santa and elves

The Parable of Buddy the Elf

Merry Christmas, everyone. I want to do something kind of weird with this episode. Because it’s Christmastime, I want to try to relate the famous passage from Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus to the story of the movie Elf, which probably all of you have watched–or will watch–this holiday season. And that’s actually why I want to take a look at it. Because, for whatever reason, this movie has become stuck in our consciousness. For many people, it’s become a regular part of their Christmas tradition. And besides the fact that it’s hilarious, I think there are some surprisingly deep reasons for that. So here we go…

This is Luke 2:1-7:

 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Ok, so the obvious question is: what on earth does the movie Elf have to do with this passage? But before I try to answer that, it’s worth recognizing that it’s not me who says it does. It’s everyone. Everyone says it does. How do I know this? Well, it has to do with how we use the word “Christmas.” For example: What is this passage in Luke 2 about? Christmas. What is the movie Elf about? Christmas. See what I mean? Ok, you say, but the same word can have more than one meaning. In the first case, Christmas means “the birth of Jesus.” In the second, it just means this fairyland of Santa and elves and reindeer. 

This is true. But are you so sure that those two things are entirely separate? They certainly aren’t separate in our experience. In fact, in our culture, the two are almost seamlessly intermingled. The radio plays, “Here Comes Santa Claus” and then “Away In A Manger” back to back. In my front yard right now, I have an angel and a reindeer. Why? Because…Christmas. 

Think about your experience as a child. It’s finally Christmas Eve. You want to go to sleep, because the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll wake up and it will be Christmas Day. But you can’t, because you’re just too excited. Why? It’s not just excitement about the fact that Jesus was born 2000 years ago. But it’s also not just about the gifts. We know this because your Birthday Eve isn’t quite the same thing. No, at Christmastime, the whole season builds up to this one moment. You’re always asking: how many more days until Christmas morning? And then, finally, it’s the night before. The night before what? You don’t quite know. But you feel it. A kind of mystical visitation. And who is it that’s going to arrive into your world on Christmas Day? The answer is not obvious. In one sense, it’s Jesus. In another sense, it’s Santa. One is obviously, sublimely more important than the other. But they are both, at least in the experience of my children, real. And, as you grow, and consider the fact that the presents of Christmas Day never quite live up to the anticipation of the night before, you begin to see the truth: Santa was only ever a kind of John the Baptist–teaching us how to prepare for the real thing.

But how did we get all the magic of things like Santa in the first place? There’s something about this season that is more than material, more than history, more than words. You can teach your children the facts about Jesus and Christmas. You should. But the facts themselves will not exhaust what Christmas is. There’s always more–always something you can’t account for. And that something…let’s just call…magic. And the creator of this Christmastime magic cannot be found in some list of modern secular storytellers and songwriters and marketing gurus–though, of course, they all partake in it, whether they believe in Jesus or not. But none of them made it. No, the creator of this “magic” was born 2000 years ago on Christmas Day. Because, on that day, a baby in a manger single-handedly re-enchanted the world. That’s what Christians celebrate on Christmas. 

So, if that’s really true, why should we be surprised when Christmastime feels enchanted–even for totally secular people? How are we supposed to deal with the mythic quality of this moment, when the days are shortest and coldest, and yet it feels like we have some transcendent reason–even if we don’t understand why–to sing and decorate and bake cookies and put up lights in the darkness. We all feel the magic. Why should we be surprised that we turn to Elfland to express it? 

Think about it. We don’t watch the movie Elf in July. Why is that? Because the magical work of elves and reindeer–everything the North Pole represents–culminates on Christmas Day, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Well, you say, that’s just a random connection. But, no, it’s not? I mean, for starters, Santa is a saint. But also, consider the world of the North Pole. Its entire existence hangs on one day. What do Santa and the elves and the reindeer do all year long? They prepare for and anticipate the coming of Christmas Day. They labor and sing, because they know the long-awaited moment will come. I mean, I’ll just say it: the North Pole is the embodiment of Advent–a strange but true picture of the people of God, living and working and waiting in hope for the Day of all Days to arrive. 

And yes, probably nobody meant it to be exactly that. But the point is: it couldn’t help but take that shape. Because at Christmastime, the enchantment of Christ is the air we breathe. Not even Scrooge can escape it.

