I discouraged my daughters from believing in Santa Claus. Christmas was all about Christ…Baby Jesus. I was a Church Snob.

Some Kind of Faith

In May of 1947, a now-famous and favorite movie hit the screens: Miracle on 34th Street. It was released in May of that year because  Darryl F. Zanuck , head of 20th Century Fox, argued that more people went to the movies during the summer.  Since that 1947 film, there have been four more film versions and a stage production.

In all the versions, Kris Kringle is incarcerated for claiming to be the real Santa. A lawyer comes to the rescue at Kris’s hearing and proves that it makes sense to believe in Santa Claus. In the 1994 version, the lawyer uses four words printed on a dollar bill to prove that believing in Santa Claus is logical.  Those four words are “In God We Trust.”  The lawyer says that if the United States Government can base the security of its currency on an entity whose existence cannot be proven…

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Unplanned Pregnancies

As I studied Luke’s story about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, I noted that verse 26 begins with the words “one month later.” So I reviewed what had happened one month earlier.  Luke 1: 5-25 tells the story of another annunciation, another baby announcement.  The more I read, the more interesting it was to compare the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to the announcement that Mary received.  Today’s sermon belies my former career as an English teacher.  It reads like the answer to an essay test question: Compare and contrast these two stories.  So, if this sounds a little pedantic, consider the source.

There aren’t many pre-natal announcements in the  Bible.  The two in Luke are the only such announcements in the New Testament. Both pregnancies were announced by the angel, Gabriel. He appears only in Luke’s gospel, although he does appear in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel.  There are other angels who bring the good news of a hoped for baby—a trio of angels visited Abraham, who, like Zechariah, was childless and married to an elderly wife.  In both cases, women who were too old to bear children gave birth to future leaders.  In the New Testament, the only pregnancies of significance are that of Elizabeth and Mary.

The similarities between the stories of Elizabeth and Mary are few.  They were years apart in age; they were from different tribes…Elizabeth from the tribe of Levi and Mary from the tribe of Judah.  Elisabeth lived in the hills of Judea; Mary lived in the village of Nazareth.  Neither of them was expecting to become pregnant, Elizabeth because she was too old, Mary because she was not married.

The differences between the stories start with the announcement.  Gabriel appeared to the father, Zechariah, not to Elizabeth.

All at once an angel from the Lord appeared to Zechariah at the right side of the altar.

The next announcement comes a month later; Gabriel talked directly to Mary.   One month later God sent the angel Gabriel to the town of Nazareth in Galilee 27 with a message for a virgin named Mary.

Zechariah had an important job in the temple in Jerusalem.   Mary was nobody, a peasant girl no more special than any of her girlfriends or realtiaves..  They couldn’t have been more different.

Their reactions were similar, though.  Luke records that both were confused and afraid. Of course, they were.  Zechariah was way past expecting a child and Mary would have had only the vaguest plans for a child sometime after she married Joseph.  And afraid?  If an angel appeared out of nowhere and spook directly to you —you would be afraid, too.  Or disbelieving.

Zechariah was skeptical; that offended the angel, who declared that Zechariah would not be able to speak until the baby was born.  18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know this is going to happen? My wife and I are both very old.”

19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel, God’s servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. 20 You have not believed what I have said. So you will not be able to say a thing until all this happens. 

Mary asks a similar question, but with a different attitude: she is curious, not skeptical. 34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this happen? I am not married!.”Instead of punishing her for questioning the astonishing news, Gabriel rewards her with an explanation: “The Holy Spirit will come down to you, and God’s power will come over you.’

Elizabeth’s baby is an answer to a long-unanswered prayer.  Mary’s baby is, at the least, an inconvenience, at worst a transgression punishable under law, although there are different theories about that.

Pastor Lia Scholl, pastor of a Mennonite church in Richmond, VA, gives suggests that Mary’s pregnancy was not the scandal we assume.

Mary was betrothed. Not engaged, but certainly not unwed. She was sort of post-engaged, not quite married just yet, and, as a Rabbi friend told me, her society would be thrilled that she was pregnant prior to the marriage. It would be deemed a good omen for the marriage.

Mary was a teenager, at least by American standards. But remember, the Hebrew people had no concept of a young person being a teen. Life expectancy would have been, perhaps, forty years of age. And if Mary was expecting to live to forty, having a child at a young age wouldn’t seem so young.

