Tuesday, December 24, 2013

For Real

   The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas   

Last week I came across
a recently published book of Christmas stories 
by Tomie dePaola.
He’s the author of many beautiful children’s books…
…but these weren’t his usual stories for kids:
they were recollections of 15 
of his most memorable Christmases
over the course of almost 80 years.

The one that really caught my attention was titled,
“The First Television Christmas.”

It was 1947, and the author’s father
won a monthly sales competition at work.
The prize?  $1,000 or a television set.
Even though his father earned about $4,000 a year,
he chose the television 
and it was delivered in early December—
only the second TV in all of Meriden, Connecticut.
(The other one was in the showroom
of an appliance store downtown.)
The television had just a 12-inch picture tube;
most of our computer screens are bigger than that these days.
The picture was black-and-white.
And the family got three channels on the weekends,
just two during the week,
tuned in by a tall metal tower on the roof.
(By now, the young folks here probably think
I’m talking about life on another planet—
so far removed is this from what they know of TV today!)

“I tell this story,” dePaola writes,
            because the new television played a romantic part
            in my life that Christmas Eve. 
            I was in eighth grade
            and had an “older woman” for my girlfriend. 
            Her name was Sheila Rosenthal and she was in the ninth grade.
            I had gone to Sheila’s house for a Hanukah party… 
            and she was coming to our house for Christmas Eve.
            After…Christmas Eve supper…we went out to the TV Room. 
            We sat on the sofa like two lovebirds,
            holding hands and stealing a few chaste kisses,
            while we gazed at the screen broadcasting
            a black-and-white image of a fire burning in a hearth.
            The blazing Yule log with a “Holiday Greetings” banner above it
            and Christmas songs playing in the background
            filled the screen from five in the afternoon until about ten at night.

            Needless to say, Sheila and I were thrilled
            with our first TV Christmas. 
            Never mind that we could have moved into the living room,
            where the Christmas tree was lit
            and a real log blazed in full color in a real fireplace. 
            It just didn’t dawn on us.  (from Christmas Remembered, 2006)

That story caught my attention for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, I didn’t realize
that the curious tradition of a televised Yule log
went back quite so far!
(Of course, today there are multiple apps for that
on your Smartphone or iPad.)
But it also got me to thinking
about just how much of our modern celebration of Christmas
has become—to put it quite bluntly—fake.
Many of our Christmas trees have needles made of plastic
and branches made of wire.
We don’t light our candles with matches but with batteries.
We spray on snow from a can
and hang icicles of shiny aluminum
(although, with the weather we’ve had lately,
I’m not sure we want to see any more of either of those—
no matter if they’re only imitation).
Even our mouths are filled with artificial flavors
and the air with artificial aromas.

I guess I worry a little bit
with so many other things gone synthetic
that we’ll be tempted to think
that Christmas itself isn’t quite genuine.
It’d be easy enough to lump together
the familiar, stirring account of Jesus’ birth
with the colorful tales of Frosty and Rudolph—
feel-good stories, with a comforting message,
perfect for the kids…but not exactly bona fide.
And that would be doubly tragic
since the very purpose of Christmas—
it could be easily argued—
is to make things real.
The story of Mary and Joseph, of angels and shepherds,
of a newborn baby asleep in a borrowed manger,
are all about the grace and the glory of our great God
appearing on the earth
in a way we can see and feel and hear and touch:
the invisible God made visible;
the eternal God stepping into time;
the almighty God, who made all things,
coming in our fragile human flesh.
We’re all too familiar 
with the reality of our own weaknesses.
We’re well aware 
of the wickedness at work in this world.
But sin and sorrow and suffering: 
these are the illusions;
these are the things which will pass away.
On the contrary, the good news of a savior,
of peace on earth and glory in the highest:
these are the most real things of all.

There’s a beautiful fireplace in the rectory.
And I have no doubt 
that we’ll spend a few moments
sitting in front of it at some point this evening.
True confession: 
it’s no longer safe to have a fire in there…
…so it’s glow comes from 
four battery-operated candles!
But the true light which shines out in the darkness,
the flame which forever burns 
to warm us deep within,
isn’t found on a glowing electronic screen
nor even in a pile of blazing logs;
it issues forth 
from the very heart of the Lord of hosts,
and its coming to dwell among us
is the very thing which calls us together 
on this holy night.

This Christmas, 
don’t be satisfied with any cheap imitations,
because God’s love for you is oh-so-real!

Merry Christmas!

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