When I was a kid, I was a snoop. It was partly due to being naturally inquisitive, but primarily due to being a sinful human being. I couldn’t help hunting through the house to see where my mom had stashed the Christmas presents to see what I was going to get on Christmas day.
Well one year I was home sick from school, and I found them. ALL of them. And I opened every single one. I had the best time playing with all the toys. Toward the end of the day, I decided to do the responsible thing and rewrap them and thereby complete my “perfect” crime. The problem, however, was that I was seven or eight at the time and kind of stank at wrapping. Needless to say, my mother was not fooled.
I don’t remember all the details of what happened that year, but I was in a lot of trouble. There was no doubt I was a bad kid, and I’d done something terrible. If Santa was real, I was getting coal (or worse) for the next three Christmases for sure. Yet that fair Christmas morn, what did I see? Why, a number of gifts in my name from Santa beneath our tree.
So much for, “You better not pout, you better not cry…”
All of us have stories like this. We all remember the old rhymes and warnings—be good or Santa won’t bring you a present this year—but we all knew on some level, it was poppycock. Deep down, we all knew we’d get a gift at Christmas, no matter how good we really were (or in my case, was not).
Even so, they’re many children who’ve experienced the fear of not knowing if they’ve been good enough to get a present. There are adults now who experience crippling anxiety around Christmas simply because they’re afraid they’ll fail to find the right gift—or find an equal gift to match or one-up whatever someone else has purchased. There’s this thing about Christmas that plays on our insecurities—the insecurities that stem from our desire to justify ourselves. Call it “Christmas karma,” if you will. Because of it, many of us get stuck in this rut of believing that our worth is determined by what we buy, how good we’ve been, even if we’ve given enough to the special Christmas offerings every year. Christmas karma encourages us to believe we can earn or buy love through our actions.
But Jesus died to save us from Christmas karma.
Remember that just as we try to earn our way into people’s good graces, or we try to encourage kids to “earn” their presents by being good, we try to do the same with our relationship with God. We believe if we keep enough rules, give enough money, come to church often enough, or are simply a “good, moral” person, we’re set. God will have to give us a pass since we’re aces, right?
Yet the gospel stands against any such notion, boldly proclaiming a salvation that “does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16). On the cross, Jesus died to show us that mercy, giving us a gift we cannot possibly deserve: salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone. To put an end to any sort of notion that tells us if we just do enough, God will be pleased. For us to stop trying to “earn” and instead receive what is freely given.
And that gift ought to inform us how we should celebrate Jesus’ birth. When we perpetuate the myth of Christmas karma, what we’re really saying, without even realizing it, is that the gospel doesn’t apply to Christmastime. But Jesus died to free you from the need to compete with family over who is going to give the best gift. He died to free you from the anxiety that comes from not having the means to go on big family trips for the holidays like your neighbors do. And he died to release you from the need to “be good” in order to “get.”
That’s a much better reason to celebrate than fear of a lump of coal, isn’t it?