Mary was not disowned by her family. Not even by her husband! Her cousin Elizabeth certainly wouldn’t have had a wanton woman visit her home. Instead, Elizabeth welcomes Mary.

Regardless, Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies were not on anyone’s radar. Relative or neighborhood gossip, no one would have guessed that Elizabeth, so very old, or Mary, so very sweet and good, would turn up pregnant.

If you read to the end of this chapter, you will discover that Mary went to visit Elizabeth and they truly enjoyed celebrating their pregnancies.  They had a lot to talk about.  They were both expecting sons—knowledge that would not have been available to them had it not been for Gabriel’s revelation.  They both had been given names for their sons—John and Jesus.  We can only speculate how much Zechariah was able to convey to Elizabeth about John. I wonder how Elizabeth found out, since Zechariah lost his ability to speak. Of course, when the baby started kicking, she probably had a good idea. But think how amazing for a barren woman to experience life within her after knowing that she would never have a child.  So she didn’t need Zechariah to tell her, once she felt that life in her. but Gabriel had plenty to say about John’s life as an adult:

His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. 15 Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer,

the Lord their God. 17 He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah[d] had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.

Mary, on the other hand, did not get many details, but the information she did have must have been almost impossible to comprehend. 

32 He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. 33 He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

What kinds of dreams did those words inspire for these two Jewish women who lived six centuries–six hundred years–after the death of King David, hundreds of years after the final destruction of the nation of Israel? (What will Americans be hoping for 400 years from now?)  What did they envision when they thought about Mary’s son ruling Israel forever?  What visions did they share about their sons?

I doubt whether they envisioned either of their dear sons being imprisoned.  They would never have imagined that one son would be beheaded and the other crucified.  It is, of course, a blessing that they could not see into the future.  What they could see was their growing bellies; what they could feel was the life inside those bellies. What they could imagine was beautiful babies, happy playmates, strong, important, successful leaders.

It turned out differently.  Just like every mother, they had plans and hopes for their children.  Just like every mother, they agonized over wrongs and injustices that hurt their children.  By the time John reached adulthood and began his ministry, Elizabeth and Zechariah would probably have died.  Mary lived to the bitter end of her son’s life. And the good news–she lived to confirm his resurrection.

Gabriel presented to Elizabeth and to Mary impossible situations.  For Elizabeth, the baby was the answer to years of prayers, and a validation of her life and role as a woman.  She finally had a child to prove her worth.

25 “What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me.” 

For Mary, the announcement became her new persona, her new purpose : “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

Mary accepts her new role.  She does not laugh, or cry, or protest. She takes Gabriel’s word that she has been chosen.  She accepts that her son will be a Redeemer.

I wonder if she ever truly understood that he would redeem more than the scattered children of Israel.  I wonder if she ever felt that she had been mislead by Gabriel when Jesus did not score a political or military triumph. I can imagine her joy at finding her son resurrected from the tomb, but what about after that?

Mary remains an important person in our faith stories.  She represents motherhood, acceptance, compassion, loyalty, faithfulness.  We have more information about her than any other woman in the Bible.  We know how she responded to Gabriel, we know that she did not take any of the strange circumstances of her son’s life for granted–neither the shepherds nor the wise-men were forgotten; Luke says she “pondered these things in her heart.” She stayed with her son, as a disciple, as one of those who traveled with him. We don’t know her role, but it’s not too hard to believe that she protected him, made sure he rested, made sure he ate, defended him when she had to, admonished him when he was too bold or too careless.

Christians remember Mary in various ways.  Some of us pray to her to intercede to ask her to pray for us.  Some of us think of da Vinci’s painting, Mona Lisa, which is actually a portrait of an Italian merchant’s wife. I can’t see that picture without thinking of the Madonna, even though I know that was not da Vinci’s intention. Some of us  think of her only at Christmas time, when she is unpacked with the other figurines and set on a table with Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men.

What I have found is a woman who can be a role model for us, not because she was the mother of Jesus, but because of how she responded to Gabriel’s announcement. “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.”

Gabriel has not called on me; I suspect he has not called on you.  But Jesus does call us. Gabriel set in motion a series of events that has revolutionized our relationship with God.  We know that God has walked among us, that God loves us.  We know what God expects of us.  Our relationship with God is based on neither fear nor confusion.  We do not have to guess at the qualities or expectations of our God, because our God appeared among us to model for us how we follow him.

