Breaking and Entering: Santa Claus and the Perilous Adventure of Christmas

(Image credit: IndieWire)

There's a moment near the beginning of Klaus, a 2019 animated film about the origins of Santa Claus, that I can't stop thinking about.

Here's the scene: Jesper, a skinny and anxious post officer, is standing in the snow with a package in hand, peering through a foreboding iron gate at an even more foreboding house, and wondering to himself, How on earth did I end up here? Jesper's life used to be awesome - a comforting cycle of naps and silk sheets and catered meals and servants answering his every whim. But that was before his Postmaster General father decided to teach him some discipline, exiling him to the Arctic port town of Smeerensburg and saddling him with the impossible task of delivering 6,000 letters there.

Jesper quickly discovered that the citizens of Smeerensburg had utterly no use for letters. Founded on a frozen wasteland at the edges of the maps, Smeerensburg had long been the battleground of two ceaselessly warring families - the Ellingboes and the Krums. For the town's inhabitants, hating members of the opposing clan was a normal part of life. Bludgeoning each other with frying pans and rolling pins, dropping flower pots on each other's heads, pushing each other off of ledges, and destroying each other's houses were all common everyday activities. For months, Jesper had no opportunity whatsoever to deliver a single letter. That is, until he met Klaus - a hulking, reclusive, axe-wielding woodsman with a barn full of handmade toys. Klaus had found a drawing made by a boy who lived in a foreboding house, and wanted Jesper to deliver a gift to him. Discouraged and defeated, Jesper wanted nothing more than to pass up the offer and leave town for good. But Klaus was not a man to be argued with, and Jesper was terrified of what the woodsman's massive hands and axe could do to him if he refused...

Standing outside the gate of the house, his eyes roving from the bear traps on the lawn to the spikes studding the roof to the guard dogs slumbering and slobbering on the porch, Jesper starts blurting out all the excuses he can muster. Without saying a word, the huge figure behind him pries apart the iron bars, lifts Jesper through, and then bends the bars back into place. The noise wakes the dogs, who come hurtling toward the terrified mailman with their fangs bared. Jesper braces for his impending death. Suddenly, Klaus stomps on a board beneath Jester's feet. The impact launches the skinny postman skyward in a perfect arc, through the cold night air and down the chimney of the house.

You see where this is going? As the lights of the house come on and its disgruntled owner storms down the stairs, Jesper delivers Klaus' package and frantically unbolts the door from the inside. He ducks outside just as a gun blast splits a hole in the door. Klaus pulls him into the shadows, shooing away the attack dogs with an imposing glance. The enraged house owner dashes out the front door with a still-smoking blunderbuss. Meanwhile, Klaus and Jesper creep to the window of the house and peek through. In the dim candlelight, a little boy begins unwrapping the mysterious package. He gasps in wide-eyed wonder at the beautiful handcrafted toy inside. Intrigued by the scene, Jesper glances at Klaus. The old man's gaze is fixed on the boy. Illumined by the fire, his eyes shine with the same wonder and delight visible on the child's face.

You can guess what comes next. As the legend of Klaus' mysterious gift spreads, the children of Smeerensburg flock to Jesper's post office to mail their own requests. Gradually, a partnership forms between the postman and the woodcarver. Klaus' handcrafted toys bring Jesper the letters he desperately needs to meet his quota. In return, Jesper provides Klaus with a way to smuggle his toys into the lonely and shuttered houses of Smeerensburg's children.

I won't say anything more about the movie's plot, because there are some great surprises along the way. You can find the film on Netflix if you're interested. I'm not usually a fan of Christmas movies (except for It's a Wonderful Life), but this film won me over with its beautiful animation, humor, and heart. In particular, that first scene of Jesper breaking and entering with Klaus' gift moved me deeply in a way I wasn't expecting.

The Christmas season means different things to different people. For some, it's a time to savor nostalgia and appreciate beauty. For others, it's a frantic shopping spree in the wake of Black Friday. For many, it's an opportunity to gather with friends and family and celebrate togetherness. For those who have lost loved ones, the holiday can be a time of sorrow - a painful season of longing for what was. For Christians - Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike - Christmas is a season of remembrance. As we give gifts to one another, we remember God's greatest gift to us: Jesus the Christ, the long-awaited Savior sent to rescue humanity from sin and death.

