A seasonally appropriate excerpt from Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints):

There is no more subversive song than “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But it’s not subversive for the reasons that religious people usually take issue with Santa, when they lament the commercialization and ‘secularization’ disguised in the detour from Bethlehem to the North Pole. No, that holiday classic is so subversive on account of how effectively it sabotages the beating heart of Christmas, which has to do with giving.

We tell children that Santa Claus comes down the chimney to deliver them presents. To shower them with gifts. The song paints a different picture: “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out/ who’s naughty and nice.” Nice children get toys, naughty ones lumps of coal.

This Santa Claus is not actually a giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out reward and punishment.[1]

As we all know, any gift premised on deserving is not really a gift at all. It’s more of a paycheck, an act based in reciprocity rather than generosity. A gift, on the other hand, is a decidedly lopsided transaction, and therefore a fitting image for Christmas, which marks the remembrance of Christ’s birth.

The baby Jesus represents pure Gift, a light shining on those who dwell in darkness, the revelation of God’s love in all its vulnerability and impossibility. Like all true gifts, he arrives unbidden—a great and glorious surprise, a savior given to those who don’t deserve one. As the one who will “save people from their sins” (Mt 1:21), the Christ child signifies something startlingly new and unassailably good.

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In his life and ministry, Christ would bear out this divine generosity. He would become a walking euphemism for it. Again, those who welcomed him most enthusiastically would be they whose lives had stripped them of any illusions about deservedness, a.k.a. sinners. Their only way of receiving him was as a gift. This is what we see in Christ’s treatment of lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and reprobates—he does not relate to them on the basis of what they bring to the table but on the basis of who he is. And it makes every difference. He is the ‘Yes’ to the world’s ‘No’ (2 Cor 1:20).

Jesus praises children for this very reason; their inability to earn is not up for debate. They are powerless, and consequently have yet to turn love into a bartering system. Indeed, the strongest resistance Christ encounters comes from those who insist on paying for what is offered freely, who refuse to give up their rights—the place they feel their sweat has earned them on the Listmaker-in-the-Sky’s scorecard.

Though the law is conditional—a two-way street—the gift of Christ is unconditional. His affection cannot be leveraged or merited. This is what we mean when we talk about the attitude of grace, which is one-way love, or ‘love in the midst of deserved judgment.’ Jesus simply gave—his attention, his power, his very self—and to the wrong people. This is why Robert Capon wrote, “Grace works without requiring anything on our part. It’s not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.”

Most things in life are complicated, but this is not one of those things. Something is either a gift or a wage—it can’t be a little of each (Rm 5:15). The moment that a price or condition enters the equation, it is no longer a gift, no longer grace.

This applies to present-tense conditions just as much as future-tense ones. If a friend gives us a car for example, out of the blue, most of us would pause before accepting. We appreciate the gesture perhaps, but what’s the catch? Is our friend ‘buying’ our loyalty (and what does that say about our friendship)? Is there an unspoken expectation that we’ll do a favor-in-kind some day? Are we in Godfather territory? We harbor a kneejerk suspicion of the excessively generous, and for good reason. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. A present with strings attached is a bribe, not a gift.

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Of course, even if we’re able to welcome the Gift when it comes our way, we are considerably less excited when we see it extended to others, especially those who have done us wrong in some way. Grace, it turns out, is fundamentally unfair and therefore offensive—it makes no allowance for what we feel we, or anyone else, are owed. Which hints at why Christ encountered such profound opposition to his ministry, ending in his execution. Human nature is such that we may appreciate the gift in theory but not so much in practice. A pure gift upsets the balances of power. It may even invert them. Unconditional love is so threatening to sinful men and women and the precious hierarchies they create, that the one time it was made fully manifest in history, we killed it.

You might say, then, that the chief ‘offense’ of the Gospel has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with control being wrenched out of our clutching hands, with the last being first and the first last.

Needless to say, the reality of God’s grace is so radical that we often find ourselves trying to domesticate it, unconsciously (or not), imposing all manner of fine print about what constitutes acceptance or rejection. We pontificate about the proper response to the Gift, as if God is subject to our code of manners. At Christmas, for example, what if you forget to send a thank-you note immediately? What if, when you do, it’s a fairly shabby piece of work? What if you never send one? Will the gift be revoked? Again, any gift premised on the recipient’s ‘correct’ response to it is not much of a gift at all. Indeed, as most married couples can attest, the more pressure we place on the recipient to react a certain way, the less likely they are to do so.

The friendship analogy can help us here as well, since of the most common ways we divest the Gift of its purity, and reintroduce the law, is by jumping too hastily into ‘relationship’ territory. While there is indeed a sense in which the Gift invites its recipient into dialogue (such as prayer, thanksgiving, confession, etc.), our tit-for-tat programming is so strong that it tends to hijack the beauty of grace, and instead position it conditionally. Which makes sense. Even our closest relationships on Earth have some element of give-and-take—how could we not project that dynamic onto our Heavenly Father? ‘He did everything for me, now it’s time for me to do something for him,’ or so the thinking goes. Yet obligation yields guilt, and guilt creates distance. Soon we’re not returning his calls.

Fortunately, while Christ relates to us, he is not us. He is unfazed by our protestations and reversions. He can handle our inner Santa Claus. No amount of fearful insistence on recompense can make this gift any less of one (Jn 21). We do not possess the power to invalidate divine generosity, or renegotiate the terms of our acceptance. The Giver is good and so is the Gift.

[1] Let’s not blame Santa himself for what the song has wrought. Clement Moore introduced the popular version of St. Nick in 1823 with “Twas the Night Before Christmas” but “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” didn’t come onto the scene until 1934.

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