Herald Angels

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.

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With Us

The show Burn Notice is about a super-spy turned vigilante who helps the needy folks of Miami.  Its first few seasons were fun–(which is in no way intended to advocate vigilantism)–and one of the best episodes happened in the second half of the second season.  In it Michael, the super-spy, gets taken hostage in a bank robbery, which he then thwarts using his ingeniousness and office supplies.

The bank robbers had planned an elaborate and lucrative heist.  The hostages probably thought they were going to be murdered like bothersome pests.  Michael changed their story, and he changed it in a specific way.

He didn’t try to help them from outside of the bank, aware of but divorced from the danger they faced.  He certainly didn’t try to talk them through how to help themselves.  Instead he joined them and faced the same danger, so that he could protect them from it and ultimately rescue them.

If you read my last post, then you can probably see where this is headed.  Burn Notice here is also the story of Christmas, specifically the part of Christmas expressed in the name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

After we’ve heard the name translated enough times, we lose the spark in it.  We start hearing it as something rather wishy-washy and humdrum.  Mostly we think of it purely in terms of location: God is with us the way that my wife might stand in my general vicinity.  We say it in roughly the same way that we might say, “My dog was with me on my nightly walk;” then we imagine it’s supposed to inspire in us the same sort of sentimental feelings we have about our friendly pet, except about Jesus.

It would be better to imagine that we’re trapped in a bank full of dangerous criminals, herded into a small room, and menaced at gunpoint.  Do we want God to be with us in the companionable dog sense or in the vigilante super-spy sense?  One of them is an interesting and fairly random bit of trivia; the other completely transforms the situation.

Immanuel completely transforms our situation, because our situation was terrible.  One of the songs we sing each Christmas–O Come, O Come Emmanuel–is about this.  (As an interesting aside for those who are wondering, “Emmanuel” is the Latin version of “Immanuel,” used since the song was originally in Latin.  “Immanuel” is the English rendering of the Hebrew.)

It’s an unusual Christmas song because of how sorrowful it is.  Even the refrain–“Rejoice! Rejoice!”–is set to a mellow aching tune.  I for one am used to Christmas songs being a bit more cheerful.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is a song of anticipation however.  It’s imaginatively located in the despairing trap that existed before the Incarnation, a place of abundant enemies (v. 4) and quarreling friends (v. 7), a place of pervasive darkness (v.6), loneliness (v.1), ignorance (v.2), weakness (v. 3), lawlessness (v. 3), mourning (v.1), captivity (v.1), strife (v.7), and death (v.4 and 6).

In short it reminds us that we weren’t perfectly fine people looking for a friendly companion–we didn’t need someone to be “with us” in that sense–we were people in serious, unavoidable, inescapable trouble.  Only with that in mind can we start to understand the promise of Immanuel, “God is with us.”

Immanuel is an insurrection, a reversal, a fierce and amazing transformation.  We’re surrounded by threats, but in our midst we find someone who doesn’t have to be afraid.  We’re confronted with reasons for despair, but in our midst we find someone who can restore our hope and comfort us.  We can’t help ourselves, but in our midst we find someone who is powerful enough to overcome every danger.

In our midst we find our savior.

Michael the spy became a hostage and “changed the game,” to use the cliché.  The Son of God became human–he joined us in the mess we’d made of the world–and he changed everything.

That’s the promise of Immanuel.  That’s the story of Christmas.  That’s why we rejoice.

The Climax of Human Drama

One of my favorite television shows of all time is a Canadian gem called Flashpoint, which ended this past year after a five season run.  It was well written, well acted, incredibly dramatic and exciting, and, because it was Canadian, it wasn’t graphic with its violence.

(God bless Canada.  It says something about my non-Canadian culture–not something good, in case that wasn’t clear–that we think realism requires gory, bloody, anatomically accurate carnage.  Similarly we think love requires sex.  Apparently we can’t fathom anything that doesn’t happen to our bodies.  Hooray naturalism.)

In brief the show follows a group of dedicated police officers who enter terrible and dangerous situations, then try to defuse them and get everyone out alive.  Usually someone has made terrible life choices, gotten themselves into a heart-wrenching situation, and created a worse situation in the haze of despair.  Sometimes things go badly–as they say in the show, they can do everything right and still have the situation go wrong–but other times the heroes save the day.

