BLIND-SIDED BY CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
Homily for Christmas Eve 2009
Christmas is a time of celebration for Christians, and by extension, for countless others, who have basked in the light of hope, peace, good will and generosity of spirit that this celebration has built up over many centuries and in many different cultures. We all seem to have a sense of what Christmas spirit is, and what it isn’t, and there is always a hope at this time of year that this spirit might persist beyond December 25 and into the new year.
Christmas can be the happiest time of year. It is also a time when the reality of our lives comes up against the fantasies of our culture, and that can leave many people feeling empty and isolated rather than festive and fun. We see lots of idealized images which tell us this is the way Christmas should be, or that is the best way to do it. Those images always have to do with children and families and abundance of wealth, and woe to us if we don’t fit the image.
One Christmas ad this year shows a forlorn and envious looking couple staring out their window Christmas morning. They have been drawn to the window by a commotion going on across the street, where the neighbour’s wife has just been presented with her Christmas present – a new car of some sort – and she is going wild, shrieking with pleasure. Enraged by the display going on across the street, the wife suddenly feels seriously under-privileged, and she slams her Christmas present back into her husband’s chest. Next year, no doubt he’ll be wise enough to make it a proper Christmas and buy her a new car. Such is the magic of Christmas as interpreted by the ad agencies.
It’s always dangerous to let Hollywood or the media handle what is sacred to us. When we start comparing our Christmas with others, it’s no longer our Christmas. Envy and disappointment all too easily become part of Christmas. So let me encourage you to celebrate in a way that works for you and not be stressed that you’re a bad person because you haven’t spent $40,000 on a new car, or haven’t got the ideal family, or perfect tree or whatever.
Ironically, though, this year Hollywood helped kick-start me into the Christmas spirit, with two new movies, one telling the old story of Ebenezer Scrooge, in Disney’s Christmas Carol, and the other a modern story in a movie called The Blind Side.
Like the Christmas story, The Blind Side tells the true story of a very special child, although this one was born in obscurity to a crack-addicted mother, whose father left the week after he was born, and was later murdered. This young black kid grew up amidst poverty and gangs and drugs and violence, and went from foster home to foster home and school to school. He had no sense of belonging, no sense of home, no sense of being celebrated on his birthday or at Christmas. He just survived day to day. No one had ever seen any potential for anything in him.
When he was a teenager, he had one thing going for him – he was huge. People called him Big Mike. One kind gesture got him into a Christian school, even though his grades were all F’s. There he discovered that he wasn’t stupid (and eventually developed an aptitude for academic work), and also that he was an exceptionally good football player. And he had the good fortune to be standing at a bus stop one day when a particular family drove by him and saw him standing there in the rain, dressed only in a T short and shorts (because he was still homeless), and their hearts went out to him.
They were from a different world – white, wealthy and well-educated – evangelical Christians – and luckily for Mike they were people who lived by their faith. They took this huge guy in – he’s 6’4” and well over 300 lbs! — and they eventually became his legal guardians, and his family.
Big Mike was 18 before he ever got to celebrate Christmas, or ever got a sense that he belonged somewhere and mattered to someone. Until then, he never had a room of his own. From them Michael heard the words “I love you” spoken to him for the first time in his life. In the movie, a friend says to Leigh Anne, Michael’s adoptive mother: “You’re changing that boy’s life.” She responds by saying, “No, he’s changing mine.” Thanks to the caring and generosity and faith and love of that one family, Michael now lives a very different life (though I won’t spoil the movie by revealing all of it). Just go and see it, especially if you need a heart-warming story. I had tears running down my face for much of the movie.
The first step toward Christ is an open heart. Babies open our hearts, and I believe that is what our devotion around the Christ Child is meant to do. Christmas is a time when we open our hearts, our homes, our wallets, and embrace all the wonderful stories of love and hope and joy that begin with the story of Jesus and continue being told into our own time. One of the reasons the Christmas story is so essential is that it helps us to see that story continuing to unfold. We re-enter these stories every year because we recognize that they are not someone else’s story, but our own, and in them we see our own communities, our own issues, and our own faces, reflected back to us. It’s good to know there are still people telling stories of redemption and hope and the power of goodness and love.
Charles Dickens created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge to portray an attitude and orientation that was not only turned away from the source of life, but determined to destroy that spirit in others as well. Scrooge is the prime example/role model for those who see Christmas as a “humbug,” as a fraud, and want to eliminate all traces of it. He shows us what we become when we stop caring and become impervious to human need.
Like many people today, everything in Scrooge’s life had become a function of commerce, or the bottom line, and he had no interest in festivity and relationships and happiness because the love and the spirit had long since departed from his cold heart. Dickens described him as “hard and sharp as flint … and solitary as an oyster.” Quite comfortable with the idea of poor people being put into prisons and work houses, Scrooge made life all about things, and he saw people like his impoverished employee Bob Cratchit as idiots for wasting time with faith, family and festivals like Christmas. No one becomes a Scrooge intentionally. It happens by degree, as hopes and ideals are dashed and replaced by wariness and cynicism and selfishness.
As Dickens tells it, it takes divine intervention to get through to
people like Scrooge, and that dark night takes him on a harrowing journey. But the good news of his story is that even for
hardened, miserable old sinners like Scrooge it is not too late for
redemption and a return to life. Scrooge needed to regain a sense of perspective, a sense of how past, present and future all connect, and how our every gesture and attitude and choice has consequences. Confronted by a stark vision of the future he has created for himself — dead that night, leaving no positive legacy and with no one regretting his passing — he decided to repent, to change his closed and self-serving ways, and embrace the spirit that offers him a new lease on life. On Christmas morning, the old man says, “I feel like a schoolboy” as he dances in joy, and attempts a headstand. Miraculously, Scrooge once again feels connected with everyone and everything.
The makers of The Blind Side want us to believe that a young kid born in the ghetto is not beyond hope. Charles Dickens wants us to believe that someone who had given up on life could become a source of life and inspiration, and that someone so closed and miserable could become generous and happy. And the Gospel writers want us to believe that in an obscure, enemy-occupied village in Palestine, a child could be born to an unwed mother, and that one child could change the world.
May God’s presence tonight open your hearts and minds to the wonder of God’s love, and to all the potential that may be in you and in the world around you.
The Reverend Grant Rodgers
St. John the Apostle Anglican Church
Port Moody, BC