Sunday, January 03, 2010


Of all the Christmas movies we've collected over the years, I would have to say the one that impacts me the most is the one I least expected. The obvious inspirational choice would be The Nativity Story. The obvious tear-jerker would be The Little Match Girl. Our favorite comedy is still, even after all these years, A Christmas Story. And for an all-around feel good movie, White Christmas, staring my beloved Bing Crosby, is my all-time favorite, hands-down.

We bought The Polar Express because Buddy had a thing for trains. Period. That was my only interest in the movie, and that minimal interest was only by proxy. I didn't see it in the theater, because Buddy was too little to go, and, as already mentioned, I wasn't really that into it. The hubby and Bub went alone. The following year it appeared in Buddy's stocking, and the first year they watched it I wasn't even at home. I don't remember when I finally saw it for the first time, nor do I remember my initial response. But I eventually grew to find enjoyment in the movie, and in even more time, great insight. As in, this year it smacked me upside the head. Hard.

The Polar Express chronicles 8 or 9 year old Hero Boy's angst and adventure filled Christmas Eve. Hero Boy, having been raised in a "believing home," is experiencing, on this fateful night of all nights, his first major crisis of faith. Anxiety clouds his once-innocent face, for now, for the first time, there is Doubt. And Doubt, as we all know, is a Fearful Thing.

Hero Boy wants to believe. Desperately. You can see it on his face. It is evidenced in his running to catch the train, in his conversations with the creepy apparition he continues to encounter, in his frantic effort to make it to the square before midnight. Hero Boy needs for this to be true. But he is desperately afraid it is not.

He is afraid it is not true because Confusion has entered the picture, introduced by older, more "mature" boys, eager to destroy youthful dreams for a good laugh. Confusion introduced him to Suspicion, Suspicion brought his twin brother, Doubt along, and the rest, as they say, is history. Innocence is lost, Faith is shattered, Shame soon follows, like a tag-along younger sibling, eager to be included with the Big Boys. Hero Boy is, as we might say, a hot mess.

Once aboard, Hero Boy's shame grows as he encounters other children. There is the poor boy who almost doesn't make the train—Christmas has never come to his house before. What reason would he have to believe? His doubt is legitimate. He waits until the very, very last minute, as the train is leaving his home, to attempt to come aboard. While his doubt is warranted, his hope wins out. Hero Boy, recognizing Hope, pulls the emergency brake and the child is able to come on board. Hero Boy remains perplexed. Hope and Doubt battle it out internally. Will Hope secure the victory for Faith? Or will Doubt take him down, scoring another win for Unbelief?

Next he encounters a whiny-voiced bespectacled boy who annoys Hero Boy with his endless questions and even more endless answers. Hero Boy appears frustrated to not be able to answer with certainty, a fact that does not go unnoticed by his nasally counterpart. The more he presses, the more Hero Boy's shame grows. He knows what he's been taught. He knows the "right answers." Why can't he answer these questions? And if he can't answer the questions, does he even deserve to be here?

Then there is the movie's heroine—a beautiful, serene African-American girl with a wise and peaceful manner. When tested, time and time again, her faith does not diminish, but instead, it grows. Hero Boy beholds her with quiet wonder and a little bit of awe. He appears to not quite be sure what to make of her, yet obviously admires her, and, in the end, grows to trust her, and her judgment, as well. But until then, she makes him uneasy and uncertain about himself. Were her own certainty not growing throughout their adventure, this could have proven fatal to them both. Fortunately for each, she continues to press toward Faith, leading the way, should he choose to follow.

These four children find themselves, eventually, at the North Pole, though not where they are supposed to be. A harried attempt ensues to find the Square and make it there by midnight. Hero Boy's anxiety is at near-fever pitch. Not only is he worried what he'll find (or not find) when he gets there, he's now worried he won't even get there. Doubt and Confusion have brought along their friend Chaos, and the children barely make it to the square in time.

While one would think that finding oneself not only in the Square, surrounded by elves, but in Santa's sleigh itself (in The Bag no less) would begin to ease Hero Boy's doubts. But Doubt tends to have a tenacious hold, and it is not letting go. As the clock nears midnight, the crowd whips into a near-frenzy. "You better watch out…" The reindeer begin to pull at their harnesses. "You better not cry…" Hero Boy's eyes are wild with fear. "You better not pout…" Have you ever heard such a beautiful sound? the heroine asks of the bells on the reindeer's harnesses. Hero Boy looks at her, incredulous. Hear the bells? "I'm tellin' you why…" A bell comes lose from the reindeer's harnesses, rolling across the square and landing at his feet. It makes no sound. "Santa Claus is comin' to town!!!"

The door at the top of the stairs opens, and the crowd goes WILD. Hero Boy is frantic. Even in a crowd of elves, he cannot see. He jumps and leaps and springs, darting in and out of the crowd, looking for a spot between heads from which to catch a glimpse of that which once seen will bring Believing. He is crazed. All around him, people believe what he cannot. People see what he cannot. People hear what he cannot. You can see in his eyes that he just might become acquainted with Hysteria that night—he is that close.

He brings the bell to his ear again. No sound. He stares at it for an instant, then glances back through the crowd to the bobbing red hat that draws near. Near tears and breathing heavily, the crisis is fully visible on his face. But Hope hasn't left him, now whispering in his ear above the din. He hears her, and he obeys. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and makes his profession: I believe... I believe... I believe.

He opens his eyes, beholding the bell with anxious anticipation, and he raises it slowly to his ear and shakes it.

The bell rings.

The rest of the story is irrelevant to me, save the lessons each child learns, neatly punched on their tickets for each to consider. (You'll have to watch the movie to discover them—I can't give away everything, after all.) For me, the scene in the square is not only the climax, but the resolution. Hero Boy has seen (and heard) and believed. Crisis over. Faith restored. Ah, but how does that pithy little saying go? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed...

This scene epitomizes, expressed in a way I could never articulate, my own very personal struggle with faith. I know what I've been taught. I know what I believe to be true at the core of my being. But time and time again, I find myself surrounded by excited, bell-hearing believers, and I stand there, shaking the bell, chanting "I believe," and time and time again, I hear nothing.

I would love to be one of the blessed. I would love to simply believe, without the blessing-stealing benefit of sight. I would love to "know that I know that I know" about God's love. Not for you—oh no, I believe it for you. You, after all, hear the bell. No, for me alone, in my twisted little neuroses, is the bell silent.

For Hero Boy, Hope prevails and Faith wins. Saying it becomes meaning it becomes believing it becomes hearing it. In real life, it doesn't always happen that easily. Part of my ramblings this year will be my attempt to make friends again with Hope, having given up on her sincere but ineffective entreaties over the past several years. While the fundamentals of my faith are all there, there is much missing in its personal application and experience. Hope is my first step. I take it tentatively, bell in hand (or in pocket—the one without the hole), and brace myself for the ride.

All aboard—the train doesn't wait forever, after all. Got a schedule to keep. Midnight is around the corner…

No comments: