By Matt Gordon
One of my favorite Christmas memories was the night we found out Santa wasn’t real. After months of speculation, chimney checks, and makeshift debates, my sisters and I were finally sat down by my mother to receive the harsh truth of reality—or so we thought.
After my mother explained the hard knocks world of real life, we heard a tender jingle-jangle ring out through the night. We darted to windows, rubbed little holes for our faces to peer from, and beheld a horse-drawn carriage coming up our forgotten gravel drive. Steering the “sleigh” was jolly old St. Nick himself. He ho-ho-hoed down our lane, up to our house, got out, called us by name, and gave us all little candy treats and trinkets, promising to return on Christmas with more gifts for the good little girls and boy.
It was sublime. Later, we found out it was a well-meaning neighbor named Jim Harper. But that fact didn’t sully the magic, made more real than truth by this simple reality: Santa had come to us. With house nestled between two zip codes, we technically didn’t even have claim to a town. We were in the middle of nowhere, yet on that night we were the place to be.
Our unbelief was dashed. But when I think about how that doubt had started, I’d have to pin the waiting as the chief suspect. Christmas entered our hearts around August, was fortified by the arrival of the JC Penney catalog and its illustrious toy section, and galvanized by the steady encroachment of holiday songs on the radio. We waited and waited and waited for the arrival of gifts, and with each passing day doubt grew.
And that was just a months-long wait and the anticipation of a myth. I cannot imagine waiting centuries for a desperately longed-for reality. But that was the essence of it. Every Jew longed for a Messiah—the thought never left heart, was fortified by the ancient prophecy and oral tradition, and was galvanized by all manner of ritual. Not to mention ceaseless oppression. A Messiah would come to them, liberate them, celebrate them, anoint them, redeem them, and empower them. If that Messiah would come at all.
And then: arrival. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Not everyone bought this, of course. Still many—if not most—don’t. But a babe arrived. He came down the lonely lane of humanity, calling people by name, and delivering gifts—peace, hope, love, and joy among his most precious presents. Nothing was asked of recipients other than to see and receive, to believe. In belief, the rest would get sorted—help me with my unbelief. In belief, life would be given abundantly, progressively, and eternally.
It has been a few thousand years since that epic arrival. But the thing about that cliched word “epic” is that it is only epic in hindsight. In the time of its occurrence, it was a pregnant teen, a messy birth, a squealing babe. (I suppose if a virgin birth can take place, the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes is possible. But based on how everything else plays out, I remain dubious of this lyric.) This whole situation lacked the expected Messianic fanfare. It would be Santa coming down our lane in a Volvo, wearing business casual attire.
We have a little toy manger scene a friend gave us. The other day, I was crawling on the floor pretending to be a monster or puppy or some such creature, chasing my guffawing sons about the house. This put me at eye level with the little nativity, and this is what I saw:
The main characters had all taken their common places. To my sons, this was all-too-commonplace. They added a dinosaur because of course they did. It was the same reason their father had assumed the role of a monster or puppy or whatever—their fantastical little minds crave the fantastical. A conventional birth of a conventional child? Hard pass. Shepherds and Wisemen, sheep and cows? This is not the stuff of Disney+. They needed to church it up. Add some dinosaurs here, a superhero there, a dash of supernatural, and maybe something that wedges down the chimney bearing gifts, and now we are onto something.
But on my hands-and-knees, I looked on at that nativity, and no dinosaur was necessary. The natural was the supernatural—more real than truth. For this was the Messiah coming down our lane. He entered the world as we all had. He would leave it too as we all can—his voice echoes still its frill-less refrain: “Follow me.”
I will let my children have their dinosaur nativity, their longing for a magical bearer of gifts, their lofty visions of a supernatural world. But I know they will grow up. They will suffer more and long differently, and when that day comes, when sinister doubt punches holes in all the hot-air-dreams, a more rugged myth will be needed. One that is naturally supernatural. An arrival of shared experience. A messy messianic tale of birth and life and death; of pain and sin and hurt; of hope and peace and truth; of redemption. A myth made real, true.
For unto us was born this day, indeed. Jesus arrived: Naturally and supernaturally. He still does: naturally and supernaturally. Christmas comes but once a year, and we wait and we wait and we wait. Then it is gone, like a flying sleigh in the night. But Jesus steadfastly remains—the ever-present arrival.