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Saint Claus and Christ

I am writing this meditation on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. St. Nicholas was born sometime around 270 A.D. and became bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey, in the early fourth century. He was a saintly figure to whom many miracles were attributed, but he is best remembered for his practice of giving gifts in secret.

If you say "Saint Nicholas" quickly, it sounds like "Santa Claus." Most of us realize that the mythological Christmas character is based on the life of this historical saint. However, most young children spend their early years believing that the myth is true, that there really is a red-suited old man who pops down the chimney to bring them toys.

At some point, we sit them down and try to demythologize the Santa story. What do we say-that we've been lying to them all this time? No, we defend our integrity by explaining that the story is not untrue, it's just not literally true. Santa is a metaphor, a symbol, the representation of everything that's good about Christmas-caring, sharing, gift-giving, love.

The same thing is true of the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth, and Christ, the Savior of the World. There was a remarkable Palestinian prophet who lived in the first century A.D., a man who identified so profoundly with God that he possessed powers that seemed miraculous. His teaching and healing ministry were in support of his basic mission: to announce that the time for religion had ended, that the Kingdom of God had come to earth. But his work threatened the religious establishment of his day and they had him killed, in order to preserve the integrity of their traditions.

The cult which grew up around this unique messenger from God eventually turned him from a human prophet into a divine figure who was part of the Godhead. Thus, anyone wanting to please God and achieve heaven had to be a follower of this God/man. In fact, in their view there was no other door to heaven; all other belief systems led to hell.

Most people are indifferent to how the Santa myth began. Most people are also unaware of the origin of the Christ myth. Is the story about Jesus of Nazareth a lie? No, it is certainly true; it's just not literally true. It is a metaphor, a symbol, the representation of everything that's good about God-caring, sharing, gift-giving, love.

When we grow up, we understand that we can't wait for someone to come down the chimney and give presents to our family members. If we don't provide them ourselves, there will be no presents. When we grow up, we understand that we don't have to wait for a savior to make us acceptable to God. We are acceptable simply because we are part of God. Therefore, we have to take responsibility for our own actions, we have to feel a personal mission to improve the quality of life on earth. Jesus challenged us in this work by promising that we would do even greater things than he did.

Christmas is a good time to demythologize the Christ story. We can still cherish the myths of Santa and Christ the Savior, because they have within them basic truths which God wants us to learn. But moving from a childish to an adult vision of truth means that the responsibility for improving our lives and the life of the world lies with us, not with anyone else-not Santa, not a savior, not even God. If we don't give the gifts, there will be no gifts.

Posted Dec. 6, 2003

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2003

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