Teatime, in England, the week before Christmas, years ago. The hostess, graciously entertaining a family that included a young child, a boy, perhaps four years old. As is perhaps inevitable, the conversation comes round to Father Christmas (Santa to my American friends).
"Will Father Christmas be coming to your house next week?"
The boy looks nervous, uncertain. "Maybe."
"Will he bring you presents?"
"I don't know." His lip is trembling.
"Have you been good?"
The boy bursts into tears. Embarrassed, his mother sweeps him into her arms and the little incident is over.
But it has stayed with me. Kids know the deal: if you are good, you get the stuff; if you aren't, you get the lump of coal. But can you be sure that you've been good enough? Is anyone good enough? Maybe that over-sensitive four-year-old was wrestling with that ultimate question.
The difference between Jesus and Santa is this: Before sending his Son, God did not say to humanity "Have you been good?" The angel did not say to Mary, "Have you been good?". The shepherds did not hear the celestial message, "Peace on earth and good will to those who are good." If Jesus was like Santa, his gifts would not have been bestowed. Because, no, there is not enough good in any of us to deserve his coming.
But we are not asked whether we deserve it. We are empowered to welcome it. As the Prologue to John's Gospel (itself a profound meditation on Christmas) says, "Of his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace".