I know the world is eager to reclaim so much of what we have lost during COVID, but I was still sorry to see that SantaCon was back on in New York City.
You know SantaCon, right?
I don’t know much.
Best I can tell, it’s a day when hundreds, maybe thousands of young men in their 20s and 30s descend on New York City and other unfortunate cities across the country, wearing Santa hats and sometimes not much else, and they roam around in packs, visiting as many bars in Manhattan in the shortest period of time they can.
Other than the part about the hats, I’m not sure what it has to do with Christmas.
It’s like Christmas organized by the DKE house, if, in fact, you want to call it “organized” at all.
I don’t know why anyone would bother.
Saint Nicholas would not feel remotely honored by it.
I’ve spoken before about how the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was just an excuse for debauchery rather than a properly religious holiday celebrating the birth of our Savior, and I have to believe that in light of SantaCon, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are up in heaven with their arms folded, feeling pretty vindicated right now.
But, in a world that’s trying to get back to normal in all the ways it can, this is part of normal, and, in any case, it’s back.
For many reasons, it’s a particularly strange way to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas is a day that stands for the transformation of the world.
Much of the point is that it celebrates the beginning of something very different, and not just more of the same.
If you think about it, Christmas is about the start of a new normal.
I wonder if in any given year, some of those roving, feral Santas manage to find that out.
I wonder if in any given year, for one or two of them, there they are in a bar full of other Santas, and maybe they need to make a quick pit-stop at some point, only to find upon their return that the great red tide of Santas has rolled on, and they’re standing there, alone – stared at by whoever is willing to be in a bar at midday in mid-town Manhattan on Santa-con – and suddenly it isn’t cute and festive but somehow desperate.
Maybe that rogue Santa wanders out into the street, but doesn’t see the guys he came with, or maybe he walks east instead of west, and with everything a little hazy, he doesn’t see the kids until they’ve run right up to him, thrilled and delighted to see him, full of hope and expectation, wanting to hear him make promises that he knows are not properly his to make.
It’s New York, so he can’t look to the natives for help, but a guy selling knock off purses on the corner takes pity on him, and hails him a cab, then slips the driver a twenty just to make it happen because…well…just because some people are like that.
He decides he’d better have a big cup of coffee before he goes home and lies down, and he ducks into some place, and there he is, ordering a grande coffee in that ridiculous suit, with everyone staring, but the barista takes no notice, and it occurs to him that sometimes, not noticing can be the kindest form of noticing there is.
What if by the working of God’s Providence, this Santa doesn’t march all over the city like some sort of entitled prince, but finds himself a lonely pilgrim, and that on this day, it is the city that has marched straight into his heart?
Then one good night’s sleep and a long shower later, it’s the next morning.
The Santa suit is crumpled on the floor while he dresses for work, and he’s back to looking like one of those people in a magazine.
It’s now when it either happens or it doesn’t.
It’s now because, as he steps back out onto the street, he can either act like none of it ever happened, that he is back to being an entitled prince, that Santa-con came and went for the price of a couple of Advil.
Or he can step out changed. Step into a new normal. Live into what he now sees… Continue as a pilgrim who knows the truth has set him free.
I mean, that kind of thing must happen, right?
It’s not the most improbable thing that ever happened at a Christmas.
The thing about the way our Scriptures tell the story of Christmas is that they want us to understand how improbable it all is.
Not in the sense that we shouldn’t believe it.
Not in the sense that God was not working patiently from the beginning to make it happen.
But improbable in the sense that Christmas pushes us to see something that isn’t obvious until you see it.
And then it challenges us to go forward changed. To find our place in the new normal it comes to announce, as all the characters of the Christmas story must.
This morning, it’s the story of Elizabeth, the very senior mother-to-be of John the Baptist, and then it’s the story of Mary, the very young mother-to-be of Jesus.
The signs of a new normal are already in embryo in their respective ages.
Elizabeth was probably 40, which is normal…or normal-ish…for us, although it wouldn’t have been for them.
Conversely, Mary was perhaps as young as 14, which would be all-but unheard of for many of us, but for them, was not unusual.
But the deeper point is that, in these two women, God’s new normal is poised to arrive.
The disruption to the familiar order of how birth happens is just a foretaste of disruption that John and Jesus will bring into the world.
These two will ask us to see things through the eyes of God, starting with ourselves.
But even before that, thirty years before anyone is standing by the banks of the Jordan, there is the pilgrimage of their mothers, who come to realize that all they have is God and each other.
And it is enough.
They appear so different, old and young, established and scandalous, maybe wise and naïve.
But in God, they see that the differences fall away.
Something else is taking hold. A new normal.
What needs to happen for you and me to believe in it, too?
Where does a vision of that sit for each of us?
With all the running around we do this time of year, maybe we aren’t as different from the staggering reveler-bros of Santa-con as we might like to think.
We won’t wake up with the headaches they do. But we have headaches and heartaches of our own.
Loving other people sometimes requires going through the motions in ways we don’t feel, but so that they will…or so that maybe they will.
We carry that.
I’m not sure my grandmother cared about putting up a Christmas tree after about 1960, but she did it for the grandchildren, and as far as it went, she liked that we expected it.
It was something.
She would have been the age of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, around then.
But life and loss taught her to play it safe, and she became the keeper of traditions, not because of everything they meant, but because they were what she had.
Christmas wants so much more for us than that.
There are times when we feel so helpless to change things that need changing.
The list just seems so long and we’re not sure what to do…where to get started, what to try now, whether to see the inevitable for what it is.
Bowing to the inevitable was where the smart money was way back in the Year Zero, when these two mothers-to-be came together and joined forces, and Mary sang the Magnificat for the first time, her wonderful poem about a world where it would all be different…a world in which the mighty would fall from their thrones.
Where something new would happen.
It’s not too late.
Christmas sees so much more in us than we do.
It invites us to become pilgrims.
It promises us that Jesus offers a way to do things differently—a path toward a new normal for us and for the world.
The peace it promises is not the peace of silence, but the peace of resolution. It’s the peace of forgiveness. The peace of healing and growth.
It’s a path to a new, redeemed future, and it promises the courage we need to walk forward into that future with our heads held high.
It hopes that we will step out changed, and finally ready to live into what it is to be free.