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I, Virginia Bergman, pledge not to vote for a male presidential candidate in 2016 just because he's male.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Yes, Virginia…



Maybe it’s because my name is Virginia that I’m so easily hooked by the Disney channel’s Christmas shows featuring Santa as the main character. I watched such a show just the other night titled “The Ultimate Christmas Gift.”

Santa’s idea of the ultimate Christmas gift was a timely gentle snowfall. He’d invented a machine that could control the weather and produce the white stuff on demand. The machine wound up in the hands of a naughty little girl in L.A., and you can guess the rest.

By the time the movie ended, we’d all been reminded that Santa rewards only well-behaved children and as the song suggests:

He sees when you are sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!


Something peculiar happened to me, though, as I sat there glued to my TV set. I was noticing for perhaps the first time the traditional God-like attributes that folklore assigns to the jolly old elf in the red suit. For one thing he’s supposedly all knowing or omniscient; and we’re told that on Christmas Eve he’s also omnipresent, capable of visiting every household in the world. That’s with a little help from a hard-working team of reindeer; a species rightly honored last Sunday by our good friend, Jaime Meyer.

But what really struck me in the movie was the notion of reward and punishment. If you’re good, Santa will bring you presents and if you’re naughty, you’ll likely receive a lump of coal in your stocking.

It’s the same old reward and punishment approach we all experienced in early childhood, throughout our school years, and most definitely in the workplace.

In his theories of behavior modification, psychologist B. F. Skinner even taught that human beings are entirely motivated by the feedback we get from others; so much for high-minded concepts such as spirituality, conscience, internalized values, autonomy, self-direction, and all that.

I once took a class in undergraduate school on behavior modification taught according to the principles of that psychological theory. I was so offended by what I perceived as the professor’s obvious attempts to manipulate me that as quickly as I could, I did the work required to earn a grade of C and left.

As UUs, you’ve probably noticed that traditional Christianity has long incorporated the carrots and sticks approach in much of its theology. Be good, and you’ll go to heaven. Keep up that sinning, and you’ll be damned eternally to hellfire.

Just like Santa Claus, it might also be said of the patriarchal God of traditional Christianity:

He sees when you are sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!


There is, however, a deeper meaning in the life story of the one who was born in Bethlehem and his teachings about our relationship to God. Forrest Church, pastor of All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in NYC, offers this version of the Christmas story:

“The third year of the Common Era was marked in Judea by a great tax (a war tax if you will) imposed by Rome and shouldered unequally, as taxes were then and certainly are today. At pain of death, the nation's poor had to travel for days sometimes to be enrolled in their hometowns and then pay a staggering assessment of 80%— 2 shekels for you, eight for Caesar.

“Among the itinerant poor, a man by the name of Joseph—who surely had enough troubles of his own already—was touched by the liberal spirit (the spirit of generosity, tolerance, and brotherly love) to take under his wing an unwed pregnant teenager by the name of Mary. When they arrived in Bethlehem to pay the freight for a Roman war that had nothing to do with their safety or well being, this alternative family sought shelter in an inn, but all the inns were full. When the inns of the world are full, the poor find shelter where they can, in a stable yard, say, on a bed of straw among the pigs and cattle. Forget every crèche you've ever seen; this was not a pretty picture, nothing Hallmark or even Fox News would want to see on the cover of a card.

“But then, behold, a child is born—in society's eyes a bastard child, whom generous hearted Joseph and poor bewildered Mary wrap in swaddling clothes and lay in a manger.

“Like every great story,” the Rev. Dr. Church tells us, “the Christmas story has a twist. This unwed, socially ostracized family, their widow's mite purloined by an uncaring government to underwrite the empire's military adventures and its leaders' lavish lifestyles, in short, the poorest of the poor do what? That's right. They give birth to the Son of God!”

Stripped of all the special effects of an immaculate conception, visitations from angels, and tributes from three kings of the east led to the stable by an unnaturally bright star, the story of Jesus’ birth, whether myth or fact, becomes even more powerful and moving: an all-powerful God decides to take on human form and chooses to arrive, not as an heir to an earthly throne, but as an illegitimate child born in a stable.

To my mind, it’s a miracle that human beings were even capable of envisioning such an event.

Jesus is said to have lived only thirty years or so but during his brief life and ministry, scripture reveals that he presented a stunningly radical model of God:

The God of Jesus was inclusive. Defying social norms of his day, Jesus treated women as equals, speaking to them in public and teaching them scripture.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a member of a hated group of people, Jesus expanded on the definition of neighbor.

He practiced non-violence, advising his followers to turn the other cheek. We know that he led by invitation, not by coercion.

Embodying Mary’s words in the Magnificat that we heard earlier this morning, the man from Galilee cared especially for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.

A social activist of the first order, Jesus essentially taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves – presumably that would include the undocumented immigrants among us.

If you recall the principles of process theology, you’ll recognize that Alfred North Whitehead’s seemingly sophisticated notions about God are derived primarily from the example of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels.

How does all this theological stuff blend with the influence of Santa Claus in today’s culture? It’s hard to say. As you might have guessed I had to deal with the issue when my own two children were young.

It was shortly after Christmas when Jean and Steve approached me in the kitchen and told me they had a question. The serious tone in their voices caused me to leave the dishes in the sink, dry my hands, and sit down.

Jean said, “Ok, Mom, we want the truth. Is there or isn’t there a Santa Claus?”

Here’s the deal: Throughout my life, people had been assuring me, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” But on this occasion, I felt I had no choice but to tell my children the truth.

Each year, I explained, Dad and I had shopped for their gifts, wrapped them and hid them away. “Do you remember all of those packages Dad would bring into the house? You’d want to know what was in them. He’d tell you they were parts for his car and then put them up on the highest shelf in the closet.

“On Christmas Eve, after you were both fast asleep, we would put up the tree, trim it, and place your presents beneath it to surprise you on Christmas morning.”

I had no idea how my children would respond that day as I explained the well-kept secret of Christmas to them and anxiously watched their eyes widen in disbelief. As usual, it was Jean, the older of the two, who spoke first. She blurted out, “You mean you and Dad did all of that for us?”

They looked at each other and then at me, not in disillusionment, but in glad surprise. The mystery solved, they ran off to play, as children will. Theirs was the glad surprise of knowing how deeply and unconditionally they were loved.

Whatever you learned or didn’t learn in Sunday School, according to the teachings of Jesus - later adopted by process theology - that’s how God loves each and everyone of us.

May it be so.
Note: This post is the presentation I gave at Groveland Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship this morning. Groveland meets in the St. Paul Council of Churches Building on Summit Avenue, across the street from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn.

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