When now almost-18-year-old Rafe was a toddler, I agonized aloud to a church member that I didn’t know what I was going to do in regard to Santa. “What if I do the whole Santa thing, and later on when it turns out Santa is not real, he thinks God and Jesus are not real either?”
The man I confessed this to was a paradoxical sort of person: a physicist who considered himself both a mystic and a non-theist. He didn’t believe in much, he was willing to admit. But he understood the superlative importance of staying open to wonder. And when it came to Christmas, he was a total convert. “There’s nothing like the almost unbearable excitement of Christmas for a child. Don’t you want him to experience that?” I acquiesced.
Once neither of my children believed in Santa anymore, it took a lot of the pressure off of me as mom/minister to midwife all the magic at home and at church. But that doesn’t mean they don’t insist on the traditions. Carmen in particular is the keeper of ritual in our house, lovingly moving the crêche figures week to week as the drama unfolds through Advent, calling us to the table to light the candles every Sunday, following the Advent calendar prompts with zeal, and setting out the traditional salad and beer for Santa on Christmas Eve (who needs more cookies?).
Ritual guides us and provides a safe container when the world has gone mad. But it’s more than that. Every time we light a candle, tell the story, sing a carol, do anything deliberate to remember and renew this vision of a world God intimately enters and inhabits, we are dance partners with a whole host of others unseen: angels, saviors, a singular God with skin on. We are stage managers enacting an alternate reality—one that is just as real, or can be, as the sometimes cold, dreary, despairing, and desperate plane of material existence we live in day to day.
Our new vision avers that “belonging is more important than belief” in our community. But that doesn’t mean belief has no value. Right now the secular world is selling us sparkly cushions, rustic wall hangings, and overpriced travel mugs that all proclaim “Believe.” But what does it really mean to believe? Belief is not about intellectual certainty or assent to a fiction; it’s about being open to wonder, uncertainty, mystery, magic, transformation, and curiosity about how things might be different than they appear (for they often are).
This is my Advent wish for you: to know the unbearable excitement of the child at Christmas once more, grateful to be alive, optimistic about what gifts God will bring next, and open to believing beyond the limits of the ordinary-time mind.