Since we are isolated and stuck inside during this Christmas season, I decided this year I was going to put together a list of of my favorite Christmas stories. The angle I took in putting this together is Christmas “pairings”, be it in book form or film. These are stories that seem to me to have a connection in spirit and focus, and which have inspired me over the years.
I have come up with 15 pairings of films/books in total, and my plan is to present those films one a day along with a brief reflection on why these stories resonated for me, how I see them fitting together, and what I think they can say to us in a more difficult Christmas season.
Here is my eighth pairing 🙂
CRONOS and THE POLAR EXPRESS
The word (or Greek name) Cronos (Chronos) literally renders “time”. The personification of time in philsophical terms, usually portrayed as an old wise man (Father Time). If you were to dig into the history and backstory of Chronos, you would find an interesting relationship between these two words- Chronos and Kronos, two distinct ideas that have become unfortunately conflated over “time” (pun intended). Chronos is a word that denotes the (one way) trajectory of time that cannot be reversed (thus associated with the movement from life to death), while Kronos refers to the meaning of time, or the value of a moment. In Greek mythology the ealier representation would be Kronos, with Chronos establishing itself as a more concrete entity later.
In either case, both words are intimately connected to the story of Zeus and to Zeus’s earlier prototype. Which is to say, the concept of time lies at the center of life and creation itself. In traditional understanding, Father Time is associated with New Years and the idea of “rebirth”, of time beginning afresh, but what is interesting to note here though is the relationship between Father Time and Father Christmas. Behind the origins story of Santa lies this idea of Father Time working in relationship with Father Chrsitmas which is how we can explain the idea of Father Christmas being able to deliver presents to the whole world all at once (through the pausing and manipulation of time). Thus this conflating of Chronos and Kronos sheds some interesting light on what it means to be present “in time” and space. We can see this development as the Latin meaning of the word present gets passed on through the old French into english from being present in time, or more directly in the company of someone or something, and bringing a “present” as in a gift, something we pass on to someone or something else. As the popular quote from A.A. Milne always suggested, Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a GIFT. That’s why they call it the present.” This is a play on words in the English sense, but in the larger sense of these word’s original meaning, they help to return to us what Kronos and Chronos actually signified in relationship to one another. In the concrete passing of time (Chronos), we find our meaning in the present (Kronos).
One of my favorite directers of all time made a film called Cronos, which delves into the words mythological and historical presence (pun again intended) in just such a way. It tells the story of a 14th century Spanish alchemist who invents a device that injects its claws into the flesh and imparts immortality. When an earthquake topples the building where he is, he is buried alive and found with his heart pierced by a stake.Years later an aging man named Jesus Gris, an antiques dealer by trade, buys a wooden statue of an archangel where this device is hidden in it and accidentally uses it and gets bitten, receiving the gift of immortality. A second aging, and subsequently dying man had discovered a journal and the truth of the alchemist and the device and had been searching for the statue for some time. He hires someone (Ron Perlman) to track down the device, which brings these two aging men together, one stuck in the immortal cycle of his life, the other desperate to escape his coming death and to achieve immortal life.
“One of the curious things about immortality in fiction is that it almost always seems to be possessed by those unworthy of it.”- Roger Ebert
To get at the heart of Del Toro’s Cronos, there are two distinct ideas that surface in this conflict between the two aging men. The first is that that this immortality requires death. Immortality comes with a price, which is that it requires the consuming, and thus shedding of blood. In the scope of this story, we are forced to wrestle with the idea that the death of another brings immorality to oneself as oppposed to the sacrifice of ones self offering life to another, with the lifeblood signifying its source. Caught within this tension is the idea of feeling caught in the cycles of our death weilding tendencies, the constant wrestling between the two natures of ourselves, one that values the sin of our self serving tendencies, and the other that values the life of our self giving choices. Cronos as a singular, forward moving notion of time in its trajectory towards death evokes these self serving tendencies. Kronos as a concept of being present in time evokes the self giving tendency.
Which brings me to the second distinct idea that surfaces in this film, which is found in the relationship between Jesus and his granddaughter. Once we move from the tension that exists between the stories of these two aging men and their warring tendencie, we come to the heart of the story, which is about the relationship between this young child and the aging grandfather, offering us two distinct perspectives on time and its relationship to immorality. It is the granddaughters perspective on time and present-ness that helps shake Jesus from these death weilding tendencies and move him towards a different idea of death evoking life- the notion of self sacrifice. It is in the self giving act that true life is found, and it is in the finding of true life that we can recognize it as a gift.
And here was what struck me the most in my most recent viewing. Del Toro has a deep connection to his own religious and Catholic roots, and this religious symbolism is written into the text of this script that is ultimately about ancient and timeless truths regarding the nature of humanity and the divine. What is interesting to me is how the Judeo-Christian idea of God approaches this old idea of time as “being present “, or being present with another, in a unique way. The idea suggests this picture of occupying the same space as someone or something, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the indwelling of the spirit that remains intrinsic to this understanding of God. Whereas God in the broader sense or the gods in the ancient sense are traditionally seen as entities that govern the world and humanity from a distance, it is this indwelling that became the defining point of Yahweh as one who dwells among us. God with us. Or as John’s Gospel famously put it, a God who “tabernacled” among us, a word that connects the arrival of Jesus in a “Christmas” sense with the image of the ancient Tabernacle, the very embodiment of this indwelling. It is out of this that God calls us towards the self giving nature of his spirit, a participating in the activity of the divine. The breaking of the perpetual cycles of sin and death that hold us in bondage in (Kronos) and through (Cronos) time. To be truly present in this world and with one another. In a very real sense, this is how we arrive at immortality as a sense of timelessness embodied, where what holds true value, true meaning, true virtue can come most fully into view. The indwelling of God in us makes us God’s image bearers in the ancient sense, the idols occupying the heart of the temple, which in the Judeo-Christians sense brings together the cosmological and earthly realities into this piciture of a single, interconnected throne room. The temple is the entire creation, and as God’s image bearers we are meant to bear witness to its meaning, its worth. And that happens in relationship to one another, by occupying space with another.
