This Christmas, I invite you to reflect with awe and wonder on the great story of how one boy, against incredible odds, is able to take us on a journey of deliverance and redemption – an incredible adventure in which we may rediscover our connection with creation, with our own spirit, and with God. I am speaking, of course, of the movie, The Life of Pi.
If you haven’t seen it, lean back, close your eyes, and imagine a boy in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger on board!
There are numerous stories of boys and tigers. Why is this one so compelling?
Pi Patel is first portrayed as one who is able to find the common threads in all the major religions of the world (as Chair of the Ecumenical and Multi-Faith Unit of the Diocese, I wish there were more people like him). He is one who invites us to look into the depths and to face into our most primal fears, one who finds the courage to co-exist with, and even love, his enemies. I learned a long time ago that every detail in a story is there for a reason. The ship is called the Tsimtsum, which is a term from mystical Judaism that speaks of the way God withdraws his light so individual creatures can come into being. And there is a beautiful scene in the movie where Pi has plunged into the ocean and is suspended in a huge halo of the lights of the sinking ship, as the ship’s lights, and everything he loves, sink into the dark depths. Then, as the zebra dies in the back of the lifeboat, it is as if the world of black and white fades away, and a new reality of what it means to live begins to emerge.
For me, his story becomes reminiscent of Noah’s ark, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jesus calming the storm, Baptism, and even the Resurrection. One of the earliest symbols of the Christian Church was of a lifeboat on the ocean. It left me wondering what symbols Hindus and Muslims would find in it.
What story is he really telling? Maybe he’s telling us a larger story about overcoming racial and political boundaries; maybe it’s a metaphor of our modern world, adrift and lost; maybe it’s saying that some of our institutions are not as infallible (or unsinkable) as they seem to be; maybe it’s a story of how our technology may fail us but our nerve and character and faith must not; maybe it’s about the need to reconcile with the natural world; and maybe it’s about the way faith and spirituality have been diminished and cut loose from the mainstream of society.
I don’t know, but like any great story, any work of art, it remains open to various possibilities of interpretation. And of course I know there are always those who will just say, “That’s stupid.” Or “That could never happen.”
I think it was Soren Kierkegaard who said: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” And so it is that John’s Gospel says “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
In the wake of the historical event that was Jesus, gurus and mystics, and theologians and scholars struggled to find adequate words to give expression to what they had experienced. Profoundly intelligent, deeply insightful people struggled to articulate and comprehend a three year window in which the entire cosmos seemed to open up. What they had experienced was so out of the ordinary that it seemed to require a new language, and a whole new way of understanding life and relating to others. That one life changed the way they believed and perceived. The old ship sank; a completely new kind of vessel was needed.
How do you do justice to a story that important? Numerous stories emerged, including those of four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of whom tell quite different stories. And in subsequent generations, many more versions of the story were told. And many more interpretations followed.
The Gospel of John offers a cosmic version of the Christmas story:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in existence from the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it” (“comprehendeth it not” in the old King James version).
The ancient philosopher Sophocles said: “One word releases us from the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” What the New Testament writers – all of them — seem to be trying to say is that in Christ, that “word” is spoken – that word comes alive and is embodied not just in Jesus but in all who follow him – all who enter into the mystery that is Christ, God incarnate. It is through Christ that we know that God is love. Tell that story any way you want to; however you tell it, it is good news.
In the beginning of The Life of Pi movie, the adult Pi says to the man who wants to interview him: “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” We desperately need stories like that!
So it went with the sharing of the story of Jesus. It was not a matter of “We get it and you don’t – too bad for you,” which is a point of view too many people in our world adopt. In a wonderful generosity of spirit, their obvious hope and motivation was to be able to share something profound that they had experienced with any who would listen. Kind of like the movie industry – without the producers and the financing and the talk-show circuits, and the idiocy of the red carpet.
In the conclusion of The Life of Pi, two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport come to talk to Pi to figure out why the ship sank. So Pi tells them his story of the zebra and the hyena and the tiger and the whales and the mysterious island, all of which they refuse to believe. How hard it is to believe anything under the weight of so much skepticism! So he tells them another story, which is much more mundane – an ugly story of brutality and sub-human behaviour — no tigers (except in a figurative sense), no magical island, etc.
The irony is, they’re both just stories, but it’s interesting how we want to invest in some stories more than others.
After giving them all the relevant information, Pi asks which of the two stories they prefer. Since the officials can’t prove which story is true, and neither is relevant to the reasons behind the shipwreck that they need for their report, they choose the story with the tiger.
Pi thanks them and says, “And so it goes with God”.
The two officials are us – hapless victims of their own narrow mindset, with no imagination, no sense of story or magic, no awareness of anything beyond their own noses, thinking they already know what the world is all about, doubt and cynicism their basic orientation to life. They think every story can be boiled down to a few hard facts, like the butterfly will still matter when it’s pinned to a specimen board. But as the story suggests, given the choice between stories, even these pathetic bureaucrats chose the story with the tiger.
The story has a lot to do with making choices, and seems to encourage us to make an inclusive choice – a choice for life. After all, if a young man can choose to live with a tiger, surely we can live with Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists. Yann Martel’s story points us past that dualistic, “it’s either one or the other” kind of thinking, whether it is Muslims or Christians or atheists insisting their story is the only way of looking at it. Martel tells us a story in which the world of religious, social and political absolutes disappears, and we are introduced to a new world in which mutual support and survival, and getting along, become the absolutes.
That is the kind of story God is telling us in Jesus Christ.
We could tell more than one story tonight – one full of brilliant stars, angels, epic journeys, great courage, a stable, a manger, shepherds, and kings, or we could tell you another story devoid of mystery – and majesty for that matter. For some reason, people continue to prefer the one with the shepherds and kings. Go figure. “And so it goes with God.”
At Christmas, I believe we must consciously choose to re-enter and re-tell the story of the Incarnation as a spiritual practice, as an act of faith, as a means of creating solidarity and communal spirit, as a sign that we haven’t forgotten the joy of being neighbours and friends and part of a community. When we kneel in humility before this great story it has the capacity to open us up to the mysteries of God in human life. When we open up, God invites us to let go of the boatload of baggage that keeps us reacting the same old way to life’s mysteries, and to get into that lifeboat and move out into the deep, beyond the shallows of what we think we know, into the realm of our imaginations and deepest consciousness, and invites us to try to stay open to what it may have to reveal to us, by the grace of God.
Like any great mystery, it’s hard to fathom, but as one of my seminary profs said to me, in the realm of spirituality you’re always way over your head, and, as the movie points out, there’s nothing like some real time on the ocean to disabuse you of your grandiosity and omniscience.
One way or another, the story continues to be told, as its truth is reincarnated in each new generation. And perhaps only gradually do we become aware that we are the story that God continues to write.
That’s my story for tonight, and I’m hoping that by sharing it with you, your celebration of Christmas will be more joyful, hopeful and meaningful. I’m hoping you might begin to see your life as an amazing adventure and unfolding mystery, rather than an insurance risk. Whether tonight, or whenever, I hope you hear the story that will help you believe in God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.