I have to confess that there’s something that happens every Christmas. Without fail. Sometime in December I decide it’s time to look at the swollen catalogue of Christmas movies and weigh very carefully which ones to drown a few hours of family time watching.
With four littles, it’s easy to eliminate any Christmas Carol other than Disney. Even so… the ghost of Christmas future is freaky, freaky nightmare fuel.
Christmas Story is out for the next few years.
I discovered that for just mom and dad watch time, there is no end to touchy feely Hallmark available. The acting is pretty bad. The writing is worse. And yet… well I won’t describe any of them. We’ve watched one this year. One is probably enough.
But eventually, I have this little dude in my head who’s all like, “Heyyyyyy, what about that Polar Express movie?”
And all I remember is the pretty singing on the soundtrack, “oooh’s and aaaah’s,” the silver bell, and believing.
Approximately an hour later, every child living in my house is huddled on my lap because there was a ghost from New Jersey claiming to be the king of the North Pole, and then another ghost who is going to ski them all the way down the train and *poof* into snow as the train flies into a mouth cave that Aladdin wouldn’t dare enter.
And I remember.
Christmas movies are scary sometimes.
Four Very Important People
There are some important people you meet on the train bound for the North Pole, originating at the unnamed protagonist’s mailbox. They are important because they are you. They are me. We are each of these people in our lives as we journey forward attempting to know somthing about the world around us.
The first person we get to know right away is the hero of the story. He’s the age we all were when we began to step from childhood wonder into cold hard facts. It’s when we know that Santa is a mask that mom and dad put on at Christmas time.
Now, there is a LOOOOOT of Santa shaming going on on social media. It started a few years ago. It generally goes, “Don’t tell your children that the really awesome presents came from Santa because their friends who are people without means will wonder why Santa doesn’t love them as much.”
I just wanna scream, “Is that the hill you wanna die on, Janice?” It is usually posted by the people who post a lot of socially minded, popular, guilt ridden garbage. There may be merit to it. But it fails at a very specific sniff test.
We’ll come back to the kid whose santa doesn’t have much money later.
Anyway, this kid has entered into a very dangerous time in his life. He is beginning to learn the unity of truth. If something is true in math class, it is also true in science class, and is also true in English class. Such as, 2+2 is 4 in math, 2 discections and 2 lab reports are 4 projects in biology that I will probably end up doing all of the work, and 2 books in the fall semester and 2 books in the spring semester are 4 book reports I will do the night before they are due.
See? Unity of truth.
We are told that knowledge is power.
If that is true, and I have no reason to deny its veracity, then it makes knowledge dangerous, as power is a dangerous commodity.
It’s like dynamite. If you know how to use it correctly, you can build worlds. If you do not know how to use it, or even worse, know a little, you can bring worlds crashing to the ground.
One of the very first assaults of logic we see utilized in our lives is by our parents. I do it all of the time. I explain to my children why there is nothing to be afraid of in closet or under bed. I explain how strong I am, how vicious the dog, how quick the police, and mighty our God. I defeat fear with truth.
But eventually, we begin to try to control fear with fact. And there are some fears in life so nebulous and ethereal that they avoid defeat at the hands of science at every turn. So we turn up the pressure and try to slay our fear dragons with more science and more truth until science becomes something of a demigod to us. We pray to our vengeful sovereign to save us from the unknown because, grow as we may, that which we do not know, that which hides around the corner of the future still terrifies us.
In his conversation with the hobo ghost on the train, the boy is confronted with his great fear. He doesn’t want to be made out to be a believing fool. He doesn’t want to be bamboozled. And so he collects information that specifically scorns Christmas, santa, gift giving, and everything that goes with them, including kindness.
The second passenger to which we must attend is the little girl. She is globally minded. She wraps her heart around every child in the train, especially those who are having a hard time. When it’s the protagonist, she offers him friendship, when it’s the know-it-all, she offers attentive ears, and when it’s Billy, she offers hope.
Her efficacy is born deep within her spirit. She is truly excited for the journey ahead. She will go to the North Pole. She will meet Santa. She will experience the entire journey. She will do that with other people.
The power of her leadership is that she truly believes in what she does and that it is good. It directs her actions naturally and she doesn’t have to overthink them.
Until some jerk asks the question, “are you sure?”
For people whose kindness is directed not from a calculated guess for what is best, but instinctively from a good heart, reality checks such as “are you sure” are brutal.
Passenger Three of which we take note is the know-it-all child. If the protagonist gathers knowledge to protect himself from the unknown, this other child gathers knowledge so that he might avoid the inconvenience of learning. Learning requires that we submit ourselves to authority. We must be vulnerable. We must admit to a lack of knowledge so as to garner it from an expert.
No one makes up stuff on the spot easier than the know-it-all. Our minds are logically sharp and can often guess the origin of many things. It would be so easy to just raise our hands and ask and benefit from the journey of the answer. Google really has robbed us of this as we lose the human interaction of learning.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to know who was the guy that acted in that one movie with whatserbucket.
But do you know the blessing it is to the heart of someone beyond your years when you call them up or meet up with them to ask them questions?
A conversation based on question marks is one of the greatest blessings you can bring to someone twice your age.
Billy. Of all of the characters in Polar Express, Billy is the one which we wish did not resonnate deeply within us. If the little girl was simply belief on a journey to deepen; the protagonist, the stunted journey toward belief from an overcrowding of fear-based knowledge; and the know-it-all, a stunted journey because of too much information, not enough truth, Billy denies the truth because of the pain of believing in something.
When the little girl and the protagonist visit Billy in the back of the train, he has separated himself away from the rest of the group. His life circumstances have done so. He is simply taking part in something that has always been a part of his life.
He’s picked up onto the train from the wrong side of the tracks.
