One of the few sitcoms I watch is How I Met Your Mother. If you’ve never watched it, don’t be confused by the name. It isn’t a show about meeting anyone–the titular Mother is a McGuffin–it’s a show about five friends, their ridiculous experiences, and their ridiculous reactions to other more ordinary experiences.
Naturally I don’t approve of all of its content and messages–the five friends have a sort of incoherent worldview and morality that could only make sense in a culture of affluent narcissistic decadence (like mine)–but if I needed to approve entirely of a thing before enjoying it, I would be a sad lonely old fellow. (Meanwhile Jesus, who had much more right to moral snobbishness, went to parties with sinners and was neither sad nor lonely.)
I do however entirely approve of the show’s whimsy and joie-de-vivre. My favorite example so far happened in the show’s 100th episode when Barney, one of the main characters, led the cast in a large musical number complete with dancing. Frankly, I don’t expect large musical numbers from sitcoms, but I wish I could. I like choreographed songs and dances almost as much as I like hero stories. They’re people singing and playing together, and enjoying singing and playing together.
A lot of people hate them, of course. The most common complaint I’ve heard is that they aren’t realistic: large groups of people don’t spontaneously burst into the same song, don’t then create delightful polyphony, and most certainly don’t dance around each other in complex synchronized patterns.
In a very obvious sense, that complaint is true. I’m typing this in my local library. There are between 50 and 100 people here. If I started singing and dancing, I suspect that none of them would join me. Also I would probably get ejected by the library staff. Expecting otherwise wouldn’t be realistic.
But expecting otherwise would be good, which is the interesting part. Granting that it isn’t nice to disturb people who are trying to find peace and quiet–I might want to step outside the library first–but I think most people would rather live in a world where musical numbers happen. After all, the complaint about realism has been around for about as long as musical numbers have been around–millennia–but people still write, perform, and enjoy them.
In fact if I did start singing and dancing, a fair number of people would probably have an impulse to join me, somewhere in that instant before the reasonable side of their personality told them they would be embarrassed. (They would also know that if they just weren’t afraid of being embarrassed, we would have a lot of fun.) Most of the rest of the people would probably be interested rather than annoyed. After all, the phenomenon of Flash Mobs is about this very thing: people wish reality were a bit more like musicals, and they want to see such a reality even if they don’t feel comfortable joining it.
We just can’t escape that crippling belief that musicals aren’t realistic though, and that being the drabber sort of realistic is a virtue. We know from experience that reality is something starker, more sober, and more practical. We’re actually a bit suspicious about anything that might make us sing and dance publicly with strangers. Any such inspiration would have to be either delusional or chemically induced.
At the very best it’s certainly childish. Children can live in a world of happy fancies, but being an adult means accepting darkness, accepting the stifling of dreams, accepting the unavoidable presence of sadness. This is why we show musicals to kids and then stop watching them ourselves. As adults we watch things like The Dark Night and Saving Private Ryan instead, movies which reinforce our understanding of a harsher “truth.” Musicals may be fun occasionally, but we think they’re lies.
Which is probably why as adults we have so much trouble embracing Christmas the way we did as children. We’ve told ourselves too often that Christmas is a lie.
You see, Christmas had the world’s first musical number, the world’s first Flash Mob. A group of shepherds were minding their own business when suddenly the world around them erupted with angels.
I think we tend to imagine the angels as being rather staid figures, wearing choir robes and primly singing about God as they floated in the night sky. Our imaginations have also been beaten down by our grim view of reality, apparently. Frankly, I think if angels want to put on a show, we ought to imagine that they’re at least as effective at it as Gilbert and Sullivan were.
And make no mistake, when a multitude of angels “suddenly appeared” (Luke 2:13) to the shepherds, they were putting on a show, probably one that they had been looking forward to for a long time. Finally they would get to show us that our entire view of reality was wrong and that the truth was something happier, brighter, and musical.
The Eternal Son of God, who had every right to be mad enough to destroy us, was instead, as the song, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” puts it, “pleased as man with men to dwell,” bringing reconciliation, healing, light, and life. He came to share with us a bigger reality, to show us the Joy and Love that’s forever and irrevocably in God, and then to invite us out of our grim small delusion into that happy truth.
He invites us into a reality where overflowing joie-de-vivre is the status quo, the sort of reality that can produce a host of singing and celebrating angels on a random hillside, because it has singing and celebration in abundance.
Christmas is when we glimpse that, and we’re invited to “join the triumph of the skies,” and “with angelic hosts proclaim [that] Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Christmas is when we’re reminded that celebration is the true realism; the musicals were right all along.