The film Elf has become something of a Cult Classic – and I have to admit that I am one of the fans!
The background story to the comic antics of Buddy the elf (Will Ferrell) is that as a baby he was put up for adoption by his mother (the father never knew he was born). One Christmas Eve he sneaks into Santa’s sack at the orphanage makes it back to the North Pole before being discovered and is then raised by the elves. As he grows though, it is soon evident that this six foot tall man is not an elf. The film then follows him as he heads back to New York to find his father (his mother is deceased).
As he arrives in New York it is immediately obvious he is a strange man from another world. This is given away by his clothing – yellow tights and a green tunic – an elf costume. There is no one else on the streets of New York dressed like that. He is always happy, waving at someone trying to wave down a taxi, congratulating a grubby looking cafe because they have a sign that says ‘World’s Best Cup of Coffee’ and laughing his leg off at getting his shoes polished by a shoe shiner. In general he is a bit weird, a bit different.
This produces a variety of reactions from the general public and those he comes into contact with. Some people ignore him (man waving down a taxi and the coffee shop guys) and some people get angry with him (men handing out flyers). However, when it comes to making contact with his father the reaction is bewilderment. His father, Walter Hobbs, thinks he is crazy and so when this claim that he is Buddy’s father comes to light he organises a DNA test. It is positive and so he brings him home to his wife and child. The Walter’s wife, Emily, immediately has pity for Buddy, while the son, Michael, at first shows disdain, but soon grows to love Buddy.
As the film progresses though Buddy begins to win people over. He wins over his half brother Michael, he wins over his Emily, he wins the heart of Jovie (the romantic interest in the film) and he even begins to win over his father. They all begin to love him.
And this winsome influence he has on people begins to change their attitudes and behaviours. The mail room in his Walter’s office turns from a dreary, dark place of hard work into a room full of people singing and dancing, Walter for the first time in his life puts his family before his job (even though it costs him his job), Jovie who is quiet and shy finds her lovely singing voice in public, and most importantly the everyone begins to put their faith in Santa again.
In this way, by coming to New York to find his father, Buddy the elf ends up rescuing Christmas. It is the classic Christmas film ending and yet it never gets old.
More than the classic Christmas ending, however, I think we see something of a reflection of the incarnation in this film.
The great story that we read throughout all of the Bible is God seeking out his people. Central to this story is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus Christ taking on flesh, being born of a woman and then living, dying and rising again on this earth. It is the classic Christmas narrative at carol services and yet it never gets old.
As we read the narrative, especially at the beginning of the Gospel according to both Matthew and Luke, we come to realise that Jesus is a strange man from another world. This is evident from the fact that his mother would give birth to him even though she was a virgin (Lk. 1:34). This was possible because of some mysterious working by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18). Even as Jesus grew into a young boy he stood out – instead of following Mary and Joseph home after celebrating the Passover he remains in the Temple to question the Rabbis (Lk. 2:41-52). He was different and he stood out for it.
Jesus, much like Buddy, is a strange man from another world who experienced a variety of reactions. The religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees, hated him and were keen to get rid of him (Mt. 12:14). The Israelites were amazed by him at times (Mt. 7:28-29; 9:33), and on other occasions so enraged by him they were ready to kill him (Lk. 4:29). Others loved him, sought him out and followed wherever he went (Lk. 4:42). Being a bit different, weird even, Jesus evoked a variety of reactions to his mission.
It is here the similarities begin to end.
Both Jesus and Buddy are strange, clearly from another world and experience a variety of reactions. But whereas Buddy changes everyone’s opinion to a positive opinion, Jesus divides opinion straight down the middle. As is clear from the reactions Jesus experience, some people loved him and some people hated him. There was no winning everyone over, and this is hardly surprising considering how Jesus talks about his message. In Matthew 10: 34 Jesus says this ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (ESV).
Likewise, Buddy’s arrival in New York changes people’s behaviour, but Jesus arrival does not just change behaviour – he changes hearts. Think back to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Repeatedly he speaks of the heart: he speaks of anger in the heart (5:21-24), adultery in the heart (5:27-28), pride in the heart (6:1), and idols in the heart (6:21). However, Jesus point isn’t that his follows would live up to these standards – his point is we will never fulfil the law, but that is exactly what he has come to do so we can be given new hearts. Any change of behaviour then is a consequence of Jesus changing our hearts.
Therefore, Jesus did not come to rescue Christmas like Buddy the elf. Rather, Jesus came to rescue his people. This strange man from another world, born of a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, acted differently, experienced a variety of reactions, split public opinion straight down the middle and changed people’s hearts as opposed to their behaviour – and he did all of this to rescue us!
So this Christmas as you enjoy Elf (perhaps even more than once as I plan to), by all means revel in this strange man from the North Pole that rescued Christmas. But, don’t stop there. Remember, the incarnation. Jesus left heaven, took on flesh, entered history, walked this earth and did it to rescue you.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come!