Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 17, 2011

Bring the Silly! Advent Reflections on the Sacred & Profane

Pythons’ Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, 1970

I woke up today with a Christmas conundrum dancing in my head like a sugarplum (Ahem… I said dancing, not silly-walking, though conundrums do walk silly as well).

Here was my puzzle:

Is Santa Claus a harmless, jolly old elf, or an important Christian saint — one whose faith and charity we have abandoned in our shallow, juvenile modern fascination with the NYSE closing bell and those cute little jingle bells? Or is he both?

A classic shot of one of our more devilish saints.

On a personal level, and on a more year-round basis, the conundrum looks like this:

How can I expect anyone to take me seriously if I’m so consistently silly, juvenile or whimsical?

Conversely, how can I embrace my objectively unavoidable creative self — while still credibly addressing spiritually and classically serious matters like faith, contemplation, high art, education, social justice, philosophy and family dynamics.

What am I to do with myself? My Robin-Williams-randomness, my post-modern stream-of-consciousness diarrhea of the mouth (and keyboard), my shallow concern for topical relevance and increased web hit-count, my feeble and compulsive attempts at humor, my compassion for regular joes and janes, my focused attachment to the gospel, and my wildly associative, distractable mind (Squirrel!) .

Can I stop this torrent of contradictions? Can I balance the sacred and the silly? 

Apparently I can’t. Oh. Okay. Now that that’s settled, see you later…

But seriously, folks…

I can’t. For a man it is impossible. (As for women, they outdo me consistently, but that’s another story.) But to “get medieval on your ass” (as Marsellus the gangster once threatened in Pulp Fiction… and yes, I just swore in a post about God and Christmas), I’ll go to that classic biblical chestnut: “With God, all things are possible.” But let’s not leave it at that. Let’s look at this famous quote of Jesus in context:

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

 26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

 27Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[e] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.  [Matt. 19:23-30, NIV ]

Seen at an "in-between" roadside rest stop this past summer.

I want to be last, but I want to be first. It is uncomfortable in the eye of this needle. This “no room for a Savior” Advent tension — the tension between the high and the low, between the wealthy, learned elite and the wretched poor, between temporary comfort and eternal joy, between the guilty pleasure of glee (or even the tv show Glee, for that matter) and the permanent promise of glory — has been around forever.

So has the Advent tension between the “right now” and the forever, as Jesus mentions in that nice line above about the future “renewal of all things”. It’s the human condition, people. It’s all about waiting and hoping, but in the meantime still doing, and choosing, and loving what is, and wanting much more, and eating and drinking and being merry. It is what my favorite singer Bruce Cockburn calls The Burden of  the Angel/Beast.

"Homesickness", by Rene Magritte, 1940 (one of my five favorite works of art, in any medium, ever)

The blessing and challenge of Advent, even of winter itself, is all about homesickness. (I mention winter here only because the Northern hemisphere Europeans chose to conflate Jesus’ birthday with the “pagan” winter solstice holiday several centuries after His actual birth.) We each have a vague memory of a warm, safe, fruit-filled summery Paradise within us. But meanwhile we are stuck here in a dirty stable in Bethlehem, stuck In the Bleak Midwinter [a cool, lesser-known carol ], stuck halfway between that backwater hometown of Nazareth and a warm room at an inn. (Nazareth: a hell hole? Not exactly, but then again… Palestine ain’t been so safe the past six decades, if it ever was.) Furthermore, Bethlehem is also halfway between Nazareth and the City of God, Jerusalem. (Not to be confused with Cleveland.)

And to top it off… like Joseph’s family, we occasionally have to evacuate to “Egypt” for safety, toward some foreign land where our people were once enslaved, just to escape the oppression of the kings and queens of the present corrupt regime (be it a red state, a blue, or a bruised-and-battered purple one). Talk about indignities!

Advent. Waiting. Longing for a better home… it’s the story of my life.

Here’s the classic example for me, personally, of this challenge: I have a beautiful mess of a manuscript around here somewhere for The Santa Chronicles, an 80+ page memoir of my stint as a mall Santa Claus in the fall of 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11th bombings. Or is it a coffee table book? A secular humor book? A Christian devotional work? Or a serious academic history of St. Nicholas and all things Christmas?

See what I mean about being stuck? It’s all of the above. I find it hard to compromise. I know too much, and I want too much. Or I don’t want enough, and I settle for bad. The silly refuses to bow to the serious, and vice-versa.

The 3-4 publishing professionals that I have shown my book to thus far like it a lot, but so far they can’t touch it because it doesn’t fit neatly in their categories. It contradicts itself. From a strange sex joke about Bad Santa Mark’s momentary crush on a hot mama, it veers on the next page to a profound and very real encounter with that baby in the manger, and how He changed my life.

