Truly Happy: Rudolph, Augustine, and Our Misfit Hearts
As everyone knows, the day after Thanksgiving is when Christmas celebrations can begin in earnest. Most of us would permit the spinning of holiday records and purchasing one’s Christmas tree at this point. Though corporate America and malls start advertising Christmas around Halloween, after Thanksgiving we can all jump in with few qualms of conscience. So, where was I on the day after Thanksgiving this year? Reveling in the Christmas spirit, of course!
While visiting my parents in suburban Atlanta, we decided to enjoy a performance of the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at The Center for Puppetry Arts downtown. This is a place my mother had taken my brother and I as kids, and now she was thrilled to be taking her grandsons. The show followed the story and art of the original 1964 movie, while adapting it for puppets. A fusion of a projector screen in the foreground and the fantastic work of the puppeteers interspersed throughout the beautiful set in the background made the show special and the story fresh.
Rudolph has been a favorite of mine since childhood. I like the story, the music, the humor, and the fact that all the original animation was done entirely in Japan (fun fact!). The central theme that misfits matter and can serve unique and important roles in society is beautiful and even gospel-esque. I was reminded of the simple beauty of the story’s theme as I experienced it anew with my children in a different format.
One line that stands out in the story (and I’m by no means the first to notice this) is one uttered by King Moonracer, the winged lion and lord of the Island of Misfit Toys. When Rudolph, Hermie, and Yukon Cornelius (my favorite character) ask King Moonracer if they can stay on the island as misfits themselves, the king responds in a curious way: “No, that would not be possible. The island is for toys alone.” Yukon Cornelius mocks Rudolph’s rejection by the king, saying, “How do you like that? Even among misfits you’re a misfit.” That stings. He’s right. Even on the Island of Misfit Toys, Rudolph can’t find a place of belonging and rest. He can’t find a home.
It’s at this point when a profound quote comes out of the mouth of King Moonracer. He makes it clear that the island is not a permanent home or place of rest for anyone, even the misfit toys themselves. The king clarifies, “A toy is never truly happy until it is loved by a child.” The toys that inhabit the sad isle of his dominion are never at rest or truly happy until they find the love that they were made for—the love of a child. Though their broken dysfunction has kept them from finding this happy relationship, their ultimate hope is that they would know this love that would restore even the most peculiar misfit.
As I heard this line for perhaps the twentieth time in my life, I was struck by its similarity to the most often quoted line of Saint Augustine, the early church father from North Africa. At the outset of his historic spiritual memoir The Confessions, Augustine prays, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (1.1.1). He confesses the deep ache of every human’s longing heart. Our hearts desire their home. Our hearts desire true happiness. Our hearts desire the love for which we were made. Augustine had learned, as many more believers have, that his heart’s home, place of rest, and source of true happiness was in the love of God. It is found in the perfect love of the Heavenly Father who made us—this God who made us out of his own Triune delight and who, ultimately, did so that we might find our deepest solace within that delight.
Augustine’s story is Rudolph’s story. It is the story of the misfit toys. And it is also our story. We are broken and lonely. We long for a home and can’t seem to find it. We were made for love but feel loveless and misdirected. We try to find it in our own hometown, but we often strike out on our own to find it elsewhere when rejected by family and friends. We’re often disappointed by those who were supposed to love us better, to love us as their own, but who instead seek to better themselves through us or ignore us. This is why the earlier scenes with Rudolph and his dad, as well as with Hermie and his boss, are painful to watch.
There is good news in the Rudolph story: eventually everyone appreciates Rudolph for who he is and his surprising usefulness (there’s a happy ending for Hermie and Yukon Cornelius as well). But there’s even better news for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what Augustine had discovered. It’s what so many other believers throughout church history and across the world have found. When we were defective, misfit sinners, God in Christ drew near to us in love: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Though we were aimless, purposeless, and without a home, the Lord has made us his own: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). And, through the gift of faith in his Son, our Heavenly Father has given us rest: “For we who have believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:5a).
In light of this greater good news, we all can be truly happy, though true happiness is different than how we naturally conceive of it. True happiness is not found in the fickle affection of even friends and family. It is not found in a new holiday purchase. It is not even found in your favorite Christmas movie or tradition. As King Moonracer and Saint Augustine remind us, we can all only be truly happy when we experience and revel in the love of the One for whom we were made. In Jesus, we find this transforming love. We find a Father who is outgoing and who runs out to meet us as misfits wandering on the way home (Luke 15:10). We find a Father who rejoices over us with gladness, quiets us by his love, and exults over us with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17). In his arms, we can rest and be truly happy—now and forevermore.
Advent and Christmastime are an invitation to again experience the breathtaking beauty of God’s love for us in Christ—to let the anticipation grow as we await its fullness in his eventual return.
**This post was originally published in 2019 with Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy — Covenant Theological Seminary’s theology blog**