I wish I could tell you how it happened.
It certainly wasn’t my idea. I mean, I know that I’m known as being slightly “off-beat”… but even I, at my best (or worst, depending on your perspective) couldn’t have put together something like this.
In a pretty typical Christian church.
You know – stained glass, dark wood, colourful wall hangings, and a creche; mingled in with Christmas lights, Christmas trees, and a whole lot of baubles and glitters.
And a load of people. The “regulars” mingled in with the “visitors” – with many of the empty spaces filled in by the “doin’ it for Gramma” folks. Looking out at them, I realized that I wasn’t particularly worried about why they were here… but I hoped – in the few minutes we had with them- that a bit… just a bit of the wonder and awe and love of the Christ moment would touch them. Maybe – I thought – mayby, this year – just for one second, someone in the congregation would get a glimpse of miracle.
Ah… who was I trying to kid? This year was going to be like all the other years.
Sing some carols.
Read the scriptures.
Wish a “Blessed Christmas”.
And wait for folks to start showing up for the late service.
Deep breath taken.
And… “Good evening. A warm welcome to each and every one of you, in the Name of Jesus the Christ! Take a moment to look around you. Do you see someone that you don’t recognize? Or, perhaps, someone who is back with us – from school, or visiting? Maybe…”
That’s when I heard it.
The crack of a whip, snapping in the air.
The thud of hooves, moving across a snow-packed surface.
And all of it… above my head.
Every head in the room swiveled up and back. Three-hundred or so pairs of eyes lifted up to the ceiling.
Three-hundred or so pairs of eyes, tracking the sound of footfalls as they moved across the roof.
Chins returning to ground level, as a shadow dropped from the top of the stained-glass wall to the bottom.
Those same chins bounced off the floor, as the door opened and…
Red hat, puff-ball pom-pom.
Rosy cheeks. Glasses.
A “round little tummy, like a bowl full of jelly”.
You know… Santa Claus.
He came through the door, bag over his shoulder and – with a certain kind of majesty – walked down the aisle to the front of the church. When he got to the front, he looked at the choir, nodded to me… and gave a kind of a bow over to one side.
He looked at the congregation – children, elders, teens, and others.
Then he said, “Ho. Ho… ho.”
He didn’t laugh it.
He didn’t chuckle.
It was flat… like all of the emotion had been leached out of his voice.
And then I saw it.
One tear rolled down that wind-weathered cheek.
And then – roaring up from the depths of his soul – “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?”
A thick, sound-sucking, silence.
Quieter… “What have you done to me? This isn’t who I am.”
One arm dropped from his red hat to his black, black boots.
“This isn’t who I am.”
As he ripped off his hat and tossed it aside, he cried, “I am not a ‘jolly old elf’.”
As he pulled off his jacket and threw it away, he called out, “I am not ‘the Spirit of Christmas’.”
He stood there, in his shirtsleeves and jeans, looking at us as we looked back at him.
He reached into his bag, pulled out a white gown, and threw it over his shoulders.
He reached into his bag, pulled out a rope, and cinched it around his waist.
He reached into his bag, pulled out a mitre, and placed it on his head.
He reached – deep – into his bag, pulled out a crosier… and held it in his hand, standing tall and proud.
“This is who I am.
Not that… that… characature!
just… a simple man.”
Sighing deeply, he continued, “Not Santa Claus… but Saint Nicholas… better yet – Bishop Nicholas – or, best of all, just plain Nicholas.
In my entire life, all I wanted to do was to share with those who were without, the gifts that God had given me.
Not become the patron to an orgy of ‘bigger and better’ and ‘more and more’.
For a time that seemed like a thousand nights compressed into a few seconds, he looked at us.
No. He looked at us.
At each of us.
In each of us.
He saw how we had fallen short… and he loved us anyway.
He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he whispered, “The only gift I ever wanted to bring to people isn’t even a gift of my own making.” He stopped – and then nodded. “Tonight… that is the gift I want to share with you.”
He reached deep into his bag… as he moved to stand, he cried out, “The Lord be with you!”
And placed a loaf and the cup on the table.
Then Nicholas… Bishop Nicholas… Saint ‘Claus… welcomed us to Christ’s table, to share in the feast of Remembrance.
To share in the Communion of our Lord.
His face to the heavens, with tears streaming down, he cried out, “The gifts of God, for the people of God.”
With one voice, we replied, “Thanks be to God!” and we came to the table, to receive The Gift from one of God’s Messangers.
We returned to our seats – heads bowed – eyes closed – deep in prayer.
When we looked up… he was…