He sings about Christmas like a giant disappointment.
If the protagonist has lost his wonderment for Christmas after discovering that there are multiple people playing Santa, Billy has lost his hope for Christmas after gambling his contentment on the hopes that Santa will pull through a miracle for him. And losing everything. He’s the kid who secretly wrote a note to Santa, dropped it, site unseen, into the mailbox, and then received not a single item on his list.
He’s the person who has had little in life, and suddenly musters up enough courage to hope once again, only to have his hopes dashed once again.
It makes sense that he’s sitting alone in the back of the train. That kind of lonliness is safer than even one more disappointment.
I came to grips a few years ago myself, the protagonist in my own Polar Express experiendce, so to speak, with what Christmas really is. Because if we can be completely realistic, it is not about giving gifts to one another. It’s not trees, holly, eggnogg, caroling, family gathering, or taking a break from work and school. It’s not even about Santa. It’s a special story in the history of God reaching into His own creation with no less than Himself to begin Act III of His story.
But even so…
There’s something tangent to all of the silliness that still rings true. If it weren’t so, I wouldn’t find my skin absolutely crawling with goose bumps when the opening notes of the soundtrack for Polar Express begins its sweet opening notes. I wouldn’t secretly look forward to showing it to my children every year. If there weren’t some portion of the season that was utterly important, I wouln’t find myself transfixed by well done versions of “O Holy Night” or “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
I dare say…
There is something real to the idea of Christmas magic.
For many, the idea of beleif in God is a simple offering of public humiliation while enlightened persons look on and scoff. The offering of belief in God also offers a not belief as an option and some will look to science God away into the same category as the Easter bunny.
For many, God is a million facts to memorize so we don’t have to get close to Him because His truth and reality are so intimidating that it would take a lifetime just to work on learning all of His truths. It would take even longer to be molded and made by those truths.
For many, we have been betrayed by reality and we don’t want any nearer to it. We would rather isolate ourselves with a whimper or an aggressive “humbug” rather than risk even one more injurious misadventure into hope.
And that is human existence. And it always has been. We place our hope into false things and then live the real consequences of the aftermath. We harden our hearts and don’t want to feel the real love, hope, peace, and joy that God is sending our way in great droves. In gross. Express mail. Unreturnable.
God invaded His creation with Himself. He did impossible things. A woman unmarried and without the normal way of conception bore a child because God said it would happen. Stars, fixed in their dance of eons, suddenly created a guide for astrologers to realize that an event occurred bringing the king of the Jews.
The war fighters of heaven came directly from horrible battle and worshipped God in His greatness to the terror and amazement of a crowd of shepherds.
God risked the life of His own invasion and plan in the hands of poor and common people.
The consequence of His coming, His sacrifice, and His great promise is Christmas magic.
Every Christmas I find myself quieted by a day. I’m quieted by a song. I’m quieted by a kind moment. It’s always something. I’m quieted in the gathering of my family. There are dozens of ornaments on my tree that have three times as much memory as they have glitter.
This year, it was playing a guitar and singing “Silent Night.”
The song has always held special weight in my heart. As a kid growing up, we would go to church and light candles and sing “Silent Night” as we saw the entire advent wreath lit, including the center. We listened about the miraculous story and then lit our candles and sang our way into Christmas.
This year, I took part in our new church’s Christmas program. I was offered the chance to lead “Silent Night” and so I did. It meant that I would not be able to hold my own candle, but it was an honor, nontheless. As we sang, I chuckled a little at a typo in the lyrics. “Glory beans from heaven afar.”
What are glory beans?
I realized by the third verse that my guitar was subtly out of tune. And so I pushed the microphone from my face and lowered my guitar for the final verse. By the hand of God, my guitar strap, which had been holding on for the entire night, finally gave way, no longer needed and popped from my shoulder. I held my guitar to my feet and sang with a voice unamplified, and unneeded because the choir behind me and the congregation in front of me had the matter well in hand.
The high ceiling bounced with hundreds of candles lit across the room. Little hands folded into parents’ palms. Faces glowed in little fires. Little faces glowed in anticipation for Christmas. Hearts both young and old swelled with the simple joy of worshipping a God who Is.
And a quiet moment of awe.
And in recognition of the moment of beauty, the people across the room held their candles aloft in praise and worship of the King and His moment.
There are some moments I can do without during Christmas. We have to improve as a society so we can do away with the cultural blot that is Black Friday. We have to stop putting ourselves into debt just trying to make Christmas work.
We have to stop playing “Santa Baby.”
But I believe in the magic of Christmas. I will watch Polar Express, and It’s a Wonderful Life, and Christmas Carol, and whatever dribble Hallmark comes up with until the day I die. I love feeling the cold of the season, or unseasonably hot weather down into my bones. I love looking forward to the candlelight and seeing my children wonder and awe at their presents. I love seeing their faces as I describe the story of God sending angels to shepherds.
I love the feel of my wife’s hand in mine in quiet moments as we slow down.
I love the beating heart of my children as they sleep soundly, having played themselves into a deep sleep, requiring a carry to their beds.
This Christmas, when you get a minute, just pause and listen. The very old song of God’s love echoes through a billion hearts of the people He loves and calls to Himself. Its new strains seek to use your heart as an amplifier to send joy and hope into remote places of lonliness.
God performs wonder in the sight of all who would dare seek His face for contentment.
And Billy, if you’re reading and you’ve made it this far, please don’t give up hope. Don’t give up on hoping. We love you and want you around us for many years to come. I know that the hurts of past hopes make you want to just give up, but the sunrise is just a moment away, and there’s a present you’ve been waiting for your whole life just waiting to be opened when we get home.
Just hold on a little longer.
And let us journey through the night with you…
On a train made of magic, awe, wonder, peace, joy, love…