As the Christmas season comes round, I am reminded of a one-liner I heard one day while listening to a lecture by Richard Rohr. Rohr is one of my favorites. He has a way of saying some very significant things, but often with a twist of humor. No doubt, this is what endears him to so many people. And it is also probably why some folks, particularly some Roman Catholics, find him troubling and wish he would quit speaking and writing.
The line I wrote down, as Rohr was speaking, went like this. “The operative image of God is Santa Claus!” Of course, this line is basically about God and not Santa Claus. Rohr is offering a theological look into his own mind. It is not a comment on Santa Claus. In this instance Santa is an image or a symbol. Let’s look more closely at Rohr’s theology to see if it makes sense in our own lives.
Clearly not everyone has the same idea with respect to Santa Claus. However when Rohr uses the Santa Claus image, he is making an assumption that there is a common cultural meaning for that Christmas figure. Santa Claus is the one who comes at Christmas Eve and brings gifts to all of us. At least, Santa brings gifts to all those who have been nice, as the song goes. As for the naughty ones, who knows?
Everyone’s hope is that Santa Claus brings us exactly what we want. Part of me actually wishes there was a real Santa Claus. That way I would not have to go to the mall after first contending with the traffic and the crowds. So often I go in search of the gift that someone might not really want. I never thought there is that “perfect” gift for the people in my life. Maybe I have been a lousy Santa Claus!
When I go to the malls, frequently I spy some guy (usually guys) dressed up in the red suit and wearing the absurd white beard. On most days the Santa is surrounded by droves of kids. Anyone who knows anything knows that kids in droves are like dynamite waiting for the proverbial match! Too often the Santa promises things that might not materialize on the expectant morning.
It would be easy to assume the gifts that Santa brings are comparable to God’s grace. But this is precisely why I think Rohr is voicing objection. I have no problem with gifts. I have received many great gifts in my lifetime. I appreciate what many different people have done for me when it comes to gift giving. And some of the coolest gifts have been things I did not ask for and were really surprises. But these kinds of gifts are not the same thing as God’s grace.
Let’s turn from Santa Claus to God. I don’t know where Santa found all those gifts that he brought on the sleigh. But I do know the source of God’s gifts. That source is the love God has…or, perhaps better, that love that God is. I like the New Testament passage that says, “God is love.” Love is the very essence of God. God’s identity is love. This means that God can be nothing but love. And God can do nothing but love. In this sense, God cannot help but love us. And God loves even those of us who do not deserve love.
That is a good definition of grace. Indeed, the idea of “grace” means “gift.” Grace is always a gift. But it is not Christmas gifts. Grace is a gift from God or one of God’s children when we really don’t deserve the gift. And this gift of grace is always rooted in love. A spirituality writer that I like says that grace is the flowering of love. And love is the root of grace.
This understanding of grace is far from the sometimes superficial request to “say grace” at a meal. I am not again a prayer at meal times. In fact, I think it can be a good idea. It is good to be thankful to God and the cooks for the meal at hand. But grace is far more than a few words muttered over the meat!
God is not Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a one-time actor. He appears dutifully on December 24, never to be mentioned again until time for the next annual appearance. For those of us who hope for the love of God and the grace of God in our lives are sure hoping for someone “on duty” more than one day of the 365 days in a year! We need a present God---not a red-suited bearer of presents.
The clincher for me is the fact that I could sign on to be the Santa Claus at the local mall. All I need to do is agree to put on the costume and be willing to entertain the drone of kids who all want something. But there is no way I can be God or even become God.
The best I can do is try to become God-like. I also can learn to be loving. I can become willing to be gracious---gracious to others and, sometimes even, to myself. If I allow myself to be a vessel of the Spirit, then I can even be the presence of the Presence. God is not Santa Claus…and neither am I!