Christmas in America consumes so much that I sometimes think of it as an octopus. You have the commercialization tentacle, the War on Christmas tentacle, the decorate the day after Halloween tentacle, the my diet is blown tentacle and, right about now, the “I’ll never get it all done” tentacle. But I have always prided myself on keeping the theology of Christmas in perspective. Even if my New Testament professor at Baylor was uncertain about my intellectual grasp on the matter. He never liked the fact that I do not understand Christmas as a Christian holiday.
I used to force my children to watch It’s A Wonderful Life when they much preferred A Christmas Story. Truth be told, It’s A Wonderful Life is pretty depressing for about two hours of its 2:10 hours of run time. At the movie’s core, Frank Capra gives us potential suicide from a looming bankruptcy, something more suited to Dickens than modern culture. In the end, George Bailey’s redemption makes it worth the wait. It may have taken all of Bedford Falls to get the message across, but George finally sees the connections that make life worth living.
Fast forward 20 years and the Howens have a new unanimous favorite Christmas movie, Love Actually. (We still make time for Elf also). I like the fact that Love Actually reminds us that Christmas is global. Most of all, though, the film illustrates that, beyond the pain, horror and silliness of everyday life, there are people who can make it all right. I have watched the film probably 25 times and still choke up at the end as couples, families and friends from all over the world meet at Heathrow airport and, even if for a moment, feel their “hearts strangely warmed.” The denizens of that modern airport are retelling the story of Bedford Falls.
So while my theology may be simplistic, I always felt it powerful. Christmas means that no one is alone in the world. Prince or pauper; black or white; believer or skeptic matters not. God is with us in human form. Thus, we are moved to put money in the pail to tell people we are with them; to grandmother’s house we go so that we can warm the hearts of others. One of the fundamental decisions you make in life is whether you view your fellow man as inherently good albeit imperfect or by nature evil with a small chance of improvement. Christmas affirms my choice; humans are worth the effort.
All of which makes this morning’s headlines so disturbing. The Syrian city of Aleppo has stood defiantly for years as a place where a community wished to live free. For that sin, Russian and Syrian planes have rained death and destruction on the citizenry, principally in the form of barrel bombs designed to kill and maim civilians. Everyone in Aleppo is a target of evil, regardless of age, gender or combatant status. Remarkably, people have continued with their lives in a place that sounds a lot like hell. The “White Helmets” came to represent a triumph of the human spirit as they have from necessity become world leaders in rescuing people from the debris of bombarded buildings, usually while the airstrikes return for the explicit purpose of killing the rescuers. Brave does not begin to describe those who live there and innocent is a word that describes almost all of them.
Aleppo is falling. Like the brutal despots on whom he has modeled himself, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is bloodthirsty for revenge. The executions and torture have begun and do not be fooled by proclamations of humanitarian aid from Assad’s Russian overlords. Through modern telecommunications and social media, we know the precise thoughts of those whose fate is imminent. Those thoughts are best summarized by the hashtag phrase that translates roughly into the idea that “Aleppo is being destroyed by the silence of the Arabs and the entire world.”
In that phrase lies the juxtaposition of my worldview and the world’s reality. The people of Aleppo are alone. So are most living in North Korea, Mynamar, Sudan, Libya, Equatorial Guinea, China, Russia and a host of other places. There is no Bedford Falls or an expectant waiting gate at Heathrow airport for the billions whose lives are only fear and desperation.
I have had an intellectual understanding of the paradox for a long time, but seeing the harsh reality through the prism of Christmas blessings transforms that intellectual challenge into something more emotional. No donation or mission trip is going to cure these ills. Try as we might, even the economic and military power of the world’s greatest modern empire cannot remove the darkness.
So where does that leave me? It is impossible to blame Syrian atrocities on the West and given our uneven record in creating power vacuums through regime change, there is no obvious path that would have avoided this result or something worse. So guilt is inappropriate. Vowing to bring Assad to justice and to eventually see the dictator deposed sounds noble, but empty to those suffering today. Blind rage looks futile. Writing it all off “to God’s plan, beyond our understanding” strikes me as pretty convenient for one who God has favored so much. There is no defensible answer. And yet, I am not ready to give up on Bedford Falls and Heathrow airport.
So for today, the promise of Christmas remains only that…a promise. Until the promise can be met, hold close to those who warm your hearts. Winter has come to Aleppo and its citizens may be unable to do even that.