IT’S A BOY!
Luke 2: 22-40
In spite of recalling Christmases when my sister got a plastic Wonderhorse, our children got stuffed animals, Jenny got dolls, and the boys got Buzz Lightyear and Batman, taking care of a toy is nothing like taking care of a real pet or child. Over our back fence we love patting a loveable golden retriever named Sam. We get 5 minutes or so at a time of his attention and he gets ours. Only Christmas Eve did I learn that when people come to his house, he has to be locked in a room sometimes because he is too excited to not play rough! Jenny and boyfriend Brian, inspired by Sam, got a Golden Retriever named Hemi nine months ago. He spent a week in our house over Christmas. What a difference it is to pat a dog for 5 minutes and live with a dog 24 hours a day! His feeding and boundary and bathroom habits needed attention, and in spite of his good training, he changed the way we lived for seven days. And that was just a dog! Those who have had a child, or have lived with a newborn know the responsibilities that come with a child: constant attention to warmth, eating, changing diapers, and identifying angry crying, sick crying, or hungry crying. When Christopher was born I was in my last year at Princeton Seminary. In preparation for his birth we took classes, changed the dining room in our one bedroom apartment into a nursery, and I took movies of Mary Ann acting out her nesting instinct by even vacuuming the furniture and washing the walls! When Matthew was born, we lived in Arkansas and the hospital was 45 miles away from home. It was the 100th anniversary of the church there and I had an evening homecoming service to lead: that was the day he decided to be born! What a hectic time. In those days we didn’t find out the gender of the child until birth—at least we didn’t—so as I arrived for the service that night after his birth at lunchtime, the church elders had changed the outside church sign to read “It’s a boy!” What a greeting to the world on a day I’ll never forget. Jenny was born also in Arkansas in that same hospital, but it was such a joy to, instead, pass out announcements that read: “It’s a girl!” All three of them were home for 30 hours over Christmas- hours that we cherished.
Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts: Mary, and the man to whom she is engaged-Joseph- go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth, where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to, he took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree. In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay to give birth there. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree, or her desire to stay with Joseph since both had been visited by an angel, that made her travel in her condition. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of their parts, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, they made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (also from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives! Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!
Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy! It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The puppet that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son.
People have told stories that describe the cost of real care for a pet or, even more importantly, a child, in any number of stories. In Margery Williams’ classic tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL. The dialogue went like this:
“What is real?” the rabbit asked.
“Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. … “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
If we were but puppets controlled by strings that stretched into Heaven; or if we were stuffed animals that only moved when someone moved us, we would have no knowledge of life and death, or of right and wrong, or have the burdens and joys of feelings- from happiness to sadness, from hurt to healing. To some hurting people such numbness seems like bliss, but clinically such numbness is called death; inanimate, lifeless objects don’t feel; human beings feel, with all of the burdens and joys that come with it.
God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus’ conversion, and the sorrow of Judas’ betrayal. God chose to become human, with all of its complications. Babies are complicated: they have needs, and as they grow they need guidance, and when they are grown they have responsibility. Today we were reminded by a prophet named Simeon, that even the blessed event of Jesus’ birth has its dark side. We’d like to be at the part of the story that say’s we’ll live happily ever after. We’re not there yet; but as we celebrate his birth we have this assurance: Jesus was born to save real people like you and me! Thanks be to God for the greatest gift of all at Christmas.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 28, 2008