Which brings us to the movie Elf…

You all know the plot. The story begins by telling the tale of Buddy the Elf (played by Will Ferrell), who is not actually an elf, but an orphaned human, who comes to live at the North Pole. So, from the very beginning, the audience knows: the North Pole is real. Santa and the reindeer and the elves and the magic–all of it is real. We know this from scene one. And for Buddy’s whole life, he’s only ever known this reality. In fact, he actually thinks he’s an elf. 

But as he grows, things get awkward because he’s so much bigger than all the other elves, and he works so much slower. Eventually, Santa has to break the news to him: He’s a human. His biological father lives in New York City. And the time has come for Buddy to go down into the mysterious realm of humans and meet his father, who, even more shockingly still, is on the naughty list! (His father sells childrens books, but he’s sort of lost his way. He only cares about money. He hardly even notices that it’s Christmastime, because all he can see is his business.)

But, anyway, before Buddy goes, he learns about another, even bigger problem. Papa Elf tells him, “Buddy, you should know that a lot people down south don’t believe in Santa anymore.” 

“What?!” Buddy says, “Who do they think puts all their toys under the tree?”

“Well, there’s a rumor floating around that the parents do it.” 

“That’s ridiculous. I mean, parents couldn’t do all that in one night.”

“Yeah, I know,” Papa Elf says, “But still, year after year, less people believe.”

They’re talking about the disenchantment of the world. The magic is disappearing. Why? Because when people don’t trust anything beyond themselves, they lose the ability to see anything beyond themselves. And because Santa’s sleigh is powered by this Christmas spirit, the decline in Christmas spirit is putting the whole operation in jeopardy. So with that knowledge, Buddy begins his journey. 

And that’s when things get interesting…because, again, all Buddy has ever known is the North Pole, where Christmas spirit and Santa and elves and magic and Walking in a Winter Wonderland are the 24/7 reality. And, when he first arrives, the rough, vulgar world of New York City is a hilarious contrast to the world he grew up in. For example, 

  • He assumes all the old bubble gum on the side of the road is free candy
  • He thinks the disgruntled men passing out flyers on the sidewalk are trying to play a game with him
  • He thinks he and his father are going to be best friends immediately.

But it turns out, New York is not the North Pole. 

Except, there’s a funny twist. Because he’s arrived in the city at Christmastime. So, there’s also an element of familiarity to everything. There are decorations and lights everywhere and people dressed in festive colors. He’s especially taken in by this department store, Gimbells, where everything is Christmas-y and perfect. The employees are even dressed like elves, so he fits right in. 

In effect, Buddy finds out that there are two worlds within New York City: one that feels foreign (because no one out in the street seems to care about Christmas) and the other that feels like home (because in Gimbells, they seem to share his Christmas spirit and affinity for elf-culture).

EXCEPT…he soon finds that, despite the festive ambiance and the common language and apparel, strangely, no one in Gimbells is actually excited about Christmastime. The outward signs and symbols of Santa and the North Pole are all around, but no one there seems to think it’s actually real. It’s almost as if they’re just pretending; as if they don’t even believe in the magic of Christmas. 

SO…when someone from the real land of Christmas actually appears, they don’t even recognize him. They just think he’s a crazy person. 

My favorite image of this is when the manager comes out and announces in a sort of matter-of-fact tone to all the employees: “Alright people, listen up. We’ve got a big day tomorrow: Santa’s coming.” At which point, Buddy flips out: “SANTA!!! Santa’s coming! I KNOW HIM.” And of course everyone looks at him like he’s a maniac. But again, he’s lived in the real North Pole. He doesn’t just know Santa exists. He knows Santa. He talked to him just before he left. Santa is not just an idea. Not just a name. Not just a character. He’s real. 

And this tension really comes to a head when the fake Santa arrives, and Buddy is in disbelief. “Who the heck are you?” he says. “You sit on a throne of lies. You smell like beef and cheese.” And they get into a fight and destroy the whole beautiful Christmas scene.

And, for the audience, the dramatic irony of all this is…so great. Because, the whole time, you know the secret. No matter how crazy Buddy might seem to the disillusioned people of New York City, he’s the only one who actually knows the truth. He can see. Everyone else is blind. He is sane. Everyone else is crazy. And now he’s being forced to live in this fake world full of all the trappings of Christmastime without any of its reality. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it.” (And, for the record, I’m not saying Buddy the Elf is a straightforward Christ-figure. It’s not so simple as that. But…it is all starting to feel vaguely familiar, isn’t it?)

