Saturday, December 24, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Defining Virtue

The “Santa Baby” songstress reminded Santa that she had been “an awful good girl” and “an angel all year”; but when it came down to describing what that meant, she crooned, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed. Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed.” Like many of us, she defined virtue by what she didn’t do rather than by what she actually did.

This kind of negative legalism seems to characterize too much of our religious ethics. We’re “good” because we don’t do anything “bad,” when actually we are bad because we don’t do anything good. The opposite of being “naughty” is to be “nice”—a word that interestingly enough comes to us from a Latin-Old French-Middle English tradition based on the concepts of being “ignorant, stupid, foolish, and lazy.”  That is a pretty good picture of a lot of contemporary expressions of "nice" ethical behavior.

The songstress continued, “Next year I could be oh so good, if you’d check off my Christmas list.” Much of our virtue is future-oriented like that: based on promises, anticipated actions, good intentions, and self-congratulations that flow from promises made rather than from delivering the goods. We want to get credit for what we intend to do rather than for our track record.

As a last resort, the songstress affirms, “I really do believe in you. Let’s see if you believe in me.” This kind of “belief” is not an expression of faith. It is a way of saying, “If you really exist, show me! I’ll believe in you if you fulfill my wishes. Give me what I want and what I ask for, and you’ll see how much I will believe in you. Show me the proof. Give me a sign. Give me tangible answers to my prayers. Prove to me that you are what you claim to be.” And it’s not just about Santa that we make those demands; we also make them of God. “If you exist, show me!”
Somewhere in my studies I recall faith being defined as walking as far into the darkness as the light we have will allow; and when the light fails, taking one more step. No faith is needed to walk in the light. “I really do believe in you” is not something we experience when we walk in the assurance of a lighted path. Our faith is exhibited when we are surrounded by darkness, uncertainty, doubt, and confusion. It is moving beyond the rational, the visible, the logical, the certain. It is letting go of ourselves, our strength, our confidence, and our demands for God. It is finding grace, hope, love, and assurance in the Unseen. It is flinging ourselves out into the unknown and trusting all to God. That kind of faith doesn’t grow out of our virtue, our strength, our power. If anything, it grows out of all our inadequacies. It is when our very living show, “I really do believe in You.”

Somehow that baby in a manger invites us in this season to step out in faith and say, "I really do believe in you--from the manger to the empty tomb."

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