The Rev. Peter Faass
I recently read a commentary on the classic holiday television program, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, that referred to Rudolf as the “savior figure” in the story. That piqued my interest. I don’t normally think of reindeer as having savior potential. But on reflection Rudolf clearly is the savior in the story. It certainly isn’t Santa who’s about as prejudiced as they come when he rejects Rudolf due to his shiny nose. And it’s not the reindeer flying coach who tells Rudolf’s friends to reject him because he’s different; which they do enthusiastically. It isn’t Donner, Rudolf’s father, who is so humiliated by his son’s difference he tries to make him into something he’s not.
Such is the level of prejudice and mockery Rudolf experiences it compels him to flee the North Pole. During his journey he discovers his self-worth, as he is befriended by others who have also been rejected for who they are. They become a band of mis-fits. In their travels they land on the Island of Misfit Toys; a place for toys considered not suitable gifts - like a Charlie in the Box, or a choo-choo train with square wheels - because they too are different, Rudolf commits to try and get Santa to see the misfit toys worthy of being gifts and loved by some girl or boy. When he goes back to the North Pole a terrible blizzard occurs; it so bad it compels Santa to cancel Christmas. But then Rudolf saves the day as he guides Santa’s sleigh through the blizzard with his glowing red nose, and he saves Christmas. But this is not his real savior role. He is the true savior figure in the show because he saves the misfit toys from their lack of self-worth and loneliness, and maybe most importantly, he saves the bigoted souls of those who initially hated him, including Santa Claus. Rudolf is clearly a savior figure. But he’s not the Savior.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the glorious Magnificat, that song of God’s redemptive love that Mary proclaims after the Annunciation. She sings:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
In that phrase, Mary makes a profound theological statement: God is our Savior. No one or nothing else is our Savior, that role belongs to God alone. To confess God as Savior means we will not look to some other power for salvation from the chaos of the world. Not to money, not to politicians or religious leaders, not to technology, not to gaining material possessions, or social progress, or education, not to the legislative process. Not even to Rudolf. None of these will deliver us, in and of themselves, from leading meaningless lives, or amoral secularism, or ignoring our Baptismal Covenant, and other forms of degradation rampant in our society.
To turn to any of these as being our savior is to engage in idolatry; which is one of the most egregious sins in the Bible. Now God, our true savior, may USE any of these items or processes – like God did Rudolf - to help achieve God’s reign, but the ultimate basis of our trust, hope and commitment should be clear: God is our Savior.
Proclaiming God as Savior is evidence of our authentic need of One greater than ourselves or our idols. It reminds us there is nothing we can do to obtain our salvation. That is God’s alone give.
We Christians call Jesus savior. But the truth is the term applies to God who we come to know more fully through Jesus. All that Jesus does in the Gospels to affect our salvation – calling for repentance, forgiving sinners, healing the sick, casting out demons, eating with outcasts, and dying a redemptive death – he does according to God’s purpose and intent. In Jesus the role and intent of God as Savior is made transparent.
Mary, proclaiming God as Savior is another of Luke’s counter-cultural statements. In that time idolatry and pagan worship were common. Romans were big practitioners of idolatry. And the Jews were always lured to it. It was a constant temptation that turned them away from God as their Savior, and to which the prophets consistently railed against. Mary’s statement stands in opposition to that idolatry.
We too are lured by idolatrous things. Money, possessions, status, power, class, education, our bigotries and prejudices. All these seductively try to convince us they can save us. Michael Cohen was clearly seduced by the allure of the false saviors of money, power and access to beautiful women that surrounded his client. That was idolatry that came to a bad end; as does all idolatry.
Whenever we believe that our idols have the power to save us, we stop practicing the authentic ways of salvation made transparent in Jesus. We stop following Jesus. And we effectively deny that God is our Savior.
Because it’s Christmas time, let me address a particular idolatry of the season: The alleged war on Christmas. This supposed war is promoted by those who believe that this holiday is under assault by the forces of the anti-Christ. They insist on only saying Merry Christmas as being acceptable, not Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings. They demand creche’s be displayed on public property, while denying other people’s religious symbols to be there. They demand that coffee cups be red and green with stars, evergreen trees, and reindeer emblazoned on them. To them doing these things is somehow salvific, indicative of authentic Christian belief and behavior. They are not. They are idolatry. People who believe these things stop practicing the ways of Christmas revealed to us in the Christ-child. They forget, or even deny that God, and God alone, is Savior.
The idolatrous alleged war on Christmas is a distraction, preventing us from fighting the real war on Christmas. The real war on Christmas can be seen in our treatment of all those Jose's, Maria's and Jesuses on our borders, fleeing certain starvation, or death from gang violence in their homelands. They are the Holy Families of our time. Denying them safety, warmth, food, shelter, and love is a war on Christmas. Ripping children from their mothers’ arms and caging them is a war on Christmas. Sending thousands of troops to our border with Mexico – stationing them away from family and friends during the holidays – for purely political reasons, is a war on Christmas. These practices show that we are the Herod’s of our day; murderous idolaters who deny God’s ways of salvation. They are the real war on Christmas.
The antidote to this war and all the idolatries of our lives is the child of Bethlehem, whose birth we are on the portal of celebrating. In him God has revealed God’s self as the only true Savior. As we prepare our hearts to receive that babe of Bethlehem once again, let our song be Mary’s song. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
And then let that truth be incarnated in our hearts, minds and souls. Only then will we know the true meaning of Christmas and the incomparable gift of our salvation.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.