We watched White Christmas last night, and today I am wondering just what it is that makes this film so enduringly endearing.
In a word, “Values.”
Yes, it’s nostalgic, simplistic, dated, and corny. The romantic angle is implausible. The plot concerns Christmas only in that it takes place over the holiday season. It doesn’t even endorse our culture’s obsession with consumerism and Rockwellian family gatherings. But it does remind us that those who have endured and survived genuine hardship most often have the best sense of perspective.
Because the main character of the film is not any one person. It is the relationship forged in the forced community of an army at war. These folks have been tried in the fires of world-threatening conflict, and the experience has taught them the value of friendship,loyalty,and respect.
So when a group of hoofers and grunts give up the comforts of a fireside Christmas Eve to say “thank you”, we understand. Maybe we even get a bit teary.
Unlike the fear-based, comfort-driven and often selfish motives of modern life, “White Christmas” celebrates real human values. We need that more than ever.
No one gets upset if you say “Merry Christmas” in our neighborhood. No one is offended if you don’t, either. It’s not that we don’t care about such things, it’s that we care enough to let folks be. We also do some pretty cool stuff around the holidays.
For example, someone has been doing some stealth decorating on a little pine growing in an empty patch of wooded lot on the side of the road. Each day, the little tree grows more festive. First a star, then some red garland and some icicles. last night someone added some battery operated lights, and today there’s a pile of ornaments on the ground at the base of the tree.
As it turns out, there is more than one “someone” involved. I surprised one of them when I stopped by to take a photo today. He confessed to placing the icicles on the tree, but wanted to give others the credit for everything else. “We just enjoy it,” he said. “Thanks for appreciating it
I do appreciate it! Not just for the holiday cheer, or the neighborhood beautification, but for the obvious joy of the effort. Folks care enough to do something good, and to do it anonymously.
That’s the real spirit of Christmas.
Today is the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe for whom I hold a special devotion. On this day, I am reminded of the importance of sensible evangelism, especially when ministering with indigenous peoples. The truth will be recognized and embraced by those who are seeking the holy. We need never impose our metaphors at the cost of theirs. Our job is to present the good news and to allow the holy spirit to present the resonances to those to whom we speak. Our Lady of Guadalupe wears the garb of the Americas, and in doing so has led millions to her son. There is a message and a lesson for us all in that .
I’ve been reading Claire North lately, especially the Game House novellas. Her premise revolves around the concept of gambling/gaming as a means of taking charge of one’s own life. Perhaps we wish to escape a violent or abusive relationship. Maybe what we really desire from life is the security of having power over a nation’s political and economic life. Maybe we are just plain bored. In every case, if we are shrewd, patient and willing, the House will provide a game for us. If we win, we grow more powerful; if we lose, we risk the loss of whatever we hold most dear. The House knows what we value and just how to prod us into making and accepting ever more risky wagers.
And if that is not sufficiently sinister, the House awards winners with the services, even lives, of lesser Gamers who have lost enough to have become indentured players. They are the game pieces awarded to those more adept at playing the Game.
Despite the House’s claims that every game is fair and balanced, and the ubiquitous presence of white robed “umpires” to assure that the rules are obeyed, everyone knows that the games are “fixed.” Still, the lure of success is addictive, and the house keeps upping the ante for those who believe that they can win.
But, as Obi Wan Kenobi once quipped, “there is always a bigger fish,” and every player is also a piece in someone else’s game.
The thing about good fiction, and Claire North/Catherine Webb’s fiction is excellent, is that it provides a mirror into our own lives. Along with affluence and the relative comfort provided by the pursuit of success, often come boredom, a craving for more, and an indifference to that fact that once we begin viewing life as a game, we run the risk of ceasing to be people. We all become pieces on the board.
Faith offers an alternative. The cost and promise of faith is liberation. True, it is a risky business to be free, for then we may no longer blame anyone else for our problems. But being free also provides an extraordinary gift – that of perspective – of knowing one’s place in the universe and of recognizing the ultimate poverty of using others to make ourselves feel better.
The truly free know that one of the surest ways to die is to live in dread of the arrival of a bigger fish. Such a zero-sum game mentality will ensure that the greater predator will always find and in the end, devour us. The truly free know that true love, power, and strength appear in the most unlikely places – even in mangers.
Advent offers us freedom. It invites us to step away from the game, and to enter into life.
This time of year we have to organize our lives around the possibility of being fogged in. Fog around here can be so dense that you literally cannot drive. And if you are out and suddenly encounter an unexpected patch, you’ll need a spotter in the passenger seat with the door ajar to tell you how close you are to the edge of the road. Sometimes it’s so bad that when you come to an intersection you have to listen for traffic before inching forward. Life on the edge of the Cumberland Bluff requires planning and cooperation.