As crazy as it sounds, Christians actually believe that this baby, who was born in a cattle trough to an impoverished Israeli woman, visited by outcast shepherds, and raised among a subjugated and oppressed people, was actually God in human flesh. Long ago, the God who the Israelites knew as Yahweh had promised to bless the nation of Israel and, through them, all the nations of the world. But there was a problem: God's chosen people didn't hold up their end of the bargain. Their leaders refused to listen to God's commands, exploited the poor and vulnerable members of their society, and ultimately destroyed their own nation by foolish alliances with neighboring kings. Over time, the glorious kingdom of Israel became a smoldering ruin. Its people began to despair, questioning whether their God had abandoned them. Yet amazingly, in spite of their rebellion, Yahweh's determination to bless Israel remained unchanged. Israel's prophets foretold that a Savior would come one day, born in the tiny town of Bethlehem. This Savior would bring redemption for both Israel and the rest of the world - not merely liberation from physical struggles and oppressors, but a deeper rescue from the sin and evil that were devouring humanity from the inside like a cancer.

The stage was set. The people of Israel waited, yearned, and stoked the flames of their hope, desperate to keep the blaze alive. Yet nothing could have prepared them for what was coming. In history's greatest plot twist, the infant born to heal our broken world turned out to be the Maker of that world. The God who made the stars had come to earth, put on human skin, and chosen to walk alongside his people. Like Jesper the postman, Christ had left a place of comfort and security to make an icy, uninviting town his home. Ultimately, the God who humanity had ignored and disgraced chose to stand in our place, to take the punishment that we deserved for our sin upon himself, and to suffer and die so that we might live. Because of Christ's self-sacrificial death, we have all been freely offered forgiveness that we could never earn and eternal life that we could never deserve.

What on earth could have possessed the Creator of the cosmos to enter our dark and dangerous planet as a vulnerable child? What on earth could have motivated him to endure torture and death on a Roman cross? What on earth indeed. The answer, of course, is us. He did it for us, for you and for me. His motive was self-giving love. John 3:16 puts it this way: "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him." Jesus, the Son of God, was a gift from God to humanity. He was a way for us to become who we were always meant to be, a way to fix the mess that we've made of our lives, and a way to restore our broken relationship with God. This baby born in a manger was the reason people started celebrating Christmas in the first place. After Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, he urged his followers to spread the news of his sacrificial death and resurrection life to the ends of the world: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

This is why a short scene in an animated movie about Santa Claus stopped me in my tracks this Christmas. Believe it or not, I struggle to share the story of Jesus Christ - that utterly amazing story that I just described to you - with others. I believe that this story can heal broken hearts. I believe that Jesus Christ is the only hope for our broken world. Jesus himself made this claim: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Yet, all too often, when the opportunity to share this story arises, the fear of what others might think or say in response prevents me from saying what I know I should say. I'm afraid of making people uncomfortable and afraid of being uncomfortable myself. Sometimes, the ways that people respond to the difficult assertion that Jesus is the only way to God are downright hostile (Christians in many countries are ostracized, imprisoned, or killed for sharing their faith publicly). Like Jesper the postman, I balk at the prospect of delivering the package that I've been entrusted with. I start making excuses: It's too dangerous. Look at the bear traps on the lawn, the guard dogs on the porch, the spikes on the roof! Too much could go wrong. What if I fumble over my words and look stupid? What if I alienate someone or cause tension in a friendship? Why does it have to be that person who's so dang hard to talk to? What if people see me differently? What if they see no value at all in this thing that has given me so much hope? By the time I've reasoned myself out of it, the moment is gone.

Yet, there have been other moments when I have told the story. There have been moments when I've chosen to speak up and have given a fumbling explanation of what Jesus' death and resurrection mean for the world. When that has happened, when the gift has been unwrapped and seen for what it is and then accepted, I've watched with wonder like the skinny postman at the window. I've seen the good news of Jesus Christ do its work on a heart. Honestly, it's the most beautiful thing in the world. And do you know why Jesper's story gets me? The wonder that I feel when someone encounters the grace of God is just a fragment of the delight that God feels every time it happens. Luke 15:7 puts it this way: "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent." Like Klaus, God the Father stands just outside our window, yearning for us to take his gift and longing to witness our joy when we do. Like Klaus, he knows that the joy of the gift is worth the perilous adventure of breaking and entering. And get this: although he could do all of the work by himself, he lets us deliver the package. He invites us to watch at the window with him and share his joy. What a gift we have been given! What a tale we have been told! How can we not share something this good?

While most of us (hopefully) aren't dropping flowerpots on each other's heads on a daily basis, our world can be every bit as gray and frosty as Smeerensburg. Our towns are littered with smoldering grudges and petty feuds, fractured by distrust and prejudice, and filled with folks who hide in their shuttered houses. Yet, whether we like it or not, those of us who have chosen to follow Christ have become the post officers assigned to these towns. We've been given the perilous mission of delivering good news in an often harsh and hostile world. We've been challenged to steal past the bear traps and guard dogs and spikes, to slip through the defenses that people have built to protect themselves from truth and hope, to reach the human heart and use the chimney if necessary. Sure, it's dangerous. But like the axe-wielding woodsman, the Giver of the gift is by our side all the way. He can't wait to see people open his package. Don't you want to be there to watch?

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