That’s what the police are intended to be in the show.  (Yet another thing to like about it; police usually don’t get enough respect.)  Its creators describe it as a show about the human cost of being heroes.  We’re supposed to see the heroes be heroic and understand what it takes for them to do it.

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that they had me at heroes.  There are no genres I embrace more enthusiastically than heroic narratives.  Lately I discovered another show, Arrow, which is about the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow; it’s badly written, poorly acted, doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of drama, and I watch it anyway.  I kind of miss it when I can’t watch it, actually.

It might be easy to dismiss this particular infatuation because I’m male–lots of folk talk about how men want to be heroes themselves, and even more folk talk about how women are sick of people thinking they need to be saved by men–but there’s a bit of a twist.  Yes, I like the idea of being a hero–I’m enormous and hairy, so there’s no point denying the level of testosterone in my system–but I like hero narratives because I’m already in one, and I’m the person in distress.  For me hero narratives point to the hero of my own experience, who is most certainly not me.

Let’s use our imaginations for a moment and imagine a person who makes bad choices.  (This should not be difficult.)  Bad choices tend to lead to bad situations, and in bad situations it’s easy to make more bad choices.  If you watch any crime shows at all–or have even a passing acquaintance with actual human beings–this is easy to understand.  People end up addicted, desperate, trapped, and doomed.  A lot of the time they get themselves there freely.

So let’s imagine a boy who’s small and scared, poor and isolated.  He’s constantly hungry and nervous, in addition to the usual childhood burdens of jealousy and impotence.  Then someone offers him a way to be less hungry, less scared, and the cost is relatively small, maybe a petty theft.  Well, it feels good to have a bit of power over his own fate, so he does that a few more times.  Eventually escalation is required, but it doesn’t seem as hard anymore.

Fast forward to the teenager in a gang who’s more scared of the people over him than he ever was of the outside world.  Now he’s seen the terrible dehumanizing cost of the life he leads, but what can he do?  Even if he could escape, what would he be escaping to but either justifiable punishment or a miserable life trying to hide both from punishment and his gang.

Incidentally, this is exactly the sort of teenager who would make a desperate decision and need to get rescued by the police in Flashpoint.  Also incidentally, it’s the story of Christmas.

You see, there’s a moment in every heroic narrative when the hero shows up.  If it’s done well–so don’t look for examples in Arrow–it’s magical.  As the one song puts it, there’s a “thrill of hope” that maybe everything will be ok.

In the heroic narrative we call history, that point happened about 2,020 years ago.  Every human being was that desperate teenager I described above.  We all made bad decisions, we all chose such corrupt power as the devil offered in place of God, and as a race we came to deeply regret it, but what could we do?  Our situation was hopeless; we didn’t know how to fix what we’d caused, we didn’t want the punishment we knew we were due, and we couldn’t stop making things worse.

But then God came.

When it comes to holidays, Easter is the most important one in the Christian story–if Christ wasn’t crucified and resurrected, nothing else matters–but Christmas is the climax.  Once God shows up, resolution is inevitable.  The resolution is also inevitably good, because God is Good, but that takes a bit more unpacking.  What’s clear though is that everything changes.  To use a toned down version of the cliché:  “Things got real.”

Let’s imagine that desperate teen above confronts the leader of the gang.  The leader of the gang responds with violent fury.  The teen imagines he’s going to die.  Then Batman shows up and says, “Leave the kid alone.  If you want to tangle, how about you tangle with me.”

That’s Christmas.  That moment is Christmas.  The eternal Son of God shows up and says, “Okay, Sin, how about you tangle with me?”  (Spoiler: This does not go well for sin.)

And that’s why I like heroic stories.  For me, every heroic story reflects the one truest one, the story of a heroic God.  It’s why I like Christmas too, when the heroic God showed up.  Frankly I can’t get enough of that story.

Surprises

Greetings Again, Dear Readers!

It pains me to have missed two posts, especially one of my Sunday posts.  Hopefully, if there are those in the world who rely upon my regularity of schedule–unfortunate folk indeed–they can forgive me.  Also, if my absence ruined anyone else’s day, please forgive me for that as well.  I wish I could say that soon I’ll extract amusing stories from the hectic- Continue reading