In both the book and the adaptation of the classic The Polar Express, we gain this sense of timelessness in the author’s decision to build this story around the notion of a train. It captures a moment in history that evokes certain ideas of capturing time in its essence. A train reflects this idea of “slow travel”, of slowing down time in order to appreciate our surroundings. The author explains,”there are a lot of places a train could go and take a child, but where would a child want to go more than anywhere else? As I reflected on this mysterious train, it occurred to me that it must be a cold night, because the engine’s steam is heavy. It might even be winter. Maybe some snow is falling. Perhaps its December, close to Christmas, or even Christmas Eve. Then I asked myself again: where would a child want to go more than anywhere else on Christms Eve?”
The author goes on to say,”The Polar Express is about faith, and the power of imagination to sustain faith. It’s also about the desire to reside in a world where magic can happen, the kind of world we all believed in as children, but on that disappears as we grow older.”
In the context of this childlike imagination, what The Polar Express reminds us of is how this idea of “Cronos” (time passing) can often cause us to forget how to see and know the present (Kronos). As a child we see the world in its endless possibility, a world without boundaries. As an adult we grow to see the world in its limitations and its challenges. A world caught within the boundaries of time. And thus making sense of the present and finding meaning in our reality requires us to reconcile our experience of the present with the passing reality of time as a temporary reality that is moving in one directoin. Regret can be a powerful force. When these things appear to be at odds it can be difficult to reconcile the art of living in the present with the passing of time.
This is what we see in the story of Cronos. In the case of Jesus, immortality arrives as an unexpected gift. In the case of the second aging man, his struggle drives him towards seeking this immortality. In one case this immortality comes at the expense of the present, and thus life itself loses its meaning. In the second case, life gains its meaning through the value of the present, or being present with his granddaughter. Here life gains itself meaning. If death becomes the common enemy in this story, death is redeemed precisely through the life giving act of this gift of presence. In The Polar Express, this same idea is seen entirely through the eyes of the children. Imagination is born from the idea of endless possibility. The desire to actually “reside” or take residence in the world and to believe that in occupying this space (the giving of ourselves) the cycles that hold us bondage can be broken. This is what it means to have faith, to believe. And in the scope of this story we once again find that this childlike faith is intrinsinctly connected to this unendeing belief in the “other”.
As the conversation unfolds between the conducter and the child, we see him greet the child as “the man with all the questions”. The simple gift afforded to this child, the lesson imparted to all children who take the ride on this train, reads on his ticket- “Believe”. The gift of faith itself.In his review of the film Cronos, Ebert refelcts, “If, as religion teaches us, the purpose of this world is to prepare for the next, then what greater punishment could there be, really, than to be stranded on the near shore?” What Ebert evokes here is the sense of being caught in the cycles of our adult cynicism. The idea that we cannot reconcile our notion of the present with the idea of Cronos, time moving foward towards death itself. A common ascertation of the West in its dependence on the self made person and human progress is that time is made immortal by way of human ambition and accomplishment, the gaining of all of “knowledge” in the philosophical sense. And yet, when we begin to pare this down to the personal stories, the faces and experiences that define who it is that we are and why our lives matter, why living actually holds meaning especially in the face of struggle and suffering, this has much to say about Cronos but little to say about Kronos.
What’s also true though, considering Ebert’s statement, is that this striving after immortality can become equally meaningless when it becomes detached from the present. In fact, this is precisely what leaves the Enlightenment view with such a conundrum. Progress evokes this drive for immortality all the time in the push to extend life and eradicate disease, but with little ability to say why it matters once we arrive wherever it is that humanity is heading, either succumbing to the cycles of death or conquering the vast expense of the universe. In the smallness of our lives in the here and now we are left to imagine these elements of meaning in order to give us a sense of meaning, which humanity does all the time and in many different ways. The question then is, does this imaginative process come from a given sense of meaning or is it something we simply create. Does this inate need for things to matter point us to a God, or does it point us to our need to create these gods, in the ancient and modern sense. What both of these films suggest is that what appears to be at stake in this question is how we understand the art of the imagination and its ability to point us to something beyond ourselves, to a greater truth about who we are and who God infact is.
As I reflect on this for myself. I am reminded of N.T. Wright’s often held picture of the Judeo-Chrsitian faith not being about escaping this world in order to go to heaven, but about heaven being brought down to earth and, through this relationship between Chronos and Kronos, making all things new. This is where he sees the present gaining its meaning, is in the idea that what we are building today in our present reality holds eternal significance for what God is doing in the new Kingdom. And the great truth of the incarnation, Jesus coming to dwell amongst us as God made flesh, is that this presence in us calls us to be present with one another. This is the message of the Chrtistmas season and the gift giving tradition. This is the sacrificial language that binds us together through an eternal, childlike hope, the same hope that imparts this gift of faith to this young boy and the gift of leadership this young girl in The Polar Express.
May we gain a fresh perpsective on what this means for us in the middle of this pandemic and social distancing this Christmas season.