This is the time of year when we hear the word “believe” being thrown around a lot. Believe in Santa. Believe in the Christmas spirit. Believe in the goodness of mankind. A few years back, the movie (based on a children’s book) “The Polar Express” was released. On the surface, the movie seems to revolve around a child’s belief in Santa Claus, or in the magic of Christmas. The movie even goes so far as to use the word “Believe” as kind of a central theme. Towards the end, as the conductor is using his ticket punch to write a special word in each child’s golden ticket, the word that appears for the main character is, in fact, “Believe”.
In watching the story year after year, I’m struck by how relatable the child’s journey is to anyone who has ever pondered some of the deeper questions in life. I would contend that the story is not actually about belief at all, and certainly not belief in something as non-controversial as the unspecific but usually acceptable “Christmas spirit”. I think this story is about faith. How is faith different than belief? The difference is subtle but important. Faith is belief plus action. The child in the story cannot hear the magical bells of Christmas until he believes. However, belief is not the end of the story. He also cannot receive the fullness of the first gift of Christmas until he acts. The action in the movie is the choice the child is asked to make: “I knew I could have any gift that I could imagine.” Instead of asking for something superficial, like all of the toys in the world, the child in the story makes the correct choice, and one that obviously pleases Santa. He desires to always keep a piece of the magic with him. To have a constant reminder of the splendor of the North Pole. It means more to him than any material possession or conquest his mind can dream up.
I love how torn the child seems to be at the beginning of the movie. You can tell that he wants Santa to be a reality, but his hopes are constantly bombarded by a world that wants to expose Santa as a fraud. As he flips through newspaper articles and photographs of fake beards and Santas on strike, I can almost hear the not-so-subtle insinuations pervasive in our electronic media and institutions of higher learning today. “Christianity is for the intellectually weak”, “Religion is a crutch”, “People of faith are closed-minded”…God is not real, God is not real, God is not real. I’ve been there. In fact, I’m there most days. Living in a world that so desperately wants to be it’s own Santa Claus that it’s missing the ringing bells. I’ve always felt a bit of a misfit, but not the rebellious dye-your-hair kind. More like the kind who knows that the North Pole is out there, and that it’s where I truly belong. It’s something I carry always, and it sometimes makes living in this world difficult. How do you describe the ringing of the bells to someone who doesn’t even believe that the bells exist?
Probably the most famous line of the story is the one that closes out both the book and the movie, and is so brilliant that it bears repeating here:
At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell. but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear it’s sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.
This is one of the most beautiful and sad sections I can ever remember having read in a children’s book. It’s a bit sad if you take this book at face value. However, if you’re like me, and your mind replaces the word “bell” with “God’s voice”, the sadness is taken to a whole new level, especially as the reality of the passage kicks in. It’s very true that many of my friends no longer hear the bell. There are those who I have studied scripture with in my youth that now seek out and attack any weakness in the church. Every day, friends that I once knew very well post articles about atheism and blaspheme the savior of the world in a mocking display of apathy towards the sacred. The bell does not ring for them. God’s voice goes un-listened for, and therefore unheard. I wish I could show them the sound of the bell, but you can’t teach faith, you can only display it.
I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven
Jesus spoke the words above, according to Matthew. How do we continue to hear the bell? Keep the faith. The faith you had as a child, when you believed and responded. Despite the cynicism, despite the apathy, despite the pursuit of the world to replace God with <fill in the blank>. Let no distraction keep you from listening for God’s voice.
Keep the faith, and Believe.
Merry Christmas, all.