Christmas has all the best stories (and OK, to be fair, some of the worst schlock. If in doubt, sample some of the unknown Christmas movies on Netflix this year — you’ll see.) There’s a little bit of everything in a Christmas flick: magic, longing, delight, sometimes tragedy, always wonder, more often than not hilarity. Will Farrell and Chevy Chase will surely be playing on a continual loop all December, competing for the stupid hat prize and making us spew hot chocolate out of our noses.
One of our family’s favorite Christmas movies is The Polar Express. I have to admit, when it first came out I wasn’t enamored with the weird Tom-Hanks-as-cartoon thing they have going on, but the original Chris Van Allsburg book was brilliant, and the story is great. Against a backdrop of classic train and frosty snow, we meet this skeptical kid at the “critical age.” Is this the year he gives up on the whole idea of Santa?
Our young hero meets a hobo on the train, if you remember, and they have the following conversation on the speeding locomotive’s rooftop:
Hobo: What exactly is your persuasion on the big man, since you brought him up?
Boy: Well, I – I want to believe.
Hobo: But. But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path… Seeing is believing, am I right?
Is it a dream? Everything about the scene is dream-like — from the leering hobo to the midnight train itself. It can’t be real, right?
But it is real, at least in the context of a Christmas movie. And the journey continues over mountains and frozen seas, all the way to Santa himself. Seeing Santa is the main event, the reason for the kids’ frenzied excitement. And our little skeptic wants to see him. But while all the other children cheer, our boy can’t see. Try as he may, he can’t catch a glimpse. And when an elf shakes the sleigh bells, he can’t hear it, either.
Finally, he takes a deep breath. It flickers across his face — he is making a choice that flies in the face of logic. Tentatively, he picks up a bell, whispers, “I believe.”
WE ALL WANT TO BELIEVE.
The Kindly Conductor sums it up: Sometimes seeing is believing, and sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.
So what’s the most real? Not, certainly, Santa Claus. But the most real story, the most important one, is sometimes the hardest to believe.
Of all the stories, this one’s the best. It’s achingly beautiful. Like all the others, it has a pinch of tragedy, a sprinkle of hilarity, a huge dose of wonder. It has a crazy cast of characters:
- A pregnant teenager with a wild story
- Her skeptical fiancé
- Some scruffy shepherds
- A trio of foreign astrologers
- And even a heavenly choir
It’s chock full of impossibilities, every bit as farfetched as a magical toy workshop at the North Pole. For Pete’s sake, it has a virgin birth, a huge new star, supernatural messengers and ancient prophecies.
How could a story this crazy possibly be true?
A few years back Sara Groves put out a great Christmas album with a mix of old carols and some new tunes. In one of the new ones, she sings,
In your heart you
Hope it’s true
Though you hold no expectation
In the deepest part of you
There’s an open hesitation
We all want to believe. It’s hardwired in us, the desire to connect with something bigger. Humans have this ridiculous capacity for wonder (it gets us into all kinds of wide-eyed trouble, but it’s also what makes us great storytellers.) Across the ages, across all cultures, we love a good tale. It’s like we’re meant to thirst for what is beautiful and true.
Do you ever stop to wonder why we want that kind of faith? I believe it is because God wants us to want Him.
It was the mathematician Blaise Pascal who famously said we all hold a God-shaped void in our hearts, and C.S. Lewis who said that our desires point to what can logically fulfill them. So we hunger because we need food. We lust because we need love. And ultimately all of our unrequited desires point to God.
There is a phenomenon among pregnant women called pica. It’s a curious craving to eat things which aren’t edible. Pregnant ladies have been known to crave mud, clay, laundry starch, burnt matches, stones, charcoal, moth balls, coffee grounds, soap, baking soda… Weird, right? They crave these illogical things because they actually have an iron deficiency. What they really need is spinach, beef, raisins, but somehow they’ve got their wires crossed, and they’re hiding in the closet eating paper.
Maybe we all have pica. Maybe the longing that shows up again and again in Christmas stories — for Santa, elves, romance — is really a signal that we were made for something more, something that (unlike a gingerbread house) can really meet a need.
We want to believe. But there are some major obstacles.
Sara Groves again:
Heard it told you
Think it’s odd
The whole thing fraught with complication
The play begins with
And all His blessed implications
But it’s true
Kingdoms and crowns
The God who came down to find you
Angels on high
Sing through the night Alleluia
How could this possibly be true? Maybe it’s the very impossibility of the story that makes it so believable. If you were going to write a story about God coming to earth, well, you’d make it spectacular, right? The fairy tale version would surely have palaces, princesses, a royal ball. Sleeping Beauty, you know? Instead we’ve got a stable full of stinky animals, a feeding trough for a cradle, an unwed teenaged mom. Who came up with this story?
You know, the Wise Men seem to make sense. At least they smack of royalty, and they come bearing gifts. Gold seems fit for a king. Frankincense, for a religious scene. But myrrh? Myrrh was used for burials. Who brings myrrh to a baby shower? Well, it’s a great gift to honor sacrifice. A great gift for a Savior – not so much for a baby.
What kind of crazy story is this, that it evokes so much wonder and delight and longing in our hearts? What child is this?
Could it be Christ the King?
As the Christmas carol goes on to say:
So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
The best thing about the Christmas story — the real story, the best story — it’s not just for kings. It’s for peasants. That is to say, it’s for all of us: pregnant teens and old ladies and migrant workers. Not just to listen and wish, but to own!
This king, who left palaces and crowns behind to be born in a stable and laid in a manger — for ME.
In The Polar Express, the little boy’s friend sings, “I’m wishing on a star, and trying to believe that even though it’s far, he’ll find me Christmas Eve.”
My prayer for all of us is that even though it seems impossible, He’ll find you this Christmas, with room in your heart for the wonder, and the hope, and the faith it takes to believe.