Luke 2

Ok, now to Luke 2. The passage we read starts by telling us that there’s this decree from Caesar Augustus that everyone should be registered. So Mary and Joseph are forced to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph is of the lineage of David, in order to be counted. And while they’re there, the time comes for Mary to have her baby. Except, there’s no room in the inn, so Jesus is laid in a manger.

Now, forget about Elf for a moment. Let’s just try to see if we can understand what Luke is telling us about the birth of Jesus here. And one of the first things to remember whenever you’re reading the Bible is: these are not just facts. Of course, we believe these things did really happen. But our modern minds are a little too familiar with the reading of textbooks. We collect “facts” in lists so that we can spout them back out at the proper time…when the test comes. Census. Traveling. Joseph’s family. Bethlehem. No room in the inn. But that’s not what Luke is doing. This is not just a list of things that happened before Jesus was born. Remember, this is the beginning of the re-enchantment of the world. Luke chose these words and images for a reason. As with any good story, he’s setting up the scene. Every piece of the puzzle matters if you want to see the bigger picture.

For today, I’m going to focus on two pieces which form a kind of pattern of their own: the census and “no room in the inn.” I know it sounds weird, but these two things–the census and the inn–are two different images of the same problem, which form the backdrop of Jesus’s birth–and also of the movie Elf (but more on that to come). In short, they’re both images of blindness–actually, of a kind of willful blindness to the Messiah–but from two different sides, from two different worlds. These are sort of like the two worlds Buddy the Elf experiences in New York: the world of the street and world of Gimbells–both of which are blind to the truth about Buddy, but in slightly different ways). In Luke’s Gospel, the worlds are: Rome and Israel. And, if you know the climax of the story, then you know already that there were two groups present at the crucifixion of Jesus, both of whom were responsible for his death: Rome and Israel. And at the very beginning of the story, here they both are. Not a coincidence. 

Now, it’s pretty obvious how “no room in the inn” can be seen as an image of blindness to and rejection of the Messiah. (It’s deeper than you think, and we’ll get to that in a minute…) But first I want to explore the meaning of the census, because it’s easy to miss: How on earth could a census be an image of blindness? 

Well, if you were a Jew in Jesus’s time, this would ring a bell, because the Scriptures have a few things to say about census-taking. In the ancient world, a census was usually taken for one of two reasons: taxation or military–either to see how much money you can bring in, or to see how many fighting men you have. And, in the Bible, census-taking has a sort of negative connotation, which has to do with the temptation to overly account for things.

For example, think of Buddy’s father in the city. In a sort of Scrooge-like way, he doesn’t care about Christmastime or his family or anything else. Because he’s focused on counting every dollar, he overlooks obvious things: like the fact that his latest children’s book is missing two whole pages in the middle of the story, or the fact that his own son has just walked into his life (and he had security kick him out of the building). See, when you’re counting the things you can see (because you assume that’s what matters), it makes you even more blind to the things you can’t see (which you assume don’t matter–but they always do). And not just on a moral level. 

For instance, imagine you discover that a little bit of Adderall makes you perform better at your job. So then you up the dosage just a little, and you perform even better. So you do it again, and the same thing happens. You’re accounting for what you can see–the short-term improvement in performance–and acting accordingly. But…you’re also ignoring what you can’t see: the long term consequences on your health. In the Bible, you see this sort of pattern happen quite a bit. And God often reveals himself as that invisible part of the equation–the part you can’t see, which you might be tempted to ignore, but which you forget at your own peril. 

So how exactly does this relate to the census? Well, there’s a famous passage in 2 Samuel 24 in which King David orders Joab to take a census of all the people of Israel. And Joab is not happy about it, because he knows it’s wrong. How does he know it’s wrong? Well, you have to go further back to Exodus 30 and Numbers 1, in which God warns Moses about census-taking. Not that doing it is always wrong. In the Numbers passage, God actually tells Moses to do it. But the point is, if you’re going to do it, you have to take great care. It’s sort of like playing with fire (or Adderall). So God tells them two things: First, when you count the people, atonement must be made–an offering must be given by each person–so that the people won’t be struck with a plague. In other words, when you account for what you can see, you also need to give homage to what they can’t see, or else bad things will happen. Second, God says, you must never count the Levites (the tribe of the priests who oversee the sacrificial system). Ok, but what does this “atonement” accomplish? And…why not count the Levites?

