In 2009 my daughter received the gift of a heart transplant. Born with a metabolic genetic disease, her first heart was huge, the result of stored glycogen. In the morning, after the long night’s surgery, I made the mistake of asking the surgeon if I could see her old heart. Like it or not, this functional muscle has a lot of symbolism attached to it as the place where our deepest feelings reside and I was finding it hard to say goodbye. Hampered as it was, labouring under desperate conditions, it had brought her through 27 years of life and I was grateful. I thought seeing it might help. Not only did I see it, the surgeon provided a video of it moving in its last beats. Ach!
All this to say when I mention Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, the pictures I see when his heart starts out small and grows may be different from yours. But the imagery is powerful. The Grinch steals everything he can think of to make Christmas in Whoville dismal and dull, glorying in his ingenuity, and then puzzles over the singing and celebrating that happens anyway.
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!
This is familiar territory. It happens to Scrooge as well in Charles Dickens’ air we breathe classic, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge makes a similar declaration when he says, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” He, too, transforms before our very eyes.
This encounter with Christ happens to us every year when December rolls around and the music starts, stores are decorated, and we go to work parties and family dinners. Though his name may not be mentioned, Jesus is in the argument over what to call the holiday of his birth. And every year on the day after Christmas we may look in the mirror as Theodor Seuss Geisel did at the age of 53 and realize there is more of the bah, humbug in us than the merry Christmas.
It is surely true the birth of Jesus Christ inspires more sentimentality than cloned Hallmark holiday movies but these two books, adapted into movies/plays/cartoons and who knows what all, manage to get to the story behind the story, far beyond gifts and feasting.
Juxtaposing them against The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, a harrowing read, might seem strange. Kazantzakis brings to life the humanity of Jesus, something sorely lost in hunky Jesus pictures, and our lack of consideration of what it means that he became one of us. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the novel happens during a conversation between Jesus and his disciple, John, when Jesus says:
“Man is a frontier, the place where earth stops and heaven begins. But this frontier never ceases to transport itself and advance toward heaven. With it the commandments of God also transport themselves and advance. I take God’s commandments from the tables of Moses and extend them to make them advance.”
“Does God’s will change, then, Rabbi?” asked John, surprised.
“No, John, beloved. But man’s heart widens and is able to contain more of God’s will.”
Hopefully we see this happen in our confrontations with past and ongoing wrongs. Slavery flourishes until we face our greed and see how abhorrent it is. Indigenous people are cheated in treaties and children sent to residential schools in an effort to erase their heritage until we face our racism and understand how horrific these policies are. LGBTQ+ people are hounded and made the punchline of jokes until we turn away from our cruelty and learn that gender is not as binary as we first understood. We can travel to the place where we come to know each other on a deeper level and our hearts widen. Who can be behind that but God?
We don’t all need a new physical heart but we sure need transformation of our old one. The prophet Isaiah foretold of the coming of Jesus to the darkness where we live. He comes as a great light, banishing the prison of our narrow hearts and taking away the shadows of death.
He reflected on the salvation of the world. Ah, if the day of the Lord could only come with love! Was not God omnipotent? Why couldn’t he perform a miracle and by touching men’s hearts make them blossom? Look how each year at Passover bare stems, meadows and thorns opened up at his touch. If only one day men could awake to find their deepest selves in bloom!
Jesus, pondering, in Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ
Off the Beaten Path:
Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas read aloud: https://youtu.be/8hX8NjblTIo
The Grinch expresses his bah, humbug, in the 2000 movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas: https://youtu.be/C_4LmbuSmpI
The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes in the 2000 movie adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas: https://youtu.be/BirYt88a0Pc
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol PDF: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm
Scrooge explains his life view in The Muppets Christmas Carol 1992 movie version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: https://youtu.be/A3EzVmsIzGg
Scrooge awakens transformed on Christmas morning in The Muppets Christmas Carol: https://youtu.be/xyshHNNBW2k
Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ is available as his 1955 novel and as Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie version. In this scene from the movie Pontius Pilate and Jesus discuss change: https://youtu.be/pXGsio9H1xs
For an explanation of the deep controversies surrounding both the book and the movie see: https://www.slashfilm.com/753575/the-last-temptation-of-christ-controversy-explained-how-martin-scorseses-passion-project-became-a-nightmare/
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” excerpt from Handel’s Messiah: https://youtu.be/B0A_1LovZJchttps://youtu.be/B0A_1LovZJc
A sing along performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah with the Yale Glee Club in 2017: https://youtu.be/7FiXpvbSLVM