This Jew’s second-favorite Christmas tradition is happening tonight: the Charlie Brown special. (My #1 favorite is Chinese food and a rented movie on Christmas eve.) It’s not an exaggeration to say that as a kid, the most meaningful lesson I got on the meaning of this holiday was, year after year, from Charlie Brown’s dejection at the commercialism of Christmas, and Linus’s moment in the (literal) spotlight, when he reminds his friends–who are bickering over the details of their Christmas pageant–why they mark this special day in the first place.
Several years ago, as one of the editors here at Beliefnet able to work on Christmas, I was assigned the task of writing copy on Christmas morning for the Christianity page. It was a daunting task, to say the least; I needed to sum up in about one sentence the essence of this major holiday. I had years of religion-writing experience, a master’s degree in religion, a year of work at Beliefnet under my belt, and, flummoxed by what to write, I turned–you guessed it–to Linus. I used (with a little gender updating) the simple scriptural words he’d used to silence his friends and refocus them on the meaning of Christmas:
… And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward humankind.’
What more could I add? Thank you, Linus.
One of the best movies of the year was not exactly a box office knock-out when it played in theaters this past summer, but the Depression-era rags-to-riches story “Cinderella Man” is now out on DVD, just in time to begin campaigning for Oscar nominations in January. “Cinderella Man” is the true story of boxer James Braddock’s unlikely return to the ring after misfortune and injury to become the world boxing champion over powerhouse slugger Max Baer. The film has everything great sports movies are supposed to have–a likable underdog, realistic athletic sequences, a lovable sidekick/coach, and a loving, patient wife. But it also has something more. The emotional punch in “Cinderella Man” rests not in celebrating Braddock’s success, but in embracing what he learns when everything has been taken away from him.
In the early part of his boxing career, Braddock (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) fights because he enjoys the sport, the attention, and the money. When the Depression hits and he looses everything through bad business deals, Braddock suddenly finds himself struggling to put food on the table and to keep his family warm. As Braddock and his wife Mae face adversity with integrity–Braddock routinely goes without food so his kids can eat, for example–Braddock’s faith is tested to the point where he admits “he is all prayed out.”
Unexpectedly, Braddock gets a chance, despite his age and broken hand, to enter the ring again. The difference this time is, as he tells reporters, “I know what I am fighting for.” His identity is not tied up in winning a title. He’s simply fighting for enough money to buy milk for his kids. For enough money to pay the electric bill. For enough money to keep his family together instead of sending his children off to live with relatives. But the proud warrior Braddock also learns he cannot fight the fight alone. He needs the help of friends as well as the faith of his wife and a local parish.
“Cinderella Man” is an inspiring reminder of what we all can accomplish when we lose all of our comforts, when everything we think is so important is taken away, when we are forced to ask ourselves the question, “What am I fighting for?” To know with total certainty that what we believe is worth fighting for even when our faith is being tested–and faith is just a warm, fuzzy ideal unless it is tested–is an enormous challenge. And what better time of year than now to look at what is consuming our time, our energy, our spirits, and ask ourselves what we are fighting for?
After going on hiatus the last few weeks, “The West Wing” returned last night with an episode that focused once again on presidential candidate Santos’s struggle to incorporate his religious beliefs with the demands of politics–or more specifically, the demands of his political advisors. After courting controversy with the Democratic Party in the past months over his stance on abortion (he believes life starts at conception) and his comments on Intelligent Design (he believes in that, too), Santos put himself in the hot seat once again when he made the difficult decision to visit the tense Los Angeles community where an African-American boy was shot by a Latino police officer.
After much thought, Santos decided to speak at the boy’s funeral–a decision not supported by everyone in his political camp. In fact, in one of the more realistic moments of the season, Santos commented that he’d found a Psalm from the Bible that would be appropriate to share at the service, only to be scolded by one advisor. Her stellar advice to Santos: “People don’t want you to close your eyes and pray. People want you to open your eyes and lead.”
In two sentences, an episode on television once again captured the disconnect between millions of people of faith and politicians in real life. (And no, I will not lower myself to using trite, pointless phrases like “blue state” and “red state” when discussing God and politics.) Why is it perceived by so-called political experts (both fictional and real) that someone who closes his eyes and prays is not showing leadership? Thankfully in this episode, if not always in real life, Santos went against the advice given to him and gave an impassioned speech from the pulpit calling both blacks and Hispanics to move beyond anger to compassion and understanding. As Santos left the church with his head held high, those in the congregation look upon him exactly for what he was–a leader not afraid to close his eyes and pray, and then follow that up prayer by acting out the courage of his convictions.
I found an amazingly thoughtful moment of holiday inspiration this week from a completely unexpected source–author and scholar Umberto Eco . His recent op-ed piece in the London paper The Telegraph, entitled “God isn’t big enough for some people,” is a poignant and yet blistering commentary on society’s desire to find something even bigger than a belief in God’s existence–particularly at this time of year.
The main point of Eco’s essay is that we as humans are religious animals, whether we like it or not. Eco believes that it is extremely difficult, not to mention morally dangerous, to attempt to get through life without the hope offered by religion. As Eco explains, “We are supposed to live in a skeptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity. The ‘death of God’… has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church–from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”
This is one of the times when I would like to sound more intelligent than I actually am by saying that I have read any of Eco’s books (like the bestselling “Name of The Rose”), and that I know all about his contributions to academia, but alas, Eco has not been on my literary radar over the years. I now know this has been my loss. As I try to not turn into a Scrooge while facing the inevitable chaos of this season, Eco’s words brought me back to a wonderful moment of spiritual reflection about God, about Christmas, and about my fellow man. Yes, there is absurdity in all of the commercial excess, pagan worship, P.C. debate, etc., all around me, yet I can still embrace the spiritual traditions of this holiday season without letting them limit my desire to grow in understanding of who God is.