On this idea of “atonement,” we’re going to do a whole episode later, but for now let me just give you a snapshot. The word “atonement” in Hebrew actually means “covering.” Like the covering of blood in the temple sacrifices. But the image of “covering” goes all the way back to the Garden. When Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes are opened and they see that they need a covering. They didn’t before, because the Garden itself was their covering. But now everything has changed. Now they’re exposed–not just to shame, but to death. Because of their sin, the world is no longer safe. So what do they do? They make their own coverings, with fig leaves. And what does God do when he finds them? In his mercy, He gives them a new, more costly covering: dead animal skins. Death to protect them from death. Imagine going out into the cold, dark world beyond the Garden with nothing but fig leaves to keep you alive. Their own cheap covering isn’t enough. What God is saying is: only death can protect you from death…just like the covering of blood on their doors at Passover and the sprinkling of blood in the temple. This theme will go all the way through the Bible: our own coverings versus God’s. 

And, as strange as it may sound, that’s what’s going on with the census. David’s census is a kind of false covering. It’s a way for the king to say, “How many fighting men do we have?” Ok, we’re covered. But, no, you’re not. Your own covering, no matter how impressive, will never be enough. And David usually understood this, which is what made his in this case sin so great. Before he was king, Saul had offered David his armor as a covering with which to fight Goliath. But David refused, saying that God alone would win the battle. God alone would be his covering. And he was. 

Now, quickly to the second point: Why not count the Levites? Well, for starters, the Levites are themselves a kind of offering to God, since their work has to do with the tent of meeting. But there’s more. Another huge theme in God’s law has to do with “leaving a margin.” In this case, “Don’t count the Levites,” is a way of saying, “If you’re going to count everyone, make sure you don’t actually count everyone. Leave one part out. Leave one part unknown to you.” And, I know, this goes against every modern-precision, data-driven, scientific bone in our bodies. But that should help us to understand the root temptation of census-taking in all of us. In a lot of ways, we are a census-driven society. I mean, you might want to take a moment and just consider how the patterns of our modern world have shaped us into these totalizing creatures–people who must, at all times, account for everything we see. Just consider COVID as one example. Think about how we as a society have dealt with the terrifying unknowns of this pandemic. How every day and night we feed each other numbers upon numbers upon numbers. The numbers can be useful, of course, but they also tend to blind us from other profound realities which are harder to see and impossible to count. And whatever those unseen realities are, we ignore them at our peril. 

And that’s what “leaving a margin” means. It opens your eyes to the ways in which you’re blinding yourself. It helps you to see God, because God himself is often on the margin of our experience. Nobody reads Leviticus for fun these days, but if you did, what you would find is that God’s law isn’t just a list of moral commands. In fact, a lot of the commands don’t seem moral at all–they just seem like random rituals–until you start to see the deeper pattern. God isn’t just giving rules. He’s giving a new pattern of being–calling people back to the patterns he introduced when he created the world. If you asked an ancient Israelite, why you shouldn’t always be counting everything, he probably wouldn’t know how to explain it. He might just say, “Oh, you mean the Sabbath. Six days God labored, and on the seventh he rested. And so do we.” See, the Sabbath is the margin at the end of each week. It represents the unaccounted-for part of existence. In the ancient world, when the food you eat comes by the sweat of your brow, to rest is to trust. Part of the effect of working six days and resting on the seventh is that it forces you–and your whole community–to participate in a pattern of trust, a rhythm which reinforces the fact that you are not completely in control of your circumstances. That no matter how hard you work and no matter how much you produce, there will always be a margin–something left out–a realm that is outside of your care and control. Because you are not God, you cannot–and should not–account for everything. The Sabbath is a way of not obsessively totalizing–a way of saving us from ourselves. Remember that next time you get mad at Chic-Fil-A for not being open on Sundays.

And this Sabbath pattern repeats itself in subtle ways throughout the Torah, not just in God’s commands about the seventh day. And not just in his warnings about census-taking. The pattern is everywhere. For example, God’s people are told to leave the margin of their fields un-harvested for the sake of the poor and the sojourner and to leave the margin of their garments unfinished and to let the edge of their beards and their sideburns go uncut. Each of these commands might seem random on its own, but not when you see the pattern. These unfinished margins, like the seventh day of each week, are the actual enactment of the belief that man does not live by bread alone. You can almost see how, if you were to obey these commands–to embody these patterns over time–your whole life and your whole community becomes a kind of living reminder to trust in God and not in your own hubris. Not to be fooled into thinking that what you can see and touch and hold and count is all there is. What does Jesus say? “The kingdom of God is like a man who spreads seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he knows not how.” You cannot account for everything. 

