Friday, December 12, 2014

The Horror of Christmas (A sermon preached to myself)

This is the season for endless warm and fuzzy Hallmark channel movies about Christmas. You know the ones that star Dean Cain, Richard Thomas or even occasionally Tom Arnold. My wife really likes these type things and so I sit there and watch. Occasionally these movies surprise me; and we’ve seen a few that are pretty good but mostly I watch them because my wife wants to and so I do my best to enjoy them. Occasionally we run across one that is interesting such as “The Christmas Box” but generally I enjoy them because Kim does and I enjoy sitting with her. Most of these movies can be subdivided into two broad groups. There are the slightly more risqué remakes of “A Miracle of 34th Street” and the often bizarrely reimaging of the Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Christmas Carol."

The ones that really bother me are the Miracle of 34th Street remakes. These often try to deify Santa Clause for adults and just drive me nuts. I am not talking about movies like “The Santa Clause” 1,2 or 3 with Tim Allen that are obvious slapstick comedies but the sort of “Sleepless in Seattle meets Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” kind of thing. The plot is always the same; an incognito Santa gets stuck in Miami, Omaha or Seattle and loses his magic only to regain it just in time with the help of a hot divorcee with two kids. There is always an evil boss who wants the hot divorcee to work on Christmas day for free. Often there is a miserly landlord or grumpy parent involved somehow. The movie has to include a hopeless choice of either paying the rent or not having money for the new X-box 36000-b49 video game system with a 60 inch flat screen that her two somewhat rebellious but actually very loving, non-materialist despite their Christmas toy list children really want for Christmas. Most of the time there is an unrecognized boyfriend who is a sympathetic lawyer/doctor/auto mechanic/Plumber that lives next door or works with the hot divorcee but can’t tell her of his love because of some silly reason that is only there to move the plot, what little plot there is, forward. Occasionally the potential boyfriend is Santa himself who is town wife hunting though why a woman would want to marry an overweight old man who never shaves, always wears the same clothes and only works a couple of days a year is beyond me.  After about 15 minutes of watching one of these is it any wonder I am dreaming of reruns of Magnum P.I., the Rockford Files or Mission Impossible?

Other than the Santa’s miracle movies a lot of the others are remakes of the Charles Dickens novel, “A Christmas Carol” Often I find these to be at least entertaining from a literary point of view because I can sort of snicker at the lack of creativity, and marvel at the lengths to which the famous story can be stretched at the same time. After watching one of these the other night did something strange, I picked up a copy “A Christmas Carol” and reread it. I read it as a child and due to the many movie adaptations I know the story well but I had never read it as an adult. I do not think that I understood the story as a child because; before I read the book I had seen the movie. I knew how it ended.  It is important, I think when reading a story the first time to not know the ending. So, when I read the story as a child, after seeing the movie with George C. Scott as Scrooge, I missed the point. “A Christmas Carol” is a horror story. We view it as a happy tale because we know the ending but imagine the emotions, the reaction of the original readers in Victorian England.  The book is frightening. This is both figuratively and literally a dark tale. The whole of the story until the very end is set at night. Scrooge lived in darkness because as he himself put it “darkness is cheap”. He kept his offices barely lit and barely warm and he lived in a dark, cold house. I missed the obvious metaphor as a child. Scrooge’s physical environment mimicked his spiritual condition. He liked it dark. It allowed him to not look at himself.

The movies seem to always focus on the ghost that came after Marley but to me Marley is the scary one because is the only one that that was human. He is also the one that Scrooge argues with. Notice that Scrooge, at first refuses believe in the supernatural. He tells Marley “You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than the grave about you.” This is Scrooge the scientist, the materialist, the modern man speaking. Denying the existence of an afterlife is the first defense of sinners. It is only when the ghost of Marley “raised a frightful cry” that Scrooge fell to his knees in belief by saying; “Mercy! Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” There is a useful lesson here that is hard to learn. Often times those who live in willful sin are beyond the reason of kind words and gentle reprimands. In fact, they may be beyond the reach mortal help. Marley was only just able to do it from beyond the grave. We are all, all of us, to some degree Scrooge. We live in denial of our sin. We want to be in the dark where we don’t have to look at it.  We need to confront our sin and need of salvation before it is too late for us to emotionally do so.

