Measuring the Sacred

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By JC Mitchell

So this week I found out that the classic Pyrex liquid measuring cups have been redesigned.  I agree with those at American Test Kitchen that the redesign is awful, and we need to look for the older designed ones at thrift stores.  I posted about this on Facebook with pictures of my set of four and said I was livid, self-aware that this is not really a big issue, but having some fun as I found it ironic people were up in arms about Twinkies, but not this awesome kitchen tool that encourages cooking over processed foods.  In full disclosure, I was a pastry chef prior to being a minister, so I am quite aware this is truly something I am passionate about and others would not be, but it was a post in response to my silly rant that read, “Is nothing sacred?” that got me thinking.

That is the question I was really asking, just as those who were upset about the end of the Twinkie.  What makes my sacred more important?  Honestly, in these two cases I would say “nothing,” as they are more sentimental reasons for calling them sacred.  Now in the season of Advent, the question, “is nothing sacred?” comes up often.  This time of the year many traditions pop up in church, families, and even businesses, and if you change them you run the risk of someone asking, “Is nothing sacred?”

I found myself asking that very question when I saw advertisements for Rise of the Guardians, for I could not understand how Santa could be presented with weaponry.  I do have problems with that, but when I started reading reviews, I read one that said something of the sort that it is hard to enter the realm of Christmas specials.  That is the key: how do you retell the story in a new way?  It is not easy.  My gut tells me that the Rise of the Guardians falls short, but so do many attempts to retell the story.

The key element, I believe, is that the forgiveness of Easter that must be present to tell the Christmas story.  This is why It’s a Wonderful Life is repeated every year.  It is not simply the good acting; it is truly the story of Christ, even if it is not about the baby Jesus.  I will start with what is missing: it is what Saturday Night Live aired as very funny alternative ending, and that is vengeful violence.  I must admit when I saw SNL’s alternate ending, I laughed.  However, this is the important message of the movie: that there was no call for revenge.  True, it is not clear that the $8,000 was in Banker Potter’s pockets, but it would not take long to realize who is benefiting from the loss of that money, even if he did not take it directly; it is clear that greed is the villain, and personified in Potter.

George Bailey yells this at his Uncle Billy, “Where’s that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! That’s what it means! One of us is going to jail… well, it’s not gonna be me!”  And that sets up the story, not just his adventure with Clarence, but the human story.  See George is looking at scandal in a purely moralistic human view, rather than through grace.  We know that George is innocent of this scandal or this offense, and he searches for revenge, but he takes the extreme violent act of suicide as the answer.  If it was clear that Potter was the villain to him, he may have gone after him as SNL suggests, or even worse, a murder-suicide, which are all too common.

The movie goes along making us realize that George’s life is worth something, and I believe that is true and wonderful.  I suspect that the writers, actors, and director were working with that as the main story line; however, the cross story truly invades this story, and makes it the classic Christmas story.  We know that Jesus went to the cross willingly, but it was absolutely not suicide, he was crucified.  So if George jumped off the bridge he would have been responding with vengeful violence, but when he runs home and states it is wonderful he is going to jail, you realize George as the innocent victim has forgiven the villain, the system of sin that brought him to the bridge where he essentially said, “Why have you forsaken me?” to God.

It would not be a Hollywood movie without a happy ending, but I see the ending not just as happy, but a demonstration of humanity following the model of the forgiving victim.  True, many respond even before seeing George’s witness, but there is no call for revenge, and the abundance seems to reflect a great abundance that is immeasurable.

The answer to the question, “is nothing sacred?” is not really the right question.  It should be “what is sacred?” The moralistic view of what George did in the world is equal to Santa with swords doing and defending what is right.  It is actually George’s willingness to go to jail, and not to seek revenge, to forgive without looking for an apology, that resonates with us every year.  It is the good news that the Christ’s cross is so sacred it infiltrates the story.  We see we are all forgiven and do not need to respond with violence.  We are all able to celebrate a new world order in which we understand the reality of the forgiving victim shows us the way, not the moralistic avenger.

Traditions are not what are sacred, but within them are the sacred breakthroughs leading us to ask the question the Dr. Seuss ponders in How the Grinch Stole Christmas,

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

Christmas is even more than we can humanly understand: non-violent, loving, immeasurable,… grace.

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About Rev. J.C. Mitchell

Pastor, Husband, Father, Theologian, & Motorcyclist. Reads Rene Girard to Baxter Black and everything in between. Theology of disability, non-violent atonement, & the open road are of great interest. Mimetic & Narrative Theories are two respective theories that work throughout his work. Strong dark roast coffee is a wonderful reality God gave us through dancing goats, which JC greatly appreciates. Will work for black licorice.

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