So…again, in the beginning of Luke 2, what we find is that Caesar Augustus is taking his own census. And hopefully you can see now that this is not just a random fact. It’s telling us something profound about the world into which Jesus was being born. If David’s census was an assault against God, this is a whole new level. Luke tells us that, according to Caesar’s decree, everyone in the known world is to be registered. The power and the hubris of Rome, to account for every living being…reminds Luke’s audience of the god-like reign of Caesar and the almost despairing place of the people of God. Not only do the godless rule, but they scoff at the very notion of the one true God and his commandments. And, what is worse, they do it without consequence. They count and recount their victories and leave nothing un-accounted for. Where is the justice of God? 

But the genius of this moment is that we, the audience, know that there is something un-accounted for. A secret which began to take shape in Nazareth is making its way to Bethlehem. The voice of Gabriel spoke to Mary in chapter one, saying, “You will bear a son. And he will be great and will be called the son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. He will reign forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Something un-accounted for is breaking in. Caesar’s undoing–the perfect punishment for his census-taking hubris–is about to be born into the world. And, yes, Mary and Joseph must obey his decree for now, because Caesar is still a successful pretender. But the Return of the King is underway. The One in Mary’s womb is bringing a kingdom of his own, for which there is no accounting. Because it is the kingdom of God. 

So that’s the meaning of the census. 

Now, the second piece of the puzzle is the inn, which is more straightforward. If the census had to do with the blindness of Rome, the inn has to do with the blindness of Israel. As Luke makes clear, Bethlehem is the City of David, from whose line the Messiah was expected to come. In fact, the prophet Micah foretold that Bethlehem would be his birthplace: “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from ancient times.” In other words, Jesus’s birth is the Return of the King, which all Israel has been waiting for. And yet…when the day finally arrives, there’s no room for him in the inn? I mean, you cannot exhaust the weight and meaning and irony of that phrase. Think about it: what is an inn? It’s not just a home. It’s a place particularly set aside to house weary travellers. You see the irony? The place whose job it was to welcome them in, has no place for them. In fact, there’s another theory which states that the inn was not really a public place, but more likely a “guest room” in the house of Joseph’s relatives. But, in this case, the meaning is all the more stark: it’s not just the City of David but the very Family of David, which has no room for the Son of David. To take it even further, the word Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” So the House of Bread has no room for the Bread of Life. And you can hardly blame the hosts in Bethlehem. People were flooding in for the census. They’re just doing their job, right?

But isn’t that everyone’s excuse, all the time? Why do any of us miss the most important things? Isn’t it because we’re just trying to get by–just trying to do our jobs? This is exactly what happens with Israel. The inn in Bethlehem foreshadows the tension of Jesus’s entire ministry, which is that, even amidst his own people, there’s no room for him. Whether it be the Pharisees–who knew the Scriptures better than anyone but still rejected him…or his own disciples, who saw every miracle he performed, and yet still struggled to understand what he was doing. They were looking for the Messiah. They hadn’t totally forgotten. They knew the stories. God was supposed to bring justice. Their king was supposed to reign, not Caesar. But what happened? When the king really did appear, they almost missed him. Like the innkeeper, flooded with guests, they were focused on other things. The ones who should have been most ready to receive him were caught unawares. 

There’s an odd parable where Jesus talks about this, “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins,” he says, “who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. The foolish ones took no oil for their lamps. The wise ones did. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all fell asleep. Then, at midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ But only a few of them could. That is, the ones who remembered to bring oil. Therefore keep watch, for you do not know the day or the hour.”

At first glance, this seems like a parable about the future coming of Christ. And it probably is, but it was also obviously a parable about what was happening as Jesus spoke. About those who were not ready for him, even though they had been waiting for him. 

The Christian celebration of Advent and Christmas has this same already-and-not-yet structure to it. We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel in a minor key, imagining ourselves as Israel long ago, waiting for the king to arrive: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” But the longing is also our own, since we too wait for the day when He will come again and wipe every tear from our eyes. We sing, “Joy To The World, The Lord Is Come,” knowing that he did come 2000 years ago, but also imagining and enacting the day when He will come and make all things new. Christianity is not a just past-tense religion. The thing we celebrate is either real now or else it isn’t real at all.

