In A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Sally asks her older brother Charlie Brown to help her write the letter she wants to send to Santa Claus. After some pleasantries asking after Santa's life and health, Sally gets to the heart of the matter:
I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want ... Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?Charlie Brown is understandably disgusted that even his little sister has succumbed to the materialism and commercialization of Christmas which so troubles his soul. After all, the year was 1965, and tens and twenties then would be worth more than fifties and hundreds in today's buying power!
Yet, more than that, we can see something more spiritually troubling in Sally's request for cash. In seeking money, Sally is refusing the joy of receiving a gift, something which, precisely as gift, lies in the power of the giver to determine, and not in herself. On the surface, Sally masks her request with an appearance of virtue. She claims merely to want to make it "easy" on Santa, less complicated. In fact, Sally, and most others who want cash for Christmas, have their desires rooted in fear, the feat of receiving what they do not expect. What looks like a humble motive to avoid trouble for the giver turns out truly to be an assertion of control on the part of the one who receives.
We see this same dynamic, but of greater import than a letter to Santa Claus, in the words of Ahaz. Like Sally, Ahaz hides behind a pretense of piety. He claims that his not asking a sign comes merely from the righteous motive not to put the Lord to the test. However, the truth of the matter is that Ahaz does not want to lose what he takes to be his control over the situation in Judah. To request a sign would mean to set aside one's own plans and projects and yield instead to God's priorities. Asking for a sign for the Lord means letting God's initiatives come first.
Grace, whether in the trivial form of a Christmas gift or in the most profound sense of the coming of Emmanuel, is always unsettling and decentering. A true gift is never the result of our own planning. It sets us, as it did the Blessed Virgin Mary, on a new and unlooked for course in life. More often than not, the coming of grace in this life, of God's gifts, sets more and deeper responsibility on the recipient while, at the same time, asking him to admit more and more that it is not he, but God, who is in charge.
As Christmas approaches, we must be aware of what we truly ask for when, in our prayers and song, we seek the grace, the gift of the Word made Flesh. Are we, in these last days before the celebration of Christ's Nativity, still clinging to our own projects and plans, or are we ready to take our stand with the Maid of Nazareth? Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.