Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Reel Meaning of Chirstmas

Now that the season of Blue and Red has ended, the season of Green and Red begins again. Every TV show will have a very special Christmas episode, and movies new and old all purport to tell the true meaning of Christmas, (which often turns out to be, “Family”, “Love”, “Giving” or “Diversity”). All wonderful ideals, but often vacuously presented, with little relation to the real “real meaning of Christmas” - God taking human form in the person of Jesus Christ. I must say about all this Christmas clutter - I love it all. Sure, much of this is so much Christmas froth, but there is a joy even in much of the froth. It takes us all out of our ruts and opens us to think in different ways while at the same time drawing us back to traditions of family and faith. One of our family traditions is to watch some of those Christmas films with vacuous messages every year. Here are approximately six films (I’m not including the animated specials) that get watched in our house every year. Each has a bit of truth. And perhaps, that bit of truth will help point to the full truth of Christmas. At least, that’s the justification I’m using this year.

1) White Christmas This musical is based on a song by one of America’s great song writers, Irving Berlin. If you trusted Mr. Berlin for your definition of holidays, then Easter is about new hats and Christmas is about snow. And this movie rarely gets any more profound. The film tells the story of two song and dance men (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) who met in the army during World War II. Back in the states, the two help the General they served under, a man who has fallen on hard times running an inn in Vermont. And, of course, Bing and Danny also fall in love (with Rosemary Clooney and Verna Ellen). For reasons beyond my comprehension, I see this film every year. My brother and I would watch this film late on Christmas Eve when the only other option was a worship service from the Vatican. My brother would often go to bed after the reunited troops salute the General. As I said, this is not a deep film, and Jesus is never mentioned. But there is one song in the film that is, in its own way, spiritually profound. “Count Your Blessings” begins in this way, “When you’re tired, and just can’t sleep, then count your blessings instead of sheep; and you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessing.” Christmas is a time when many stop to consider their blessings (a spiritually loaded word), which can lead to considering God’s goodness.

2) Another perennial in our household is Home Alone. If one used only this film to discern Christmas meaning, then the nativity has something to do with safe hyper-violence usually found only in the world of cartoons. It tells the story a young boy accidentally abandoned in his house in a wealthy Chicago suburb as his family goes to Florida for vacation. The boy, Kevin (Macaulley Culkin) takes on burglars that try to invade his home with a series of Rube Goldberg devices. But there is a wonderful scene in the film when Kevin goes to church and meets his neighbor, an old man that Kevin has feared for years (believing rumors that he was a mad killer). He strikes up a friendship with the man, who assures him that church is a place where everyone should always feel safe and welcome. May this be true of our church.

3) There have been at least four versions made of Miracle on 34th Street, but in our household we only tolerate the original, Academy Award-winning 1947 version with Edmund Gwynn as Kris Kringle, Natalie Wood as Susan and Margaret O’Sullivan as Susan’s mother. This is a tale of a sweet old man that believes he is Santa and the little girl who has been told that Santa does not exist. This is really a great film; well written and acted (particularly performances by Gwynn and Wood), funny and heartwarming. But it does teach one fairly awful piece of theology. Susan is told “Faith is believing in something, even when all evidence tells you it can’t be true.” Our society has come to accept this as part of the relativity of all truth. Many in western society now teach that any religion or philosophy is equally valid and the important thing is to believe in something. But that is not Christianity. Hebrews 11:1 teaches “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” I Corinthians 15:18 says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” We do not believe Christianity without proof. The life of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and raised again is the historical, factual basis. If Jesus is not really God’s Son who entered the world, our faith is worthless.

4) OK, I‘m going to be honest here. This is one of the films I watch every Christmas season, Die Hard. It is an ultra violent film with obnoxious language, and I am not recommending it to anyone else. But I just love the story of John MaClane, New York cop, who rescues his wife from terrorist kidnappers on Christmas Eve. But I don’t think it hurts to remember at Christmas time the reality of evil (in this film personified by terrorist Hans Gruber [Alan Richter], ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten villains of film history). King Herod, the baby killer, is a part of the Christmas story. And we needed someone who seemed like an ordinary person, but was really a hero, to save us. That would be Jesus.

5ish) Scrooge(s). I know Charles Dickens’ book is A Christmas Carol, but my two favorite versions of the story are both called, Scrooge. We usually watch multiple versions of this Dickens classic every year, but we always come back to these two. One version is the 1951 version, with Alastair Sim in one of the best Ebenezer Scrooge performances. Dickens’ story comes much closer than any of the other films mentioned here in telling the real Christmas story. It demonstrates the need for repentance of sin, the importance of giving, and even refers directly to Christ’s birth. I also like the musical Scrooge from 1970 with Albert Finney. I’ve always found it interesting that this version is bold enough to show the ultimate consequence of a life of sin is not becoming a ghost wandering the earth, but hell itself. (But it drives me crazy when Scrooge sings after the visitation of the spirits, “I’ll thank the world, for the moment when I was able tobegin again”. I’m fairly confident that Dickens would have had Scrooge thanking God rather than the world.)

6) It’s a Wonderful Life. Directed in 1946 by Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Watch it without fail every year. Not only my favorite Christmas film, but perhaps my favorite film. George Bailey (Stewart) runs a Savings and Loan and one Christmas Eve a bank auditor finds funds are missing. Facing prison, George contemplates suicide, considering his life worthless. An angel shows him what the world would have been without him, and he realizes he has had a wonderful life after all. This film could really take place any time of year. (I’ve often puzzled about why George’s daughter Zuzu attends school on Christmas Eve Day.) But we do get to hear one of my favorite carols, “Hark, the Herald” and all gather around the Christmas tree at the film’s end. And though the birth of Jesus is not referred to directly, it is the prayers for George Bailey and heavenly intervention that save his life.

It isn’t a big leap, after considering what the world would be like without George Bailey, to consider what the world would be like if Jesus had not been born. And see that Jesus is the One who makes a wonderful life possible. Without the birth of Jesus, there would be no Christmas films, TV specials, Carols, nativity scenes, Christmas cards, Christmas presents, or any of the other profound and simple joys of this season. There also would not be hope of meaning in this life, or the life to come. So as they say in the movies, “God bless us, everyone”, and “A happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night”.

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