So the question is: Will we miss him when he comes? And if so, will it be the blindness of Rome or blindness of Israel? In terms of Elf, will it be the blindness of Buddy’s father or the blindness of Gimbells?

We do sometimes resemble the blindness of Rome. Like Caesar and Buddy’s father and Ebeneezer Scrooge–it’s tempting to keep counting, and to convince ourselves that whatever we’re counting is all there is. The world around us will continue its census-taking all through the Christmas season–counting dollars and COVID cases, all the while blind to the real meaning and magic of Christmas. Will we join them? Or will we leave a margin for the unknown–for the magic of Elfland, which is really the magic of Christmas, which is really the Spirit of Christ? 

Of course, many of us know this already. We are not so much Rome as Israel. That’s why, in anticipation for the coming of the king, we put out our lights and decorations, we give gifts and have feasts and sing songs and read stories. And that’s exactly what we should do. We are the people of God in the city of God, which is his church. But would we recognize Him if he came? 

In the movie, the Department Store is really good at playing the Christmas game. They have all the trappings. They even call the place the North Pole. There’s no other place in New York where Buddy should feel more at home. But it’s at Gimbells, not out in the streets, where Buddy finally flips out. It was one thing for people to ignore him or to think he’s weird out in the world. It was another to put on a whole show as though Santa’s really coming to town, only to find out that no one actually believed he was. It was only a show. And… the show would have been fine. Buddy was right at home with all the decorations. He knew it wasn’t the North Pole, but it was a way of bringing part of the North Pole down, just as Santa himself would come down. That’s why he stayed up all night decorating: to prepare the way. But if no one believes he’s coming–or worse, yet–if everyone settles for some pathetic replacement of the real thing, then what did it all mean? It was just a cheap mask covering up your own nakedness. Like wearing too much makeup, all the Christmas-y traditions and decorations can either be something to enhance the beauty of a really beautiful thing…or else a way of covering over the fact that there’s no real beauty there at all. Only pretending.

Is that what the magic of Christmas is? Only pretending? 

The world into which Jesus was born was a world of census-taking and “no room in the inn.” A world full people who either didn’t care or else pretended they did. Both missed Jesus. Both called him an impostor. In the end, both nailed him to a cross. And yet, even in doing so, both came face-to-face with Love Incarnate–the God who made them, whose plan had always been to replace their cheap false-coverings with the covering of his own death–death protecting them from death. 


In the climactic scene of Elf, Santa’s sleigh has crashed in Central Park. The only way to get it flying again is, of course, Christmas spirit. The news travels fast through a local news station, and people all over the city begin to sing, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” One after another, you begin to see every person and group Buddy ever met in the city joining in the song: from the roughest people in the streets to the manager and employees at Gimbells, all of whom thought he was crazy. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Finally, Buddy’s father is the last one to sing, and the sleigh takes off just in time. Buddy has saved the day. 

But as Santa’s sleigh comes into view of the news cameras, the reporter’s feed cuts out. The news anchor takes over and says, “I guess we’ll never know for sure what happened this Christmas Eve in Central Park.” It’s a great line, because it perfectly captures the magic of the real Christmas. In a way, what Christ has done to save the world has always been on the margin. You can never quite capture it on camera. That’s why Caesar could never have accounted for it, and neither can we. The baby is born outside the inn, though he is the true Son of David. The Messiah dies outside the city, though he is the true King of the World. The magic of Christmas, like Christ himself, is such that you cannot quite pin it down. Not because it’s unreal, but because it’s more real than you are. The Spirit blows where it pleases. You want to catch it, to hold it in your hand, to prove that it’s as real as you hope. But you can’t, because it holds you. 

Finally, notice once again that everything magical about Christmastime tends to reach its height on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. That’s how it always happens in the movies. And how it always seems to happen when you’re a kid. It’s Christmas Eve. You want to go to sleep, because the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll wake up. But you can’t, because you’re too excited. Finally you do get to sleep. And when the morning comes, it isn’t quite everything you imagined. Almost as though the anticipation was better than the thing anticipated. But somehow, that’s ok. It was all worth it. Because we know deep down the anticipation is for something more real than any Christmas morning we’ve had thus far. Ever since that first Christmas morning 2000 years ago, every day is a kind of Christmas Eve. Which means, we can go to sleep knowing that one day, perhaps tomorrow, we will wake up and it will be Christmas Day–the real Christmas Day–forever.

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