One Saturday morning, two weeks ago, I was walking in downtown San Francisco. As I looked about I noticed One—then two—then three individuals—ordinary people—dressed in santa suits, walking along the sidewalk. It seemed a little strange, but before I could dismiss the sightings as some kind of fluke convergence—I in quick order noticed santas number 5, 6, 7, & 8, and then I noticed that all the santas seemed to be walking in the same direction. As I moved closer to the shopping district the concentration of santas increased so much so that, if one had a bird’s eye view from high above the city, it would look like there were many small rivers of red swelling and flowing into a huge reservoir of santas that were spilling out of Union Square. There were traditional older santas—but many more younger santas. There were black and oriental santas. There were women santas in stylish suits. santas wearing sunglasses, santas in bars, and random santas giving out gifts.
I eventually discovered that I had stumbled upon individuals intent upon participating in Santa-con—a combination pub crawl, fashion event and flash mob—where the common denominator seemed to be individuals sharing in the joy of donning santa outfits and assuming the persona of the world’s most well known gift giver.
At one level, Santa-con seems like a distant cousin 3 times removed from our gathering this evening. Yet one could make the case that the San Francisco sea of santas are removed from the story of the nativity by only two degrees of separation. One step closer to the nativity story is St. Nicholas. As you know there is a close connection between Santa and St. Nicholas. Nicholas is of course the older figure. A bishop of the church dating from the fourth century from the region of Myra—located in present day Turkey.
We know only a little about Nicholas. We assume that others saw him as a holy man—since he was a priest and then became bishop. He was known for his love of children and to mark his love for the Christ child at christmas he gave gifts. And in giving those gifts Nicholas affirmed that there was something of the nature of Christ in every child. Most stories about Nicholas affirm the bishop’s goodness and generosity and it is not difficult to imagine Nicholas leaving gifts on Christmas eve in secret, outside doors, and dropped trough windows or chimneys for some of the poorest children in his area.
It is interesting that the stories about Nicholas arise around the same time that Christians first became a feast—when people first began to take notice and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Perhaps we can see this period as the first degree of separation from the nativity story. With Nicholas and the fourth century we see the beginnings of many rich and varied celebrations of Christmas.
Christmas is a holiday wrapped in traditions and many families carefully preserve and hand down their unique Christmas customs. Trimming the tree on Christmas eve with carols playing and a supply of hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies before going to church; or opening a single present before turing into bed on Christmas eve—are two traditions among countless ways that families celebrate the feast of the Nativity. Our family looks forward to gathering around the table for Christmas Dinner and opening our stockings before the first service on Christmas Day. Perhaps no other holiday lends itself to tradition and preserving the practices of childhood and days gone by than our celebration of Christmas.
For all the talk about the crass commercialization of the season devoted to the birth of Jesus most families and individuals find ways to celebrate Christmas with intention and meaning. I suspect that each of you have Christmas memories that evoke a sense of joy and wonder—memories that provide comfort and solace. Those good feelings of Christmases past, provide more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane—they have imbedded within us the knowledge that the event of the birth of the Christ forever changed the world—And those memories affirm that the goodness of God lies at the center of the universe.
I wonder if at some deeper level the phenomenon of people donning santa outfits by the hundreds points to a deep desire to share with others an experience—that at its heart is based upon the peace and joy of the Nativity—an event that so clearly proclaims the generosity of God’s love. The story of Christ’s birth reminds us of our deeper longings—And one reason that we gather this evening is to share an experience of belonging.
In the days of Mary & Joseph Bethlehem was a tiny village, nestled into a mountain top, dwarfed by the magnitude of an empire that ruled all of life. As we travel with Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem we see before our eyes how a backwater, obscure corner of the empire with inadequate lodging—is transformed to the center of the universe where the most important event in the history of the world takes place.
The Nativity scene gives us a strange community of: lowly shepherds, heavenly angels, barn animals, a tired father and mother, and at the center of it all, the newborn Jesus laying in a manger. It is a scene of utter simplicity that captures the fragility and vulnerability of our human existence—It is A reminder that the community that gathered around the manger was an odd gathering that looked nothing like the royal entourage of the emperor—and yet that tiny gathering represents the beginning of the community to which we belong. A community that gathers this evening, bringing our concerns, challenges, worries, and fears—along with our greatest aspirations. We Gather Around our altar as a people learning how to: love unselfishly. Learning how to give and to be a part of something bigger—Accepting God’s call to follow the life of this holy child—and receiving God’s great love and blessing.
Most of the santas that I saw that Saturday seemed pretty happy. And I have no doubt that St. Nicholas was an admirable bishop who did great works. On this night, it is our great joy to continue to discover how God in Christ calls us—works through us, and gathers us to be a people transformed by God’s love and grace—to love and serve the world in which we live.
Christmas sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California at the 9:30pm service on Christmas Eve and at the 10:00am service on Christmas Day. Lessons: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20.