My father is not much of a moviegoer. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times when as a kid we went to the movies together. Don’t get me wrong, I went to the movies, but it wasn’t with my father. Fishing…yes. Golfing… absolutely. Disney World or the beach (when money was available)… for sure. Movies… no. Even to this day, finding my father at a movie theater is like finding Nemo (notice the movie reference that my father will probably not understand).
So, you can imagine my surprise when twelve years ago I received a phone call from him asking me if I had seen The Polar Express (2004). It was obviously around Christmas time and somehow he had been duped by his grandchildren to sit in a dark, air-conditioned room with hundreds of other children to watch, no less, an animated film. But he loved it. Not so much sitting in the theater, but the movie. He loved it. I know this for a fact because not only did I get from him a phone call that very afternoon, but have gotten one every Christmas for the last twelve years, asking me if I had seen it.
I have and I too like the movie. The message is great, the graphics superb, and the holiday feel it gives helps set the mood for the season. There is one line in particular from the movie that I like. It’s the scene when the conductor, whose voice is provided by Tom Hanks, tells the little boy who doubts the existence of Santa Claus that, “Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” This very idea reminds me of one of the best lines in Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
I like it because in a world that depends so much on what it sees and hears, a world that values proof and evidence above anything else, these words testify to the fact that what is most essential, what in fact is most important in our human existence, is not necessarily visible to the eye or audible to the ear. The reason is that what is most essential in our lives is our faith in Jesus Christ.
Christmas lights are clearly meant to be seen. Christmas carols are clearly meant to be heard. But Jesus, the one whom Christmas is truly all about, can neither be clearly seen or heard. Jesus must be searched. We have to struggle to see and hear him. And it is precisely in the search and the struggle, oftentimes motivated by doubt, that we find him. We must struggle to find Christ against what seems like unsurmountable odds placed in our way by an overtly secular society that demands we trim away those things that cannot be clearly seen or heard and encourages us to substitute them with those things that can be bought, wrapped, and gifted.
Let’s be honest, we know Hollywood would never be so bold and “offensive” to allow a line in a movie that insinuates that it is Christ and faith in him that is behind the true meaning of Christmas. It is the reason why the “unseen” the conductor refers to in the movie is the benign and cheerful Santa Claus. But for those of us who do believe and sometimes struggle with our unbelief (Mark 9:24), we can interpret the conductor’s words to refer to Christ, the true cause of Christmas. The line can help reaffirm for us that there is much more to life and to love and to this season than meets the eye or ear.
When we read the nativity narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we are reminded that even the shepherds and wise men of the East who had the privilege of standing by that manger in Bethlehem on that holy night 2016 years ago, needed eyes of faith and not so much the eyes in their face to see beyond the baby and contemplate the real thing. They needed faith in what could not be seen or heard to truly adore, in the presence of an apparently ordinary baby, found in an ordinary stable, born of an ordinary young girl, in an ordinary little town, the extraordinary reality of the long-awaited King of kings. It is that very same faith we need today to see Jesus in the Eucharist, in each other, and in Christmas.
As the birthday of Christ approaches, let us take the opportunity that this Advent season offers to pray for the gift to see and hear with eyes and ears of faith. Let us ask the child Jesus at an extra mass during the week, or with an extra rosary in the car ride home from work or school, or at an extra confession, to grant us the grace to have faith in him grow inside of us so that we can truly understand the meaning of this season. Don’t fall for the gimmicky Christmas. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain that turns the knobs, pulls the strings, releases the smokescreen, and yells in our ears trying desperately to distract us from what is most real (another movie reference my dad will not understand). Fix your eyes and ears clearly on what is real, the unseen Christ, the true meaning of Christmas.