It’s a bit foggy today on our little spot of the bluff – maybe a 6 out of 10. Not so much that I can’t drive, but enough to make me concerned about just how foggy it is between here and the market. And that is a problem because I’m out of coffee and the presence of coffee in my life is non-negotiable. I could call a neighbor to see how foggy it is where they are, or I could post on the community news page to ask about the traffic, but again, that would only tell me how bad it is in that particular spot. There is only one way for me to find out. I will have to venture forth into the fog…but carefully.
That’s a good metaphor for finding our path through life. We can rely on the witness of others, which is often invaluable but inevitably partial; or we can find out for ourselves. Eventually we realize that there are times when the only way we can get what we get to where we need to be is to step out the door and into the fog. In doing so, we may discover that the densest of fog dissipates just around the bend in the road. Of course, we also run the risk of stepping off the edge of the cliff! That’s why we need the perspective of others, balanced by our own experience. Because life is not as simple as we would like. Choices are difficult. Opinions are cheap and abundant. It is easy to lose our footing, and even easier to lose our way by abdicating responsibility for making our own choices.
I was an English major before I was a pastor, and sentimental as it is, I really like the writing of Charles Dickens. Mind you, no one would who’s actually read them would suggest that his works are overtly Christian. (He was most certainly influenced by the Social Gospel of 19th century Anglicanism, but he’s definitely not a proponent of orthodoxy.) Which is why I find it all the more interesting when film versions of “A Christmas Carol” give even so much as nod in the direction of the church – think Patrick Stewart stopping by the local parish for a few rousing carols before heading off to dinner with the family. For Dickens, the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge is clearly secular and humanist.
So, when in the final scene of the Albert Finney musical version of the tale, over-the-top prodigal Scrooge is transformed into Father Christmas and leads the parade of street urchins, tradesmen, bell ringers and Morris Dancers through the streets of London, we hardly need the insertion of vicars and choir boys to tell us what is going on. But the screenwriters and directors obviously thought it would provide a fitting touch, so they did.
Thereby providing us with a wonderfully ironic example of how when the church is out of touch with the people, the parade may just have to come to the church.
Two world views collide. And when the raucous celebration of Christmas, led by the greatest reprobate of all, confronts the precise piety of staid and proper worship, guess which prevails. It takes a moment or two for the choir boys to break ranks and join the parade, but they do. Even the nonplussed vicar manages a bit of modest (if out-of-tempo) participation. And, at least for a moment, the world is a better place.
Advent Afternoons: Because Sometimes Things Really ARE Complicate
My sister, Deborah Ruppe-Rogoff, sent me a link from the British Museum’s Waddesdon Bequest collection, last night and asked me to write about it. She was intrigued by the complexity of the Tabernacle’s artistry, and the obvious love, talent, and devotion of its creator. I agree.
I am also struck by a couple of other things.
First, this extraordinarily intricate and beautiful piece is Christian in its theme, but it came to the British Museum in the late 19th century as a bequest from a Jew. It had for centuries been part of private collections, but Baron Ferdinand Rothschild was not just a collector. He was also a philanthropist and realized that things of beauty should be shared as well as preserved. The medieval creator of this piece might well have hated the Baron for being a Jew. But a Jew and his family preserved the artist’s work and made a gift of it to the world. There’s a lesson there.
Second, in contemporary parlance, a Tabernacle is often a house of worship or a liturgical fixture which houses a sacred object (a Torah Scroll, the Reserved Sacrament, etc.) But in its origins the word described the place where the Shekinah/Presence of God dwelt. In fact, Scripture speaks of God living with, travelling with, in fact, “tabernacling” with the people.
So the word is not only a noun, describing the place where the Holy dwells, it is also a verb.
In a time when it is so tempting and so easy to objectify our faith, to remove it from the realm of action, or to permanently enshrine it in an object, a place, a person or an event, we need to remember that. Faith must never be static, it is active and mobile.
Third, this artifact is a thing of beauty, whose full glory is only revealed by opening it up, examining its intricacies and entering into its mystery. But that isn’t all. As the curator points out, you have to be able to put it back together again; and that must be done with care and attention to how the various parts fit and work together. Otherwise we do violence to it, and to its creator.
In Advent, we are invited to prepare a dwelling place for God. We set our crèches, and decorate our homes and churches. But we are also asked to prepare our hearts. Advent provides us with an opportunity to explore the divine intricacies of God’s presence in the world, and to open our hearts and minds to the miracle before us. We live in a world that desperately needs to be opened up, understood, and appreciated. But the task must be undertaken with the utmost attention to what we are doing, to whom we are doing it, and in whose name and on whose behalf we are acting.