He sat there in the booth with his head buried in his hands. Something was wrong. His fried cheese curds sat relatively untouched, and I couldn’t tell if he had fallen asleep at the table or if he was hiding his face to try and conceal tears.
I reached over and touched his shoulder, “James, buddy, what’s wrong?”
Tears streaming down his little face, my five-year-old son looked up at me in his Sunday suit and tie and said, “Daddy, I just can’t do it.”
Confused, I responded, “Does your tummy hurt? Aren’t you hungry? It’s ok, you don’t have to eat all the cheese curds.”
Frustrated, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he quickly replied, almost shouting, “No Dad! The song! I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. I was grumpy today. I got in trouble yesterday. I’m not good enough.”
I listened for a moment to the Christmas tune playing through the speakers. Young Michael Jackson was belting out: “He sees you when you’re sleeping.. He knows when you are awake.. He knows if you’ve been bad or good.. So be good for goodness sake..”
Immediately I understood.
My son was terrified that he hadn’t been behaving well enough to earn a Christmas gift from Santa Claus. In the past few days, he had been bombarded by a variety of beloved classic Christmas cartoons: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and a few other classics. Those movies, along with the constant Christmas radio station, fed my little guy a steady diet of “you’d better be good if you want something good under your tree on Christmas.”
The pressure was crushing his little five-year-old heart, and that crushing law was more than he could bear. So as that song played above him, yet again, he realized that he couldn’t live up to the expectations of Santa Claus, and he broke down. He knew that he wasn’t always good. He could list off the number of times he’d been in trouble in the past few days. He had woken up grumpy that morning and now was afraid that his grumpiness was the kind of pouting that the song was warning him to avoid.
James knew that “you’d better be good, for goodness sake,” was something he just could not do, no matter how hard he tried. This made me a little sad because James is a great kid. He’s polite and well-behaved. He gets along with his three sisters and helps around the house all the time. Sure, he’s five, which means there are plenty of opportunities for correction. But he gets a smiley face everyday at school and has a heart of gold. He even remembers to put the toilet seat down!
But the Law, no matter how beautifully it might be packaged, will always crush. Especially when faced with the terror of Claus’s “be good,” “don’t pout,” and the advent of his snitch, the Elf on the Shelf. (Thankfully, we don’t keep that creepy guy around our house.)
Santa gives gifts to the good boys and girls. He gives coal to the bad.
St. Nicholas puts chocolate in your shoes if you’ve been good.
The Elf on the Shelf zooms back to Santa every night to snitch on bad children.
Rudolph was only valued by others when bad weather gave him the chance to put his nose to work and prove his worth.
On and on, a steady Christmas theme of earning love, respect, value, and even gifts. But, if you must earn a gift, it’s no longer a gift. It’s a wage, a payment for your hard work and efforts.
There is a place for the Law which keeps us on the straight and narrow, shows our sins and failings, and instructs us on how we are to live. But there at Culvers, with rapidly cooling cheese curds, my son did not need more law. He needed a reminder of the real meaning of Christmas. The Law had done it’s crushing work. He needed good news!
Not the arbitrary command, “Be good,” but rather, the reminder that Christmas is about a sinful, imperfect world, receiving the undeserved gift of Christ. He is true-God and true man, who took on human flesh to keep the perfect law of God, which we could never keep. He is the embodiment of God’s love for His fallen creation. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8). James needed to be reminded that Jesus was born at Christmas to bring grace and mercy and forgiveness to a world that could never measure up to God’s expectation of perfect goodness. He needed to know that Jesus was born for him precisely because he isn’t perfect. He needed to hear that he is baptized in Christ. God loves him and sees him as good and righteous, solely on account of what Christ did for him.
We all would do well this Advent season of repentance to hear the reminder that St. Paul gives in Romans 8, “Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Santa Claus may indeed be coming to town, but Christ the Lord came first, and he came with forgiveness and salvation in His hands for all!
This good news dried up my sons tears and put the joy of Christmas back into his heart.
The season of Christmas is not about earning love or blessings, but about receiving the free gift and blessedness that God has sent for all in His Son Jesus Christ, who is your greatest gift!
God has made His list. He’s checked it twice. When He comes to town, He comes with blessings for all His beloved children.
So have faith and hope in Christ, for goodness sake!