Jesus, Jacob, and the Polar Express

We do Santa Claus at our house.

There. I admitted it. Online, in a Christian blogpost to be viewed by the cyber SWAT teams of theology police. And you can take away my John Calvin signature Reformed Theology card but it still wont change the fact that the guy in the red robe has a place in our home during the Advent season. Actually, it isn’t just during Advent—it’s all year long.

We don’t even call him St Nicholas, the one name that seems to put most of the hard-core Santa-demonizing-church-curmudgeons into a neutral state of “Well, at least you are referring to the Christian Santa Claus.”

We call him “Ho-Ho.” Sometimes “Ho-Ho-Ho.” At least that is how Jacob, my 20-year-old non-verbal son with autism, refers to him (and almost any other older gentleman sporting a white beard).

I suppose we could/should discourage this. After all, the last thing we want to do is take the emphasis off of Jesus during the Advent season and place it onto a pseudo savior with counterfeit omniscient-omnipresent capabilities, whose list checking message is practically the anti-gospel.

Not to mention the fact that Jake has a severe, almost bi-polar, love-fear relationship with this “Ho-Ho." There are times when just the mention of his name fills Jake’s face with excitement like we have never seen before. And there are times when fear of “the man in red” turns his face white and sends him running to hide.

But before the theology police begin to judge too quickly, allow me to show you the importance of this Christmas character through the eyes of a man-child who, even in his very limited understanding, loves Jesus with a joy each of us would do well to emulate and envy.

Jake doesn’t talk, so when an actual word comes out of his mouth, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory to God. He only communicates a few words verbally. We cherish each one: “Momma, Dad-da, Maw-Maw, Granddad,” and—you guessed it, “Ho-Ho.” So, to taking Santa Claus away from my son would mean taking away 20% of his vocabulary, unless you count the most recent word that spontaneously popped out of his mouth just a few weeks ago when I opened a can of cashews and spilled them all over the kitchen floor, “Nut!” (Although he could have been referring to his dad.)

Aside from encouraging his vocabulary, and at the risk of sounding heretical—God knows whether we are or not—we also think there could be a deeper, possibly more spiritual, meaning behind our son’s fearful fixation of the man in red.

We will never know, this side of eternity, Jake’s full understanding of Jesus—who he is, what he has done, etc. But we know he loves the Lord. Just ask him. Or better yet, worship with him. I often envy the shear unashamed excitement and love Jake brings when he comes to worship the One True King.

I have only seen my son display this kind of excitement in one other place—the movie theater or in front of a DVD player while watching “The Polar Express.”

I know. I probably just made a few people cringe with disappointment, but bear with me.

The animated movie is basically about a little boy’s crisis of childlike faith as he begins to grow older, finding himself at the precipice of unbelief. This may be his last Christmas as a believer in Santa Claus. He is picked up on Christmas Eve by a mysterious train and a no-nonsense conductor (Tom Hanks) that takes him, and a group of other children on the same faith journey, to the North Pole.

The train ride is filled with wonder, awe, excitement and danger. Strangely, the only part of the movie Jake gets excited about is the very end when “the man in red” finally makes his grand entrance (and it is grand!) to the shouts and praises of myriads of little people in a golden city. And he comes bearing gifts for all who believe.

It is during this scene that Jake falls to pieces. I’ve never seen anything like it. He laughs and cries and claps and sighs. And now that he has the movie on DVD he goes straight to that one scene and plays it over and over and over again. Hundreds of times! Play, rejoice, pause, rewind, repeat. He has continued this cycle of joy so often, that for the past five or six Christmases we have had to replace the worn out movie each year.

My point being: When Jake hides in fear from the mall Santa sitting on his throne or jumps up and down in excitement at the mention of his name, or streams tears of joy as he watches that climactic scene in The Polar Express, he isn’t excited for the latest version of Xbox or IPhone. He is excited for the man in the red robe. He longs for his presence, not his presents. He is simultaneously thrilled and exhilarated and afraid and cautious and filled with unspeakable joy, just to be near him.

The climactic scene in the movie The Polar Express, combined with the anticipation in my son’s eyes, remind me of another scene I myself wait for with an emulated, unspeakable joy:

“After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God!  Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.  

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 19-21)

This is the scene I keep playing over and over in my mind. Sometimes it is so vivid that I am beside myself with anticipation. Play, rejoice, pause, rewind, repeat.

I honestly do not know what is going on in Jake’s mind as he watches the climactic conclusion from the Polar Express or when he emotionally comes undone at the mall as we approach the man in the red robe. But is it possible that my son, in his simplest understanding and longing for Jesus, is playing and replaying another scene? Instead of being in awe of Santa Claus coming to town, perhaps the “HoHoHo” spoken from the mouth of a disabled man-child—who desperately loves God—echoes with silent joy,

“Surely I am coming soon. Amen. Come quickly Lord Jesus!”