Unlikely romances and dysfunctional families are the lifeblood of Christmas movies. They have their place, I suppose but they become progressively less interesting after the first half dozen or so.
This year Cheryl and I have been searching for more meaningful Christmas movies and we have found our way to some classics. A Wonderful Life is one of those of course, and we were pleasantly surprised by The Bishop’s Wife.
But nothing comes close to Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. It seems that the chilling misadventures of Mr. Scrooge have been put to film at least 135 times! There is a silent version, a muppet version, a Jim Carrey version, plenty of animations, and on and on. Why, there is even a christian variation called By God’s Grace which started weakly but ended up making me want to be a better person.
Scrooge discovered a simple but essential truth. He came to see that joy was tied to having a purpose outside of himself.
What I am discovering is that the good movies, the really meaningful ones, all have a common theme: selfishness makes us crabby but generosity brings us joy.
“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”¹
The manger scene is a piece of Christmas tradition that has been appearing at christian churches for centuries. Francis of Assisi is credited with assembling the first one way back in 1223. Those who think having a nativity with live animals is awesome marketing should know that the original version, eight hundred years ago, included an ox and a donkey.
For the rest of us the nativity is a fairly simple arrangement: fake animals, some barn boards, an ‘X’ style manger, bails of hay, a couple shepherds, three wise men. A prominent star is important, as are Mary and Joseph, in that order.
Of course a baby Jesus is essential. A fake doll is better than a real baby because you can just put it in its place and forget about it – kind of like Jesus.
A real baby is a nice prop for a Christmas Eve church service. Unfortunately that’s not practical when you take into account the high likelihood of the baby scream-crying for an hour or filling the room with gag-inducing aromas. Plus there is always the concern that the adorable infant might divert people’s attention from the real reason for Christmas – the pastor’s homily.
Yet in spite of our efforts, the Bible isn’t particularly concerned with the warm, fuzzy details of Jesus’ birth. The historical writings don’t cooperate with our idealized manger scenes. Animals aren’t found in the original story and the wisemen/magi/astrologers didn’t follow the star until much later. In fact, many generations passed before christians even thought about celebrating the human beginnings of the Son of God.
What we do know is that the events of Jesus’ birth stimulated a sense of joy for the main characters: the reflections of the parents, the excitement of the shepherds, the worship of the wisemen all exhibit deep joy.
Why were these insignificant people overwhelmed with joy? Obviously I don’t know, but I think it might have had to do with being part of God’s larger plan on earth. Finding purpose outside of themselves.
The New Testament word for joy is chara which is from the roots chairo (calm delight) and charis (grace) and describes a confident inner gladness because of God’s favour. In this sense, joy isn’t so much an ecstatic emotion as it is an inner feeling of wellness. It’s a wellness that comes from being in lock-step with the Creator.
Joy happens when we become an extension of God’s goodness and grace in the physical world – his hands, feet, voice. His love.
What would our world be like if christians could have the revelation that Scrooge’s nightmares gave him? Perhaps our money would go to the needy first instead of to another self-important ministry project. Maybe we would listen to those who claim abuse, racism, discrimination, instead of doubting or disparaging them. We might even buy a coffee or a meal for someone we don’t know.
A long time ago a christian woman shared with me that her will was worded to leave her entire estate to the local church (not mine). I didn’t agree or disagree – the decision was hers after all.
But her next sentence chilled me when she said, “I mean, who else am I going to leave it to?”
Did you sense the smallness? The insular thinking? The willing ignorance?
Here was a christian who didn’t seem aware there were organizations that cared for the hungry, poor, homeless or sick. She didn’t know any neighbours, friends, relatives in her community who could have benefitted from some help.
She was so convinced about the importance of getting to the next life that she was unaware of the importance of her place in this one. So now she had seemingly resigned herself to an easier, less joyful choice in the same world Jesus came to bless.
We literally can’t walk down the street or turn on the TV without seeing someone who needs help, yet we find it so difficult to notice. I’m not sure if we are responsible for our narrow vision or if it is the system that teaches us where to look. Or both.
But consider the directionality of the Christmas story: God coming down, looking for us, reaching out. God’s heart oriented toward us. He loved us by seeing, hearing, touching, experiencing, and helping people wherever he found them.
The shepherds and the wisemen experienced joy when they realized that the heavenly exists for the earthly – that every person and every moment is holy.
The joy of being with. It’s a changed-heart thing.
It’s true, you know, all God ever wanted was our hearts. I’ll leave it to you to decide what that means but I can assure you it gives us the most important, joyful work there is.
Scrooge would understand.
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¹ Matthew 2:10, NRSVA