“Did you know that a good deed erases a bad deed? ... It's Christmas Eve. Good deeds count extra tonight.”
Conversations between Brenda Fricker’s Pigeon Lady and Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin supply needed tenderness and balance to the oversized 1992 holiday hit “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” This particular line, recited in a space overlooking Carnegie Hall’s stage, doubles as terrible theology.
No matter how well-intentioned and warm, so many of the narratives swirling around our cultural snow globe hinder our happiness, laying down a new law.
To borrow from comic John Mulaney, I know it’s kind of stupid to complain about a movie that came out 27 years ago, but I didn’t have a weekly column back then. Indulge me.
Few gravitate toward seasonal slices of pop culture like I do. My eyes light up in response to favorite Christmas songs, specials, and movies. Yet no matter how well-intentioned and warm, so many of the narratives swirling around our cultural snow globe hinder our happiness, laying down a new law.
Good deeds erase bad ones. Make sure you muster up the greater joy of giving; don’t succumb to the flimsy pleasures of receiving. Give the right number of gifts to satisfy the fickle affections of relatives; balance your moral credits and debits to remain in the good graces of Saint Nick—or the Sweet Little Jesus Boy. Which list bears my name? Naughty or nice—neither sounds quite right.
The soul struggles to bear up under such a burden, a tragedy when Christmas exists to deliver a “thrill of hope” and break our shackles. Would-be culture warriors implore us to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But nothing crowds out the Christ-child like expectations, inherited or self-imposed, throwing their weight around.
Wriggling free from the grip of baggage and bad theology, we may experience the quiet overhaul Christmas brings. Breaking the seal of the first Advent, Jesus ushers in nothing less than a personal and cosmic revolution. Isaiah’s ballad for the Suffering Servant describes him as God arrived in quite ordinary flesh; unloved, unseen, unappreciated.
Yet the perfection of his life and the power in his death and living again overwhelm our defenses; ordinary yet one-of-a-kind, he woos and wins us to the path which leads to life and health, joy, and peace.
The best Christmas songs know the truth. They sound like nonsense on our lips without a miracle which multiplies itself. Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Yes, every heart must prepare him room, but he will cause his praises to resound throughout the cosmos; he sends salvation “far as the curse is found.”
The Christmas revolution spreads beyond each cherished soul to Earth’s every corner. We will be forever bound—even in small and subtle ways—to the unwritten laws of the season when our experience of Christmas begins and ends with us. Jesus shows up on the scene to win himself a people. Finding our place with him, among these people, the light of Christmas grows brighter, more disruptive to the lingering darkness.
The best Christmas songs know the truth. They sound like nonsense on our lips without a miracle which multiplies itself. Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Yes, every heart must prepare him room, but he will cause his praises to resound throughout the cosmos; he sends salvation “far as the curse is found.” Isaac Watts understood—Jesus “rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” carries us back, on minor-key currents, to ancient Israel and reminds us that Jesus is not the bow holding together our middle-class American lives. Rather, he is the Desire of Nations—across every century and border.
“He is the desire of all nations whether the nations know him or not. He isn’t the desire of just some nations. He is the desire of all nations,” Matthew Arbo wrote in a recent post at Mere Orthodoxy. “... His coming lights the night sky. Kings seek him out. Tyrants are threatened even by his infancy. Angels herald his arrival. And indeed every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Our best secular carols also understand the beauty of collective nouns and common needs. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sings regardless of the singer—though I prize the fullness and decency in James Taylor’s rendering. The special resonance of that ballad comes in the sharing of burdens and hope for a future together. “In a year, our troubles will be miles away.”
Christmas neither promises or demands perfection. Rather, out of straw and sadness, it presents us with a reserve of joy deeper and more precious than any gift of the magi. Over the sound of troubles which rattle within our breasts, it calls us to hear our voice within a chorus that’s present-tense yet perpetual: “O come, let us adore him.”
Don’t buy the lie that you can make or break your own Christmas. Rather crumple up laws like dated wishlists. The Christmas story is Jesus’ story; and your story as much as it’s mine. Seeing it as our story, and hearing ourselves in the songs of the season, we find the freedom to huddle close and have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.