Like Mary’s life, our lives are unpredictable.  We can swing from highest joy to deepest despair. We can plan, but we know there are no plans that cannot be destroyed in an instant.  We can guess, we can wish, but we have no more control over our lives than Mary did.

Mary accepted with confidence her role as the mother of a new kind of Savior. No where is there recorded a lament of Mary.  What we do have is her song of praise, her Magnificat , Luke 1:46-55. Surely there were days when she wept, when she raged, when she screamed, “Unfair!”  But she never abandoned Jesus. She never gave up on him.

Mary is both legendary and human.  As we walk our uncertain paths, Mary is a good companion.

May we have the confidence and the courage to be as good a disciple as she was. Amen.



In May of 1947, a now-famous and favorite movie hit the screens: Miracle on 34th Street. It was released in May of that year because  Darryl F. Zanuck , head of 20th Century Fox, argued that more people went to the movies during the summer.  Since that 1947 film, there have been four more film versions and a stage production.

In all the versions, Kris Kringle is incarcerated for claiming to be the real Santa. A lawyer comes to the rescue at Kris’s hearing and proves that it makes sense to believe in Santa Claus. In the 1994 version, the lawyer uses four words printed on a dollar bill to prove that believing in Santa Claus is logical.  Those four words are “In God We Trust.”  The lawyer says that if the United States Government can base the security of its currency on an entity whose existence cannot be proven, then it is perfectly acceptable to believe in a Santa whose existence cannot be proven.

There would have been a time when that reasoning would have rubbed me the wrong way.  I discouraged my daughters from believing in Santa Claus. Christmas was all about Christ…Baby Jesus. I was a Church Snob. The reindeer, the elves, the jolly old man were just stories. We didn’t ask Santa for anything; we had Jesus. So Laura and MIriam grew up knowing that Santa was just a nice story, not somebody who actually answered letters.  They were wise enough not to share this knowledge with their little friends.  By the time Michael was born, my parenting skills were pretty much on automatic and he was surrounded by lots of kids and adults who did push the Santa story.  So he believed in Santa.

One of my favorite Michael stories is “The Day Michael Questioned the Existence of Santa.”  We were riding in the car, north on 6th Avenue, headed home.  The conversation went like this: “Mom, is there really a Santa Claus?”  My reply, which I thought was brilliant, was, “Well, Michael, what do you think?” Michael replied, after thinking about it: “Yes, there is a Santa Claus, because, first of all, your parents couldn’t afford to buy all those presents. And, second of all, they’d never be that nice to you.” Of course, by “your parents,” he meant his parents.  As far as I know he still believes in Santa Claus; I can tell by the Christmas lists he writes…his parents still can’t afford to buy all those presents. I am retelling this story because it says something about our human inclination to believe in something.

If you’ve done any Christmas shopping lately, you’ve probably seen signs that are designed to hang in your home.  Some of them say, “Joy,” some “say Merry Christmas,” and there’s always one that says “Believe.”  Just “Believe.”  It doesn’t say “Believe in Santa,” but surrounded by reindeer and candy canes and pictures and figurines of Santa, it’s pretty clear that one is supposed to believe in Santa.  And what a lovely thing to believe in.  Santa is always jolly.  Santa always expects the best from us.  Santa often delivers to us, at least up to about age ten.  Santa lives in a pretty, snowy location with colorful buildings and talking reindeer and dancing penguins (they go north for the season) and helpers everywhere who do nothing but make TOYS–hundreds of toys.  Nobody makes fun of Santa for being fat or wearing the same clothes every day. And there is no broccoli or spinach or lettuce in Santa’s neighborhood. Carrots are reserved for snowmen noses and reindeer treats.

Why do we stop believing in Santa Claus? Who doesn’t want to sit on a nice soft lap and be listened to with one-on-one attention?  Do we stop believing when we have to do the shopping and make the deliveries?  Do we stop believing because Santa doesn’t deliver what we really need?

