The Greatest Showman is one of those classic feel good movies that if it’s on TV or it’s blasting through the speakers, it’s hard not to join along. It’s the story of how P.T. Barnum created the circus we all know and love today. But at the heart of it, it’s the story of a man who dreams big dreams and desires to bring as many along for the ride as he can.
And for me, it’s a story I can hardly ever get through without crying because it is the perfect display of what walking with God looks like. We see how the Father has big dreams for us and his promise of happiness; we see the reluctance of every human heart to trust God but the joy that follows when we do; and we see what happens when we fall even after we have already experienced the Father’s love. This movie is the ultimate cry of the Father’s heart for us and the promise of the peace, joy, and freedom that awaits us when we say yes.
1. The Father’s dreams for our happiness
It starts with A Million Dreams. P.T. sings this song as a ballad to the love of his life. The moment they meet as children, he starts his pursuit. He writes letters as he waits for her. He sings of promises to make her smile. He not only envisions, but he promises a beautiful life together. A life that may look crazy to others, but a life full of adventure and risk, a life together.
As they begin a family together, and P.T. is forced to dream a new dream for them, his idea for the circus is born. His daughters tell him it needs to have life; it needs to be sensational, and so that’s what he does. He seeks out those who society deems as unworthy of being seen, those society calls “freaks.” But when P.T. meets them, instead he calls them “extraordinary, unique, I would even say, beautiful.” This brings us to Come Alive. He says to them, “I see it in your eyes. You believe that lie that you need to hide your face. Afraid to step outside, so you lock the door, but don’t you stay that way.” He invites them to come alive, and once they say yes, they know “we can’t go back again to the world that we were living in, ‘cause we’re dreaming with our eyes wide open.” P.T. offers them more than the life they’re living! He offers more than a life of darkness, shame, and hiding – all the things the world traps them in. Instead, he gives them permission to not only dream but to step into and pursue that dream.
This is the heart of the Father! He makes the same promise in Jeremiah, “For I know the plan I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your woe, plans to give you a future full of hope.” He calls us out of our darkness in Isaiah, “No more shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ or your land ‘Desolate,’ but you shall be called ‘My delight is in her,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’” Christ makes us the same promise in the Gospel of John, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Scripture is God’s love ballad to us, the love of His life, and He continues to whisper this same call to life in our hearts. But like those in hiding, it’s easy to feel like a life of happiness, a life of freedom, and a life lived in the light is impossible. And yet, Pope John Paull II said, “it is Jesus you seek, when you dream of happiness. He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you…It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives.” Jesus is the answer to our ache for a full life! Our ache for happiness, our ache for freedom, our ache to live in the light! True life is found when we say yes to our Lord, and like P.T.’s crew, we will find that our lives will never be the same again.
2. Our reluctance to trust, but the joy that follows when we do
But not everyone is as easy to convince. Here we come to The Other Side, where we meet Phillip Carlyle, a man of great wealth and prestige, and who P.T. seeks out for his talents. Right from the beginning P.T. makes a promise, “You run with me and I can cut you free out of the drudergy and walls you keep in.” But Phillip counters and says “thanks, but no…I quite enjoy the life you say I’m trapped in.” He sees the good P.T. is doing and even admires his work; you can even see a stirring of interest in him as P.T. pursues. But because he knows the sacrifice it’ll take, he instead clings to the comfort of his success, money, and as P.T. says, “whiskey and miseries, and parties and plays.” He knows it’ll cost him his reputation and inheritance, become “disgraced and disowned, another one of the clowns.” P.T. assures him, “Oh it’ll cost you everything,” and yet offers, “you just might find yourself a free man…you will finally live a little, finally laugh a little. Just let me give you the freedom to dream, and it’ll wake you up and cure you’re aching.”
Pope John Paul II is saying Jesus is the cure to our aching! And yet, many of us find ourselves being like Philip Carlyle, who is very much like the rich young man we see in Scripture (Mark 10). He is eager and excited to follow the Lord, but when he hears the cost, he walks away sad because he knows it’ll cost him everything. The call to discipleship can be intimidating, and it’s easy to want to stay in our comfort zones. The Lord tells us to leave everything behind and follow him, but how do we know it’ll be worth it? How do we know we’ll be safe? How do we know we won’t be miserable after letting all this go? Will life be boring on the other side? Pope Benedict XVI said, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful?. . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed.”
The anthem of this movie, This is Me, shows beautifully what happens when we take the risk and say yes to Christ. When we say yes, we become who God created us to be, and in doing so, we become most fully alive. There’s a raw version of this song from their rehearsals where the singer starts off scared, hiding behind her music stand. But as the song progresses, both she and her chorus find a freedom to sing with all their might, an experience that they said was “other worldly.” God has made us for that same freedom! He doesn’t promise a perfect life, but He does promise a free life. A life where we are not chained down by the lies of this world that tell us we are not worthy of being seen and known. A happiness that goes beyond what alcohol, money, and success can offer.
We lose nothing and gain everything! We gain unexplainable peace that goes beyond our circumstances, uncontainable joy that can no longer be hidden or shamed, and a family of support through the Saints and the Church community. Even with all our imperfections, all our flaws, we become alive in our identity in Christ. As she says, “I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”
3. What happens when we fall
But of course, the story doesn’t end there. P.T. eventually gets so caught up with his success, he loses it all. He loses his wife, his house, and even his business. And isn’t that the life of every Christian? Once we have an encounter with the Lord, our lives are changed forever. Not only in the state of our heart and mind, but also in our actions. We turn away from sin and choose a life of virtue. But eventually, we all fall – that sin we always struggled with creeps back into our lives, the lure of complacency draws us in, and before we know it, we’ve lost track of the dream God dreamt up for us.
This last song, From Now On, is P.T.’s redemption song. He was so broken when he lost everything, but his friends reminded him that not all hope is lost. They can rebuild and can start again. P.T. realized it was time to go back to the beginning. It was time to leave all this behind, all these years where he “chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more.” It was time to go back to his true dream with the love of his life and go back home. There’s another raw version of this song during their rehearsals, and the explosion of joy that they show is what I imagine it was like for the prodigal son racing back home to be in the arms of the father (Luke 15). In that same chapter, Christ says “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” It is always a scary thing when we come face to face with our own sin. Sometimes, we get so scared of the thought of facing God with our sin, we just continue to bury ourselves even deeper into it. But Heaven rejoices over our return! The overabundant joy of the chorus as P.T. literally runs back home is just a glimpse of the joy the angels and saints shout whenever we turn away from sin and run back to the Lord in the Sacraments. God is always waiting for us to come back home, and His heart always explodes with the same victorious cry whenever we run back to Him as His children and choose His dreams again.
On some of my toughest days, the days I need to be reminded of the greatness of God’s love, the days I just need to feel His embrace, sometimes all I need to do is turn on this soundtrack because this movie is the story of God’s pursuit, God’s promise, and God’s mercy. The question is, will we take Him up on the offer? Are we willing to step out of the darkness? Are we willing to leave our comfort behind for a life of adventure with God? But even before that, the question is, who is God the Father to you? Is He someone you feel you have to hide from? Is He someone you try to run from? Or is He someone you can share your biggest dreams with? Have you asked Him what His dreams are for you? It can be scary to step out onto that tightrope and open your heart to God, but as Pope Benedict XVI said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.” So, come alive