It’s happening again; it seems to happen every year now, actually. Right after Thanksgiving the battle lines are drawn. Declarations are thrown into group conversations; challenges are issued in social media posts. Animated arguments erupt, with people on both sides declaring that their position represents both moral purity and demonstrable fact, while those on the other side are foolish, deluded, or simply brainwashed.
I’m speaking, of course, about one of the great theological debates of our time: “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” Die Hard, as you may know, is one of the classic action movies of the 1980s and, really, of all time. The basic plot is about a sarcastic cop who doesn’t play by the rules who attends a Christmas Eve party at his estranged wife’s fancy corporate headquarters. Suddenly, a sophisticated group of terrorists take over the building and hold everyone at the party hostage, but the cop manages to escape elsewhere in the building and begins waging a one-man war against the terrorists.
Well, a growing number of people now include the movie among their holiday viewing choices alongside classic choices like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Grinch. Others, though, think this is ludicrous, arguing that just because the movie takes place at Christmas doesn’t mean it is a Christmas movie; there’s nothing about the plot or the characters that relate to Christmas at all. And if you think I’m exaggerating how worked up people get on both sides of this argument, type the words “is die hard” into Google and four of the top five suggested options will be versions of the question, “is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”
For all the slogans about peace and goodwill, Christmas can be a surprisingly divisive season. There is the question of greetings, of course: should we say “Happy Holidays” to others during this time of year, recognizing there are a multitude of cultural and religious holidays that the other person may be observing during this season; or should we say “Merry Christmas” because that’s what we are celebrating?
Inside the church there are still divisions, such as those who want to maintain Advent as a season of waiting and reflection on the coming of Christ, “as the season created to be,” and those who want to lighten up already and sing some Christmas carols. And beyond the church, there is the classic battle between the religious and cultural dimensions of the season, with some arguing that the public emphasis should be on giving gifts and sharing “Christmas spirit,” while some Christians argue that we need to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” believing that commercialization and sentimentality has drowned out the real reason for the holiday in the first place, which is celebrating the birth of Christ.
With all that division swirling around, it may feel like something has gone wrong with the observance of Christmas in the United States these days. But the truth is, Christmas has always been divisive. Did you know celebrating Christmas was illegal in Puritan New England? They believed the only day that is holy is the Sabbath and Christmas obscured that, and besides, the celebrations for Christmas seemed to them as simply an excuse for gluttony and degenerate behavior.
One public notice of the time declared: “The observance of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchange of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting, and similar Satanic practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the offender liable to a fine of five schillings.” That’s right: in Puritan New England you could get fined for the “Satanic Practice” of saying Merry Christmas, even if it was only five schillings! And the Puritans weren’t alone. U.S. Presbyterians didn’t formally recognize Christmas as a Christian observance until the early 20th century for the same sorts of reasons; they, too, worried it was a distraction from the Lord’s Day each Sunday.
And that division over celebrating Christ’s birth actually goes back before the first Christmas itself to the first Advent. In our New Testament lesson today, Mary is waiting and preparing to give birth to Jesus and decides to go visit family. When she meets up with her relative Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit moves Elizabeth to cry out a blessing upon Mary, who responds with a song that is often called “The Magnificat” from the Latin words of the opening phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
And that song might sound pretty divisive if you listen to it: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” she says; “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Mary is singing about the implications of her pregnancy and what will happen once her child is born and grows up and lives into his calling. And she is singing about divisions that are much greater than Christmas greetings or movies or themes; she is talking about the basic divisions in human society over money, power, resources, and status. In her prophetic vision, the whole world order will be turned upside down by the reign of Christ, with the powers of the current order being displaced and their victims being elevated.
The thing is, that vision is only divisive if we oppose it. It’s only bad news if we want the powers of this world to remain seated on those thrones instead of Christ; if we think that the plight of the hungry and the lowly is just the way the world works and it either cannot or should not be changed; if we think the birth of a Savior messes everything up instead of brings everything together the way it was always intended to be. It is only divisive if our souls diminish or ignore the Lord rather than magnify the Lord, as Mary declares for herself at the start of her song.
After so many years of hearing Mary’s song in church, the phrase “my soul magnifies the Lord” has taken on a sort of stained-glass hue. We hear “magnify” as a sort of archaic word for praising or singing the glories of something or someone. And, of course, that is one meaning of it. But it is a secondary meaning based on the more literal meaning: to magnify something means to make it seem closer, clearer, more visible.
If you look at something under a microscope, you have to choose the magnification that you want; the greater the magnification, the more you can see small things that you would miss otherwise, or greater detail that you wouldn’t otherwise appreciate. So, to magnify the Lord, then, quite literally means to make the Lord seem clearer, more visible, closer, through what we say and sing to and about the Lord; through the prayers and gifts that we offer in and through Christ; through the love we share with God and our neighbors and those who are across whatever dividing line we find between us. Which is a pretty good definition of what it means to live faithfully in Christ at any time, but especially in Advent, as we prepare the way for the Lord and wait upon Christ’s coming with salvation, either with the lowly and hungry or as one of them.
In one of those online cycles about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, a Biblical scholar on Twitter is who finally settled it for me. “Okay, I’ll concede that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie,” he said; “it’s about a group of people held in captivity, awaiting a savior to come rescue them. It’s an Advent movie.”
The difference is that, in the movie, most the people awaiting a savior simply huddle passively together, afraid to take any action (which is a bit ironic for an action movie). One executive does do something, treating the terrorists like other businesspeople doing a hostile corporate takeover, but that doesn’t work out very well.
In Advent, waiting for our savior doesn’t mean huddling passively together or using the ways of the powerful that Mary decries to try and save ourselves. It means taking action by waiting well, actively preparing the way of the Lord by magnifying the Lord in our own faith and action, making the Lord seem clearer, more visible, closer in the world today. Not through the size or strength or intensity that faith and action, but simply through faithfully following and imitating Christ as best we can, and trusting that as we do so, we will add our voices to Mary’s song and swell the harmonies until, at last, the whole world is united in singing along.