The story goes that, in 1955, a US department store set up a phoneline for children to call Santa. Unfortunately, there was a misprint in the adverts, an incorrect digit in the phone number that lead to a bunch of kids inadvertently calling the Continental Air Defense Command (now NORAD) asking how long it would be before they received their presents. Colonel Harry Shoup, having the presence of mind to realise what was happening, told those calling that no, he wasn’t Santa, but he knew where Santa was. And so NORAD’s tradition of tracking Santa was born, although nowadays it uses satellites, computer generated imagery and CF-18 fighter jets. Key to it all is Rudolph’s nose; it apparently gives off a heat signature similar to a guided missile. You can watch his progress around the world, including the sleigh buzzing the International Space Station. Which is pretty cool when you think about it.
Of course, we don’t all have the resources of the US military to track Christmas. It’s strange though, it shouldn’t be hard to find – my street is probably channelling enough electricity to power NASA for a month, and the shops have been crazy and claustrophobic, and everyone’s credit cards have taken a hammering. Tracking Christmas should be a doddle, after all, there’s about forty special editions of Emmerdale being broadcast over the next few days. You’d think the whole thing would be on the radar, but no, it’s just Santa (who has just passed Neuschwanstein in Germany, by the way).
At its heart, at least in the Christian sense of the festival, Christmas is all about God becoming man, showing the world what it’s like when God has physical hands and feet and a voice; Incarnation with a capital I, God entering into time and space and living life as a human being, and Bethlehem is where it starts, where we start tracking Christmas. It flies off beyond that; into Boxing Day and the leftover turkey, into the New Year and all the resolutions we don’t keep. The story of Jesus starts 2000 years ago, and the whole thing still has ramifications for today. Maybe you believe that. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re not sure what you believe. Maybe it’s all of those, depending on what day of the week it is. For my part, I do believe that what happened in Bethlehem echoes down the ages, still has something to say to us among the iPods and the speed cameras and the multiple episodes of doom-laden Eastenders.
The problem, though, is seeing it. There’s a U2 song that goes “Hear it every Christmas time/But hope and history don’t rhyme/So what’s it worth?/This peace on Earth?” And there’s something to that; the world’s a mess, and it’s easy to write off Christmas as a nice little fairy story about a baby and shepherds and angels and donkeys and wise men. Maybe that would be an easier approach to take.
But that’s all window dressing; while I’m not saying it’s unimportant, it’s less important than the underlying theology of it – God becoming flesh, God moving into the neighbourhood. How does that work? Miracle of the virgin birth? That’s easy, the miraculous is simple, the idea of Incarnation – now that’s difficult.
Because that’s how God works – through incarnation. And it’s a plan that lies open to accusations of cop out or inefficiency or hypocrisy, but there it is. We should be able to track the Story throughout the year, throughout history, follow its footprints, trace its heat signature. But mostly we track it in a darker sense, in the tension between what God inaugurates at Christmas and what we actually see on the news, and part of that tension is due to the fact that God chooses to work through us, messed up and messy individuals. We have access to the Godhead, all that power, and yet, quite often, we suck.
So maybe that’s got to be a resolution for 2007 – for me personally, certainly. I want to be able to track Christmas throughout the year because I can see its traces everywhere I look, glowing in the night, pinprick candlelight in dark places. I want to be able to see the Incarnation because it makes a difference in my life, not in terms of religion, the world doesn’t need more religion, but because it’s about how God’s at work, about how the story of Jesus actually matters, even when we think we’re too advanced and intellectual and ironic to hear it. And I want to track the story when it intersects with the story of Easter, which is later in the year but fundamentally linked, bookends to a life that is all about Incarnation. Christmas matters. Because as Rob Bell said in his talk today, it’s all about hope and forgiveness and second chances. And that’s intense.
I’ve rambled. I’m tired and I want to get some sleep, because tomorrow’s Christmas Day and it’s important. But it’s not just tomorrow. It’s Boxing Day, and it’s 2007, and it’s all the days and months and years to come. And while NORAD will lose sight of Santa in a few hours, we still need to track the story.
Happy Christmas. Have a rocking New Year. And let’s see what cool stuff the next twelve months have in store.