó he asked.

Amazement spread across the faces of the jostling shoppers; accusing glances were redirected to his father. Such shameÑthe ministerÕs son did not even recognize Santa Claus! What likelihood then of hearing good news in his preaching at this festive time?

Such experiencesnaturally encourage us to bewail the fact that the western world is given over annually to its Claus-mass or Commerce-mass, a reworked pagan Saturnalia of epic proportions whose only connection with the incarnation is semantic. Santa is worshipped, not the Saviour; pilgrims go to the store, not to the manger. It is the feast of Indulgence; not of the Incarnation.

It is always easier to lament and critique the new paganism of secularismÕs blatant idolatry than to see how easily the churchÑand we ourselvesÑtwist or dilute the message of the incarnation in order to suit our own tastes. But, sadly, we have various ways of turning the Saviour into a kind of Santa Claus.

For one thing, in our worship this Christmas we may varnish the staggering truth of the incarnation with what is visually, audibly, and aesthetically pleasing, thus confusing emotional pleasure with true adoration. For another, we may denigrate our Lord with a Santa Claus Christology. It is alarming to see how common it is to manufacture a Jesus who is the mirror reflection of Santa Claus. Christmas time demands clearer thinking on our part!

A Pelagian Jesus emerges under SantaÕs influence. Like Santa, he simply adds something to lives that are already in fairly respectable order. Christmas dinner is simply a better dinner for the well-nourished. Jesus thus becomes an added bonus who makes a good life even better.

Or, perhaps, it is the slightly more sophisticated Jesus who, Santa-like, gives gifts to those who have already done the best they could! Thus JesusÕ hand, like SantaÕs sack, opens only when we can give an upper-percentile answer to the none-too-weighty probe, ÒHave you been good this year?Ó Heaven, like Santa, helps those who help themselves. The only difference from medieval theology here is that we do not use its Latin phraseology facere quod in se est (to do what is in oneÕs self).

For yet others, this is the time of year for the mystical Jesus who, like Santa Claus, is important because of the good experiences we have, irrespective of the details of historical reality. As long as we have the experiences, all is well.

But Jesus is not to be identified with Santa Claus; worldly thinkingÑhowever much it employs Jesus-languageÑis not to be confused with biblical truth.

The Scriptures systematically strip away the veneer, which covers the real truth of the Christmas story. Jesus did not come to add to our comforts; He did not come to those who were already helping themselves.

Those whose lives were bound up with the events of the first Christmas did not find His coming an easy and pleasurable experience. Mary and JosephÕs lives were turned upside down; the shepherdsÕ night was frighteningly interrupted, and their futures potentially radically changed; the Magi faced all kinds of inconvenience and separation; and our Lord Himself, conceived before wedlock, born probably in a cave, would spend His early days as a refugeefrom the bloodthirsty and vindictive Herod.

There is, therefore, an element in the Gospel narratives which stresses that the coming of Jesus is a disturbing event of the deepest proportions. And that by necessity, since He did not come merely to add something extra to life, but to deal with our spiritual insolvency and the debt of our sin. He was not conceived in the womb of Mary for those who have done their best, but for those in whose flesh there dwells no good thing. He was not sent to be the source of good experiences, but the One who was destined to suffer the pangs of hell in order to be our Saviour.

The Christians who first began to celebrate the birth of the Saviour saw this. They were not, contrary to what is often mistakenly said, simply adding a Christian veneer to a pagan festivalÑthe Roman SaturnaliaÑany more than Christians who mark Reformation Day are adding a Christian veneer to the paganism sometimes associated with Halloween. In fact, they were committing themselves to a radical alternative to the world and its Saturnalia and Christmas. They were citizens of another Empire altogether.

Indeed, such was the malice evoked by their other-worldly devotion to Christ that during the Diocletian persecutions of 300 AD a number of them were murdered as they gathered to celebrate Christmas. Their offence? Worship of the true ChristÑincarnate, crucified, risen, and returningÑwho that day demanded, and had, their all.

One Christmas eve, in my teenage years, I opened a book given to me as a present, and found myself so overwhelmed by its teaching on my recently-found Saviour that I began to shake with emotion at what had dawned on me: The world did not celebrate His coming, but crucified Him. Doubtless I was an impressionable teenager. But does not the world still crucify Him in its own, often-subtle ways? Unless the significance of what He did at the first Christmas shakes us, we can scarcely be said to have understood much of what it means, or of who He really is.

Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
ÔTis the Lord, O wondrous story,
ÔTis the Lord, the King of Glory.

Let us not confuse Christ with Santa Claus. Let us find ways this Christmas, of making Him known in all His incarnate wonder.

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