It was three days before Christmas.
My wife and I had just begun our nightly routine of getting our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter prepared for bed when we heard the sirens.
Hearing fire engine sirens during any other time of the year would cause us to stop what we were doing and say a quick “Hail Mary” for whomever the truck was intended.
But sustained fire sirens just before Christmas causes a thrill of excitement in me.
Santa is coming!
Fortunately, our town is like the many others in the United States where the fire department brings out the big rigs to escort Good Saint Nick through the streets on the nights immediately preceding Christmas. Even though I am in my thirties, I still get a thrill of nostalgia as he waves to any shivering families brave enough to huddle outside in the cold to greet him.
Sometimes he throws candy canes into the night air for any children he sees, which usually end up as pulverized peppermint powder on the driveway to be discovered glistening in the next day’s sunlight.
Nonetheless, Santa’s arrival by fire truck never fails to ready my heart for the great event for which he is the shining symbol, the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord.
That particular Christmas revealed an even deeper meaning of Santa Claus to me. As soon as we heard those sirens in the distance, my wife put herself on Santa-lookout vigil while I finished quickly bathing our daughter.
Although her bedtime was near, this would be the first year that she was even aware of Santa. So, I hurried to get her out of the tub in case Santa should make his appearance any time soon. As any parent will tell you, whenever you want the child to hurry, the child invariably dawdles and seems interested in everything except the task at hand. This time was no different.
Then my wife suddenly shouted from the living room, “He’s here!”
At that point my daughter stopped her fidgeting and looked toward the sound of Mommy’s voice. I had just barely been able to dry her off and get her diaper on. Her pajamas were still in a heap on the floor. Oh well, it was now or never.
I looked into her big blue Cindy-Lou-Who eyes and said excitedly, “Santa Claus is here! Let’s go see Santa!”
Much to my surprise her eyes widened into saucers, not of delight but of terror and she hesitated as if to run away. If I had not actually scooped her up and run into the living room, I’m not sure she wouldn’t have ran away and found some corner to hide in.
The closer we got to the bay window in the living room, the tighter her grip became. She was holding on to me for dear life, completely silent. As we finally approached the window, we could see the flashing lights of the big red fire truck sent ahead to herald the glad tidings that Santa was not far behind.
My daughter loosened her grip on me and seemed relieved as she noted in her tiny two-and-a-half year-old voice, “Fire truck.”
But the tone in her voice was saying “Whew! It’s only a fire truck.”
Then it happened.
The heretofore unseen second vehicle began to emerge from behind some roadside trees. It illuminated the night with white and red strobe lights flashing on all the neighbor’s houses. My daughter’s death grip returned and her eyes were as wide as ever.
Finally, he arrived.
He came in blaze of Christmas glory accompanied by red and white spotlights and attended by elves. He majestically rode on a wooden sleigh pulled by one of the fire trucks with lights ablaze and sirens wailing. His red velvet suit shone with what seemed like its own dazzling light and his snow-white beard pierced the darkness with a brightness that would have made even Rudolph avert his gaze.
Through the closed window, we could hear him shouting, “HO! HO! HO! – Merry Christmas!!!”
Mommy and I were pretty excited. My daughter, however, sucked on her fingers anxiously, seeming to just be hoping this ordeal would be over and Mom and Dad would return to their senses and finish dressing her for bed.
Indeed, it was only when Santa’s entourage had moved well past the house, that my daughter’s grip loosened and she was able to look at me with the eyes of a survivor and say with a sigh with relief, “Santa.”
At first, her reaction puzzled me. I fully expected joyful anticipation when I got hesitation and even fear. What had happened?
Upon further reflection, I could remember I similar experience happening to me when I was significantly older than my daughter. One Christmas Eve, probably when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was in bed awaiting visions of sugarplums and Saint Nick’s arrival (which I was told, as all children are, would not happen until I was asleep).
I was dutifully trying to attain said state when my father burst into the room and scooped me up out of the bed and whispered, “Santa’s here!”
As I recall, my first thoughts were not those of excitement, either but rather trepidation in the face of seeing the reality behind the great Kris Kringle. What would he look like in our living room?
I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted know.
Much to my relief, it was not the real Santa Claus we were going to see, but rather, a Santa similar to the one my daughter had just seen, riding not a magical sleigh but a fire engine. At this age, I knew the difference between people dressed up as Santa and the “real thing.” So, the mystery remained safely hidden behind the symbols.
These experiences with Santa caused me to reflect even more deeply on Judgment Day and what it will be like.
By now you’re probably thinking, “What could a jolly old Christmas symbol have to do with Jesus Christ the Judge? “
In our “fluffy-Jesus” culture, many have a mistaken notion about what that Day will actually entail. In our arrogance, we assume that seeing Christ as he truly is will be something “warm and fuzzy.”
Although there will definitely be joy when we finally see our hearts’ greatest Desire, the Scriptures and even Jesus Himself refer to Judgement Day as the “great and terrible” Day of the Lord.
My point is not to ruin anyone’s happy Christmas but simply to point out that God is a force to be reckoned with and not one we can take lightly. We cannot rely on our own goodness and self-righteousness when we finally do meet Him face-to-face. It will not be a time when we will tell Him all the good things we did but a time when we are stunned into silence by Truth itself.
There will be no excuse, no blaming others and no lies. We will be stripped of our pretense before His Divine Justice. We will be utterly powerless and so taken by His Majesty that like my little daughter with Santa, we will want to hide ourselves and grab on to anything we can except that there will be nothing there to hold on to.
This is the great message of Christmas! No matter who we are or what we’ve done, Jesus Christ, the Immortal God-man left His Heaven to be born as the poorest of the poor in a barn full of animals in a backwater town in a backwater country.
We don’t need to fear being dazzled by His Glory because he comes to us today under the humble veil of Bread and Wine. When the “great and terrible Day” finally does come for us (and it will), we can be sure that One we received into our hearts in the Eucharist will receive us into His if we have placed our trust in Him.
We will cling to Him as my daughter clung to me.
And He will never let us go.