To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
Quick. Name your five favorite Christmas movies.
For many of us, that’s a tough task. Since a film version of A Christmas Carol first hit the screens in 1898, there have been literally thousands of Christmas-themed feature films and made-for-TV productions. The Hallmark Channel alone is rolling out 40 new holiday movies this year.
Cinematic classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and The Polar Express have achieved, for many families, the status of “it’s-not-Christmas-until-we-see-it-this-year.” Then there’s the Turner Networks’ recent practice of running A Christmas Story on a 24-hour continuous loop on December 24-25.
What makes people love these movies?
Film critic Jeremy Arnold observes that most of them accomplish two things. They take us back via nostalgia, yearning, and the power of memory. They also lift us up, sparking surges of hope that the world and we ourselves might have a better tomorrow. And of course (spoiler alert) they inevitably have happy endings. And who doesn’t ache for more happy endings in the midst of our crazy world?
Those are good things. But followers of Jesus would say they hardly qualify as the best things associated with Christmas.
Here is where we must acknowledge that two different versions of Christmas seek our attention every year. There’s the secular festival of colored lights, parties, gift-giving, jaw-dropping VISA bills, and “Jingle Bells.” There’s also the holy, contemplative, joyful journey of Advent which calls us to experience the far deeper spiritual realities of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and dozens of other carols.
What do both have in common?
At their best, both are enriched by our connection to other people, especially our families. And both invite us to embrace a better way to live – one that is kinder, gentler, and more outward-focused.
Those virtues are unfailingly on display in the best Christmas movies.
Each weekday between now and December 25 we’ll explore the backstory and themes of a popular Christmas feature film. We’ll go chronologically, beginning with movies from the Hollywood heyday of the 1940s. Because there are so many to choose from along the way, we’ll no doubt have to overlook some of your favorites.
Every cinematic category has received “the Christmas treatment.” There are Christmas dramas, comedies, romances, children’s stories, musicals, war stories, and action films (yes, most would say that Diehard qualifies as a Christmas movie, but we’ll pass on it this year). There are also plenty of Christmas horror films – but we’ll likewise save Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman for another day. Hollywood has churned out hundreds of animated holiday movies and scores of films that center on animals. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever comes to mind.
The Hallmark Channel seems to have settled on the notion that the meaning of Christmas is finding your One True Love, and it just may turn out that he or she comes from the royal family of a small European nation that no one knew existed.
The call to a new and different kind of life, however, is what unites them all.
Arnold writes, “Transformations of characters from bitterness to compassion are perhaps the purest Christmas stories. Often they happen without anything changing in the characters’ outward circumstances. Instead, it is Christmas that somehow makes them see their lives in a new context and reawaken to the point of change.”
Transformation is likewise a central theme of the Bible. And here is where it helps to know a bit of insider language, especially the meaning of two Greek words: schema and morphe.
Schema, from which we get the word “schematic,” represents the outer appearance. Your schema changes every day. Your fingernails and your hair are just a little bit longer than this time yesterday, and it’s likely that you’re not wearing yesterday’s wardrobe, either.
The secular celebration of the Christmas season is chiefly about schematic impression management. If you don’t like your body shape, buy a Peloton. If you’re uneasy about your smile at the office holiday party, try whitening strips. If you want to dazzle the neighbors, park a shiny new car with a big red bow in your driveway.
Most of us experienced middle school and high school as an ongoing schematic trial by fire. Should we look cool, dress cool, and hang out with others who are cool, or refuse to play the game?
If the secular approach to Christmas primarily concerns one’s outward form, the spiritual journey is all about morphe. Your morphe represents your true identity, your inner self. Your schema may be in continual flux, but there’s something about you that is unmistakably the Real You – something that an old acquaintance will recognize when you bump into each other on the street, even after not seeing each other for decades.
Schematic change is inevitable and often superficial. But the transformation of one’s morphe – “metamorphosis” – is a monumentally big deal. It is God’s own work within our hearts.
Change from the inside-out represents our hope of rebirth, of becoming new people, of growing deeper in the character of Christ.
Schema and morphe come face to face in a famous Bible verse. “Do not conform [syschematizethe] to the pattern of this world, but be transformed [metamorphousthe] by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) J.P. Phillips provided this memorable translation: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within.”
You can spend this Christmas season trying to look better, conforming to the crowd, aiming to please the people you presume are always watching and judging.
Or you can opt for metamorphosis and let God have at you – allowing the Spirit to renew your mind through ongoing engagement with the Bible’s unique accounts of the birth of Jesus.
Transformation matters. How it happens matters even more.
Now, with that background, let’s go to the movies.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.