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The theological significance of Christmas movies

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Christmas Around the Corner, a 2018 Christmas romance movie by Lifetime.

The other week I spent a pleasant evening watching a film entitled Christmas Around the Corner. The movie is about a New York venture capitalist called Claire who takes a short pre-Christmas vacation in a flat above a family-owned bookstore in a small town in Vermont which had been important in the life of her late mother.

In the course of the three weeks leading up to Christmas, Claire revitalises the bookstore, gives sage career advice to a local student who is helping out there, persuades the locals to hold their annual Christmas celebrations (which have been cancelled due to a devastating flood earlier in the year), and in spite of a whole series of difficulties captures the heart of the local blacksmith who is the owner of the bookstore. The film ends with Claire and the blacksmith going to a Christmas service at church at what is clearly the start of their happily ever after.

Christmas Around the Corner is part of a niche genre of films known as Christmas movies that are available on numerous TV channels from September onwards, with at least one channel being dedicated entirely to showing them.

Movies in this genre come in three main types. Type one, the most basic type, consists of the hero and heroine meeting up for the first time over the Christmas holidays. Type two consists of the hero/heroine with a big city career going back to a small town in the United States where they rescue a local family run business from imminent collapse and start a romantic relationship while doing so. Type three consists of an American girl meeting an incognito royal prince from a small country in Europe, falling in love with said prince and getting together with him at some grand royal event for the film’s great romantic finale.

What all three types have in common, whatever the precise details of their plot and the setting, is that they have four sections: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, an obstacle arises that threatens to prevent them being together, and finally the obstacle is overcome, and they get back together for the happy ending and the happy ever after.

Christmas movies are not generally highly regarded by film buffs. This is because the plots are normally rather contrived, the production values are typically low, and you know from the outset where the film is going and how it is going to end up. Furthermore, from a Christian perspective the view of Christmas that they offer tends to be heavily secular.

Nativity scenes and pageants do occasionally occur, but the emphasis of the movies is on Christmas as a time for decorating the house and the neighbourhood, cooking, present buying, getting together with family and friends and (of course) falling in love. Where, a Christian might ask, is there a recognition of the miracle of the incarnation of God in Christ which is what the festival of Christmas is actually supposed to be about?

These criticisms of Christmas movies are entirely fair, but I want to argue that, for all their shortcomings, movies in this genre do in fact point us towards two extremely important theological truths that we all need to hear.

As I have already indicated, at their heart Christmas movies are celebrations of romantic love between a man and woman. If one had to summarise their overall message it would be that whatever happens, true love will conquer all. There will be a happy ending for the hero and heroine leading to a happy ever after.

The Hallmark Channel is famed for its romantic Christmas movies.(Photo: Hallmark Channel)

This message is one that is often seen as naïve. In real life, it is said, true love does not always conquer all. The boy does not always get the girl. There is no guarantee of a happy ending resulting in a happy ever after. In response to this criticism, I want to argue that from a Christian viewpoint, while it is true that in our fallen world human life does not always work out in the way that it does in the Christmas movies, nonetheless these movies do point us to the truth about what human life is meant to be like and the truth about the relationship between God and his people.

According to the account of the creation of the human race given to us by God himself in the opening chapters of Genesis, God created human beings in two sexes, male and female (Genesis 1:26-27), and then ordained that men and women should join together in a relationship of mutual love and exclusive sexual union with a member of the opposite sex that should last for a lifetime (Genesis 2:18-25), what has later come to be called monogamous marriage.

It is this form of relationship that is still taken as the desirable norm in Christmas movies. Although most of these movies are not specifically Christian in their content, they nevertheless take for granted that it is of central importance to human well-being that men and women should come together with a member of the opposite sex to form an exclusive, loving, marital union that will last a lifetime.

We live in a world in which, tragically, life is very often not like that. As we know, people engage in sexual unions outside marriage, they cohabit rather than marry, their relationships can be marked by emotional and physical hurt rather than by love, and even if they do marry their marriages all too often end in divorce. What Christmas movies tell us sotto voce is that this is not how it should be. Even if they don’t say so explicitly, they implicitly testify that the Creator’s original plan is still what is best for his human creatures today.

Furthermore, what God also tells us in Scripture is that the marital form of relationship which he has ordained for human beings is a pointer to his own unending love for them.

As the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware writes, “God’s love is, in the literal sense of the word ‘ecstatic’ – a love that causes God to go out from himself and to create things other than himself. By voluntary choice God created the world in ‘ecstatic’ love, so that there might be besides himself other beings to participate in the life and the love that are his.” Humans are among those beings and what God has desired all along is that they should enter into an eternal loving union with him of which even the deepest human marital love is but a foretaste.

According to the Biblical account, when the human race as a whole rejected this vocation by turning away from God to the service of idols (Romans 1:20-22) God did not give up, but instead established a relationship with the people of Israel which the Bible describes in terms of a marriage, a relationship that was intended to be the instrument through which humanity as a whole would be led to learn of God’s love for them.

Unfortunately, Israel was unfaithful to God. She too turned away from God and fell back into idolatry. However, God still did not give up, but instead promised to restore his marriage with Israel in the form of a new and everlasting covenant with them. As the prophet Isaiah puts it:

“For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer….For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54: 5-8, 10).

To quote Brant Pitre: “God does not give up on his bride but promises to one day forgive her sins by establishing a new marriage covenant with her.”

The New Testament tells us how God the Son kept this promise by being born from the Virgin Mary at the first Christmas as Jesus Christ in order to establish this new covenant between God and his people through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and his gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It also tells us that all who believe in Christ are included in this new covenant and at the end of time they will participate in the everlasting marriage between God and his people in ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1-2). To put the same thing another way, according to the New Testament Christ the bridegroom is coming back to claim his bride so that there will be the ‘happy ever after’ that God has planned all along.

What all this means is that in celebrating the idea that true love conquers all, Christmas movies are in their own way pointing us to the deepest truth of human existence, namely that God’s love for his people is invincible and will one day achieve its intended goal. In Paul’s words, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

What I want to argue therefore is that, in spite of their apparently secular focus, Christians should enjoy Christmas movies. They should enjoy them not simply as a form of escapist entertainment, but as a pointer to the sort of loving, lifelong marital relationship that God has ordained for his human creatures to enjoy in this world, and even more importantly as a pointer to the unbreakable marital covenant between God and his people which those who belong to Christ can begin to enjoy now, and will enjoy fully and forever in the world to come.





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