Joyeux Noel - Enacting or Observing?

by Joel on April 30, 2006

The other day, I took in the foreign (to me) film Joyeux Noel. After seeing it I was struck by a couple of quotes attributed to Gandhi, both getting at the same idea. One is, “I like your Christ; I don’t like your Christians.” The other is, “If it weren’t for the Christians, I’d be a Christian.” In the United States, Christmas is frequently a pagan celebration, whether in or outside the church, that observes a holiday but doesn’t enact a holy day.

In the movie, set on Christmas Eve 1914 during World War I, French, German and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms to celebrate Christmas. The moments of celebration, though, give way to the more important establishment of relationships and community. These officers and troops often paid a price for their “fraternization” however, as they were frequently punished for their “misconduct.”

One of the more ‘Christian” characters in the film is Horstmayer, a Jewish German officer played by German actor Daniel Bruhl (a/k/a Daniel Bruhl Gonzalez Domingo), who has no personal interest in Christmas but yet instinctively understands what the season is about. (The casting of Bruhl is all the more powerful in that he was born in Spain of a Spanish mother and German father, grew up in Germany and speaks fluent Spanish and German.) Perhaps the least Christian character is the war-mongering Bishop played by Ian Richardson. I allege this not because I’m a pacifist; indeed I subscribe to some manner of “just war” theory. Rather, the Bishop doesn’t seem to recognize that all war, just or not, is evil. Further, he seems to have completely forgotten the Biblical passage about love of the enemy.

The movie is not Christian-bashing, though, as the Scottish priest castigated by the Bishop for presiding at an open mass in the unofficially-declared neutral or cease-fire zone understands that Christmas is an enactment of the faith, and that faith is not a tool for advancing nationalistic goals, but is instead rooted in the establishment of community. (I recently attended a continuing education event where presenter Robert Linthicum said the “job of the church isn’t to bring people to Christ but to create shalom” — shalom being real, working community and not just the “peace” that the modern world often reduces the word to; perhaps a topic of discussion in itself for another time.) The Bishop in Joyeux Noel sees his role as helping to defeat the enemy in battle and pays little attention to the resurrected Christ who died for all. For the Bishop, Christmas is a celebration or observance to be exploited. He sees himself as committed to justice, but his heart has been captured by hate.

In our own lives, are we better at enacting the Christian faith, or just at observing it passively and passingly in meaningless ritual?

Posted by Joel Bütow (my name in German)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


J 04.30.06 at 3:04 am

“In our own lives, are we better at enacting the Christian faith, or just at observing it passively and passingly in meaningless ritual?”

Umm, I’ll guess choice B. We’re always good at doing the easy stuff.

“the “job of the church isn’t to bring people to Christ but to create shalom””

Shalom is a desirable objective we should work towards, but the job of the church is to bring people to Christ ( ).


Kim 04.30.06 at 12:18 pm

At the risk of being unnecessarily awkward, I would say that the “job” of the church is neither to “bring people to Christ” nor to “create shalom”; the “job” - i.e. the mission - of the church is simply to witness, to tell and enact the story of the God who has reconciled the world - i.e. brought shalom - through the life, death and resurrection of a first-century Jew named Jesus.

We don’t “bring people to Christ” - at least not as if Christ were not already among people; rather we “name” the Christ who is always among people, even if unrecognised. We don’t fill an absence, we simply point to a presence, as a secret we’ve been let in on and want to share.

And we don’t “create shalom” - at least not apart from our life-long apprenticeship in learning and practicing the arts patience and peace in the Christian community itself.

Is there anything different about Christians that strikes people
as odd, indeed astonishing? Do our churches puzzle and intrigue people, such that they are curious about what makes us tick? Do they look at us and say, “Hey, what are they on? I want a bit of that!” Aren’t these the big questions raised by Joel’s post?

Cardinal Suhard wrote: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would make no sense if God did not exist.”


Olive Morgan 04.30.06 at 2:35 pm

Kim says, ‘We don’t fill an absence, we simply point to a presence, as a secret we’ve been let in on and want to share.’

‘Point’ is avery distant word! jesus is alive and, as you say im, ‘among the people’. I don’t want to be only pointing to a distant Saviour. I want to bring people to know and love the Jesus who has made himself known to me and come close to me. Hhalom follws on that live encounter!


Kim 04.30.06 at 5:50 pm

Hi Olive.

I am sorry you think “point” is “a very distant word”. I don’t mean it to be, and it certainly needn’t be: it can refer to something very near - like the Saviour himself.

Do you know Mathias Grünewald’s “Christ on the Cross” (from the Eisenheim Altarpiece)? It was Karl Barth’s favourite painting; a copy always hung above his desk.

In the painting, with bold artistic license, John the Baptist stands at the foot of the cross gesturing to the Crucified with an almost grotesquely elongated finger. All proper theology, Barth said - and all Christian ministry, I am adding - must be like this pointing hand. Ours is a modest ministry - precisely so that we don’t get in the way of the Holy Spirit, who alone can inspire faith.


DH 05.01.06 at 1:46 pm

The fact remains is that Jesus says “one plants, the other water and God gives the increase” and the Great Commision. I feel it is our job under the power of the Holy Spirit is to bring people to Christ and create Shalom at the same time. We must be a living ministry which is part of theleading people to Christ and Shalom we have been talking about. “How can they hear in whom they haven’t heard and how can they hear without a preacher?” Remember Phillip led the Ethiopian to Christ. True God took him to the road to Ethipoia but Phillip was obedient and lead him to Christ.


Joel 05.01.06 at 3:12 pm

I agree absolutely with the Great Commission, but I have some doubts about the productivity of the way the Church universal has approached it. By “productivity” I mean more than church membership. The commission topic perhaps deserves its own post and not just a comment.


Joel 05.01.06 at 3:14 pm

Olive, I enjoyed reading your profile at Locusts and Honey.


DH 05.01.06 at 3:20 pm

I agree it is more than church attendence and I believe the church in Evangelical circles DOES focus more than just attendence. Like I said it is a combination of sharing ones Faith in Christ alone for Salvation AND doing and living for Christ therein. “Except a man be Born Again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

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