Maybe you’ve seen a statue of Santa kneeling next to Baby Jesus in the manger. That is the ultimate effort to reconcile our two experiences, secular and sacred, of Christmas.  You might think it is a bit exaggerated or silly, but think about it….even Santa needs more than presents and elves. Santa is, on the one hand, an expression of our human need for things, for physical proof of someone’s love for us. But eventually, those gifts from Santa wear out, break, become useless or inappropriate. The trains and the trucks are put away as real trucks and cars carry us to and from work.  Dolls and stuffed bears are replaced by human beings who demand much more than being dressed and tucked into bed.  Story books are replaced with check books.  Games are replaced by responsibilities and choices that have long-term consequences.  Santa is irrelevant in a world where people fight over their “toys,” where elf labor is replaced by our labor, where vegetables are not only necessary, but expensive.  The sparkling, snowy wonderland is replaced with a blurry landscape of conflict and stress and confusion.  Santa can’t deliver in our real world.

Still, it is our human nature to search for meaning, to search for the hows and whys of our existence. Rather than outgrowing our need for more, our need matures into a quest for something that gives us answers and hope and comfort.

Knowing where to place our belief can be challenging.  Those of us who are “cradle Christians” had an obvious solution: believe in Jesus. As adults, we both accept and challenge that belief.  Perhaps you tried, for a time, to ignore any presence of God in your life. Our world is filled with evidence of God being absent: war, neglect, illness–God is apparently not involved. Yet we still long for a presence that is more powerful, more enduring than any man made structure or organization.

That brings to mind a Christmas display I saw the other night.  It was a luminaria, a lighted Christmas display.  The road was lined with milk jugs, each containing a burning candle,  Many of the trees were draped with strings of lights. There were statues of angels and Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the gang, and signboards with the famous story from Luke, al spaced along the drive.  As we came around the final bend, we were confronted with Christmas light versions of the American flag, and the tree trunks were wrapped in red, white, and blue lights. A spotlight shown on a silhouette of a soldier kneeling in front of a cross.  I found this quite jarring, after viewing the quiet celebration of the birth of the most important man ever born. Another fine example of not just mixing, but confusing church and state, I thought. By the way, I should mention that this entire display is the mission of a church, not the American Legion. However, it now strikes me how perfectly, if awkwardly, fitting that little display of patriotism was.  The final red, white and blue message of that juxtaposition is that even military might needs something beside guns and treaties. Believing in weapons of mass destruction, believing that the military has all the answers, becomes useless at the grave. You need no more proof of the tragedy of war than the rows and rows of graves in military cemeteries around the world. The futility of those graves is redeemed only by the existence of a God who loves.

No matter how hard we try to be logical and thoughtful and wise, we are eventually defeated by evil. The good news is that we human beings refuse to accept that defeat; we are born with, created with that odd virtue of hope. We call it by different names.  Sometimes we call it belief; sometimes we call it faith.

We can’t stockpile faith, we can’t put belief in the bank, we can’t build houses out of hope.

Believing requires suspension of logic, believing requires acknowledging that there is something bigger than us, wiser than us, holier than us.  We understand too well our own limitations, our own ugliness, our own selfishness. Still, something within us yearns to be better, to be a beam of light in a dark world, to be the bearer of some kind of good news. We so much want to believe that there is “more.” As children, we wanted more presents. Now we want something that is, ironically, more substantial, yet untouchable and unprovable. And even though what we want is untouchable and unprovable, we go to great lengths to make it touchable, to prove its existence and its worth.

All cultures have God, a recognition of a Greater Power, a Force in the Universe. We Christians have Jesus.  God made God’s self touchable and provable. God came to us in the only form we can really understand: a helpless baby, who could be held; a restless teenager who could disagree with the establishment; a teacher who could inspire; a victim of a corrupt system; an innocent wrongly accused of crime; a broken body who could die. We hold the helpless babies, we put up with the restless teenagers, we are inspired by teachers, we are victims of corruption and crime…and we die.  Our God has credibility because our God is not only beyond our understanding…our God understands us. In our God, we have the manifestation of both worlds—the real world of delicate snowflakes and crushing cruelty as well as the world of perfection and awesomeness and mystery.

Believe–yes—appreciate your ability to believe.  Appreciate the way God created you to search for God.  Have faith that the love you craved from Santa is multiplied by the love God has for you.  Cherish that within you which hopes for good, for joy, for peace, for love.  Jesus has been called the Greatest Gift.  No kidding. Amen.