To boil it down to a practical statement of my problem, as my father used to say:

“Pick a lane!”

And yet– lacking a conventional personality, nor the gift of decisiveness, I am stuck in between, in the breakdown lane. I have an inordinately insecure need for affirmation from the Left and the Right, from the top and the bottom, from my long-dead immigrant salt-of-the-earth ancestors and my as-yet-unborn President of the United States granddaughter. I fear I will disappoint or at least confuse Dad, yet again.

Perhaps Advent lasts until I am gone. Probably does, in fact. Probably I will continue to change lanes , make U-turns, break down, rush ahead, flip-flop, offend and ingratiate, pit highbrow discourse against fart jokes, and frequently paint my way into strange corners until I pass on to the place where all this beautiful absurdity will finally make sense. (Again… that place is not Cleveland.)

Even that waiting and wondering is okay, though. The blessing of maturity is figuring out that the deepest truths and greatest relationships in life are not true and meaningful despite these paradoxes, conflicts and seeming contradictions, they are meaningful because of the contradictions. By grace, we fly in the face of those contradictions. We hold them together within us.

We are each of us a small miracle: a mysterious being, both sacred and profane. I am kitschy and mushy and silly, and yet rock-solid in my belovedness to God. I am alternately logical and absurd — not just in my mind, but in my very nature. Like the Divine Incarnation, Jesus himself, I am a wonderful occurrence which does not entirely make scientific sense. I am a man-child for whom all laws of science and reason were lovingly broken, when God came to earth in human form. [Rembrandt fans, click for details on the painting, below left, and a rare exhibition running thru Feb. 12, 2012 in Detroit.]

The Son of Man, 1964 (Magritte again)

The Son of Man, 33 AD (Rembrandt's "Young Jew as Jesus", c. 1656)

We are always in a state of Advent—  waiting in the tension of pregnancy and possibility. Our souls crave completion, unity, and peace, but we also have contradictory impulses that are inherently competitive, irrational, even animal.

Oh. Speaking of animals…


See? It happened again. I can’t help myself. Or I don’t want to, anyway. The “flesh” distracts one from rationally created ideals, and we go off the rails for a time, pursuing selfish, sometimes silly interests. We sidestep the hard reality of the journey to a smelly barn in Bethlehem. We prefer the Holiday Inn.

The “spirit”, meanwhile, intutively understands how the love of a man or a woman, or the laughter of a child, or the taste of a good single malt scotch, always contains a hint of that eternal bliss, the perfect love of the Creator, or that “home” that we all long to live in forever. But then we tend to go on and give in to temptation, chasing that longing to the point of addiction, or spoiling our children, or somehow or other corrupting what was good about the gift in the first place.

At which point we have to go back to that manger, admit we need saving by someone from outside this absurd, beautiful but broken system, and let THE Miracle Man change the whole picture.

It’s basic anthropology: survival of the fittest, except none of us is fit for much on our own without God’s grace. It’s evolutionary science in bed with the most ancient and holy instincts we have: to be our best and most community-minded selves, even while wrestling with our most self-involved instincts, … even healthy instincts like the desire to make life still better for our children, to love and be loved, to eat, drink and above all be merry.

So… I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again:

Be ye merry, as Christ is merry.


As for me, I’ll take the slow lane. We silly walkers tend to create traffic jams, and all those mall-bound shoppers get a bit ticked off and impatient. Just pass on the left, friend. I don’t mind. Like Saint Nicholas, Christ will come, on time. I will not miss him, and it matters not whether I’ve been “bad or good”. I will find my way home by the right road, though I knew it not while I was on my way.



  1. I just heard a trivia tidbit for Magritte fans, or Beatles fans: the band’s choice to use a green Granny Smith apple, and the company name Apple Records, was based on Paul McCartney’s love of the above painting, *Son of Man*. Pretty cool!

  2. […] But we live in an era when –either in the name of inclusiveness or in the name of profit– the spiritual teaching that is inherent or at least possible in these great stories is dumbed-down, or flat out removed. We’ve taken the tools for instruction out of the parents’ hands, or at least dulled them to only a limited usefulness. We have muddied the water with our unexamined consumerism, not to mention some strange, shallow, tacky ideal of “fun”. If you doubt me, take a look at what Christmas has become. […]

  3. Reblogged this on Marking Time and commented:

    Another of my Christmas classics from MARKing Time. Happy holidays, happy birthday, Jesus (even if you were not born in December really), and above all, …BRING THE SILLY!!!

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