But, like Scrooge who answered to his dead partners name and kept his name on the door we are also Marley. Year by year we forge our spiritual chains. Link by link our chain grows longer binding us to an eternal Hell both on Earth and after death so we like Marley can say; “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” The horrible thing about Marley’s statement is that he isn’t being punished by God. He took up his punishment of his own free will. He didn’t get what he deserved, he got what he wanted. God didn’t condemn Marley, not at all. Marley got what he wanted and that adds a deeper meaning to the old proverb; “Be careful what you wish for.”

As I thought about these things I was struck by the fact that in many ways the story of the first Christmas is a horror story as well. We know the story well and thus know the ending but none of the original cast of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi or King Herod did. Think about them a minute, from their perspective and from the culture they lived in.

Think about Mary who became pregnant without being married. This was a capital offense in Judea even if the punishment was not often carried out. At the very least she could have been relegated to the life of a prostitute or possibly a servant in wealthy family’s house. This was a scary moment for her. Imagine living in that culture and telling your parents you were visited by an angel who informed you that you were going to become pregnant by God; would you believe your daughter if she told you a tale like that? How scary was this for her parents?

Think of Joseph and the indignity, the gossip, the snide comments, perhaps the lost business he must have endured. We are then slightly misled by the King James translation because at this time there was no such thing as a hotel, or inn. When Joseph took his heavily pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the census he would have stayed with relatives because that is what people did at that time. He and Mary were refused the hospitality to stay in the house, possibly because they knew he had moved up his wedding date because Mary was pregnant. Joseph and Mary were rejected by his family. How horrible! Joseph was a good man who compassionately married his fiancée even though she was carrying a baby that was not his and was ostracized by his extended family.  I guess that Scrooge had some relatives in the linage of David who would have said; “Are there no prisons or work houses they can go to?”

Think of the shepherds in the fields. Here it is not so much the translations of the New Testament that fails us connotatively as it is the depiction of angels by Baroque and Renaissance artist who emasculate them by turning them into fluffy little cupid’s. When we read “They were sore afraid!” a better colloquial translation would be; “They were so scared they peed their pants.” They were so scared that the angel had to comfort them and tell them they were not about to be punished or killed. Their reaction was the same Scrooge’s when Marley’s ghost began to wail and rattle his chains.  

Think of the magi. Imagine traveling all that way with those gifts at that time. What a frightening, horrific trip that would have been. Bandits roamed the trade routes. Getting lost was always possible in a time with poor maps and long distances between towns. The trip to see Jesus was a scary, perilous one.

Think even of Herod. How frightening must the magi’s message have been to him? He was so frightened he had all the children below a certain age killed in a particular town to prevent a challenge to his throne.

Think of the families of the children Herod killed. What a gruesome tale.
Think of the way Joseph and Mary had to flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt. How hard would it have been for Jews from rural Palestine to live in urban Alexandria?

Through all of this Joseph and Mary were not forgotten by God. Just as Scrooge is confronted by his nephew in the first pages of the Charles Dickens story we see the hand of God throughout the Christmas story protecting and shielding, aiding and strengthening.
We see the compassion of Joseph who listened to the angel in his dream and married Mary. In doing so he preserved her reputation and gave her standing in the society. He may also, as said above have saved her life. Joseph for his part received assurance from God that he was doing the right thing.

Perhaps to help her parents and family deal with the situation Mary left Nazareth and went to stay at her much older cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant with the child that would become John the Baptist. The NIV describes what happened when Mary entered Elizabeth’s’ house this way in the Gospel of Luke 1:39-43; “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Can you imagine the encouragement that must have been for Mary?

At every step in the horrific events leading to that first Christmas God provided hope, salvation and refuge. It may not have been what any of the people involved thought would happen but God was not going to let his plan be derailed by an overly moralistic society, unsympathetic relatives, cowardly shepherds or a psychotic king;  though all of this horror was born the hope of world, the Prince of Peace.

Think about the previous year. What have you gone through? You have a choice. You can like Scooge and Marley choose to live in the dark and cold so as to close out the unpleasantness or you can let God reveal the Prince of Peace in your life.