A common theme of Christmas movies is that the real winners of the season are those who still believe. The lesson is that we, especially us cynical adults who have long since stopped believing in fairy tales and the like, ought to retain a childlike naïveté, keeping open the possibility of unicorns, elves, fairies, and more.
In the movies, if you only believe, then the world of the impossible will become real to you as your eyes will be open. It is only when you stop believing that you lose the ability to see this alternate dimension. The Polar Express—a movie I really, really, do not like—is a prime example of this. The entire story hangs on whether the boy can overcome his growing doubts and retain his childlike belief in Santa Claus.
It’s as though Hollywood understands the power of belief, and the mystery of the supernatural. It is as though they understand that the full and deep “meaning of life” is found precisely in those things that are beyond mere logic or experience. And yet, faith in Christ, of course, never ends up the correct focus of our belief. Santa is usually the best they can come up with.
There are more sophisticated ways of communicating this same message, the message that hope or faith themselves are worthwhile, even if the object of that faith or hope is misplaced. This week I read of a new art installation in Los Angeles that is comprised of a large room with nothing but lighted mirrors of different colors. These rectangular, glowing boxes – about 20 of them – are supposed to bring to mind the colors of sunrise and sunset. A newspaper review of the installation said this: “Visitors to the gallery have described their experiences in the space on Instagram, calling the installation ‘enthralling’ and saying it made them feel ‘reflective’ and ‘meditative’.”
Looking at the pictures of the exhibit, I am trying to figure out what it they are supposed to be reflecting or meditating upon. It strikes me that there is no “there” there. You may leave with an impression of some kind, or you may be reminded of some other significant event in your life. But I struggle to see how an empty room with colored mirrors can actually communicate anything of any great value at all.
In our own city [Houston], dare I mention an icon that, to criticize, would be seen as gauche. And yet, there is a certain chapel that is really little else than an empty room. You are supposed to fill it with your own thoughts or meditations. (To be fair, this kind of minimalism is all-too-common in much of 20th century church architecture, as well.) In quiet meditation, you, I suppose, find inner peace or hear something from some god or another or... well, I don’t know. It did nothing for me.
Those are more “sophisticated” ways of saying that to simply believe in something—nothing in particular is fine—is the most important thing. Like the boy on the voyage to the North Pole, be open to possibilities. That is good enough. Fill in the blanks with whatever you like. If you don’t, you will die on the inside. You will lose all sense of wonder. You will grow cynical and lifeless, joyless and enslaved to mere consumerism and survival.
I disagree. Oh, not with the idea that belief and faith are good things. But I disagree with the object of faith that others propose. You see, Christians have a tremendous advantage when it comes to the topic of faith. We don’t tell people to look within. We don’t ask people to believe in things that are patently false as though there is some value in believing in something that is obviously untrue. To believe in things that are patently false is just, well, unwise.
No, what we say is that we do believe in the supernatural. We do believe in God and we do believe in some things that others consider unbelievable. But we also point to events, located at particular times in history. We point to prophecies spoken centuries before. We point to the consistent message of the God of Adam and Moses, Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and then Jesus and the apostles. We look at the crucifixion and the resurrection, and we say the same things that the apostles said.
For example, we would say to not believe in God is really, in the most technical sense of the word, absurd. Without God, there would be nothing. And unless you are prepared to reduce your very existence to nothing—and sadly, many people are prepared to do exactly that—then a timeless, powerful, intelligent, creative God must exist. It isn’t wishful thinking or fanciful to believe that. It is the beginning of all logic.
And second, in the person of Jesus Christ, we see God in the flesh. If you want to know what God has to say about things, we look to the Old Testament scriptures, and their fulfillment in Christ. We don’t need black walls to stare at, colored mirrors to look into, or guided meditation (unless we are meditating on the scriptures themselves). We have real people and events that serve as the objects of our faith. We don’t hope in hope or have faith in faith. We do not believe that any belief—so long as it pushes us beyond ourselves—is good. In fact, many beliefs are actually dreadful or even evil!
We believe in truths that find their fulness and completion in the person of Jesus. And it is that completion, that fulfillment, that we celebrate at Christmas. Not merely the birth of Jesus. That’s just the historical event we can point to. The much bigger picture is that the object of our hope and the object of our faith is the God of the universe who became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, lived a perfect life, died a sinless death and was risen from the dead.
And that is why the disciplines of our faith are not silent meditation, staring into neon mirrors, or mere contemplation. Rather, our disciplines revolve around knowing Jesus better, finding him in His Word, and praying to him as a real and true and living person.
So believe, to be sure. Don’t grow old or bitter or cynical as an unbeliever. Believe, even, in the strange and the supernatural and what many others will say is fabricated nonsense. And know that the object of your faith is a God who became flesh, a God who has revealed himself, and a God who can be known. That is what we celebrate at Christmas, not the idea that belief in and of itself is a good thing. But rather, that belief in the God made flesh is the best thing. Amen.