What if what they say is true? (or how people become real)

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

Christmas Eve, 2022

Luke 2:1-14

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
 

Let us pray. Holy God, on this silent and holy night, may your people hear your word, a word made flesh to dwell among us. And Lord uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

The Velveteen Rabbit is 100 years old this year. In the ‘80s, PBS would feature Meryl Streep reading this story on the backdrop of soothing piano solos of George Winston. As a child, it would play every Christmas especially when life was messy and the Christmas bread wasn’t rising. I now realize it was ‘in case of emergency, break glass” parenting move for when things were getting real, but now, at this time in my life, it is very special to me. And perhaps that is also a grace for the parent part of me.

The story goes like this. A boy receives a special bunny for Christmas. This rabbit is bunchy with velvet ears and a spring of holly between his paws. The rabbit was forgotten about in the excitement of Christmas and mocked by toy soldiers and model boats for being made of sawdust. Then he met the wise skin horse who had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. “He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.”

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “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,” said 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,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often 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 joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The rabbit stayed by the boy’s side until his velvet was all rubbed off. When the boy got a case of Scarlet Fever, and went to live by the seaside to heal, the rabbit had to be thrown away. And the rabbit was so sad that he cried. A tear hit the ground and all of a sudden, the rabbit changed. He realized he had hind legs and could jump and play in the grass with the other rabbits. Autumn and winter melted into Spring, and one day the boy saw the rabbit and felt a stirring of recognition. “Why he looks just like my old bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever.” And the child never knew it was in fact his own bunny, come back to look at the child who had helped him become real.

What is real? Do you ever wonder about that? As people tell stories in their Christmas cards and Instagram stories, as people all over the world wrestle over how to tell the story of 2022 from so many vantage points, what is real?

For the author of this story, Margery Williams, I suspect this question was deeply personal. She grew up in a loving home and her father died suddenly when she was 7 years old and a sort of melancholy hovered over her writing. The Velveteen Rabbit was published in 1922, after she experienced WWI in England and its devastating aftermath. Her work for children was criticized for being too somber for Christmas, too somber for children, who should be given happy tales, but Williams insisted that love is not easy but it makes you real.

Now, let’s explore a story of real love that has been inspiring us for 2000 years. The story of Christmas. The messiah was born in a world that was literally overtaxed. In a world that had no room for him. In a world that felt dark and worrisome and too crowded. In a world defined by leaders who were just as brutal as they were insecure. And what’s more, the savior was born to a family in crisis, with an unplanned pregnancy and unplanned travel. And what’s more, the news of this savior was first received only by other people at the edges of society, like night shift shepherds and magi from a completely different ethnicity and religion. It is tempting for us now to see this story through the halo of nostalgia. But this year, there is grace in remembering that this birth was all too real for them. Really complicated. Really messy. Really hard. Really unexpected. Really beautiful. Really important. Real.

Father Greg Boyle is a priest in Los Angeles, who lives in the neighborhoods hardest hit by gang violence. He founded Homeboy Industries, which has grown to be a bakery, a clothing shop and a tattoo and graffiti removal service that employs hundreds of former gang rivals. He has New York Times bestsellers. But in the city, they just call him Father G. He was interviewed by Krista Tippet which for church folks is like winning an Oscar.

On Christmas Day, I said to a former gang member named Louis, “What’d you do on Christmas Eve?” And he was an orphan, and abandoned and abused by his parents, and worked for me in our graffiti crew. …“Oh, just right here.” I said, “Alone?” And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t had no place to go,” he said. “And they were all…” He named them, and they were enemies with each other. I said, “What’d you do?” He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”

I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?” He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style.” And I said, “No, I don’t think I’m familiar with that recipe.” And he said, “Well, you rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said. I said, “Wow. Well, what else did you have besides turkey?” “Well, that’s it, just turkey.”
“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done. Did I mention it tasted proper?” I said, “Yeah, you did.”

So what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done? Jesus doesn’t lose any sleep that we will forget that the Eucharist is sacred. He is anxious that we might forget that it’s ordinary, that it’s a meal shared among friends, and that’s the incarnation, I think.”

Maybe Christmas in your house is not like rival gang members, well, maybe sometimes it is, but I wonder if you have said this year: “It’s getting real.” When your child is suffering, when your mom has cancer, when you finally call the therapist, when you sit in the front pew at the funeral. It gets real.

It gets real in good times too. When your kid sends you photos from afar, when you sit in the front pew at the wedding or the softball game, when you sit in the pew at Christmas and the grace of Christ is the realest thing you know. When things get real, we see what we are made of.

But, Christmas magic is strange and wonderful. Something happens to you. Year after year. It changes you, maybe not all at once. One year it’s the hymns that get you. The next year it’s something you read or hear that strikes you as deeply true. Sometimes the love of God squeezes you so hard you wonder if your skin has come clean off. Some years you feel awfully shabby. But eventually when you realize this Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate this night, loves you, not just to play with you, but really really loves you and gave his life for you, it’s hard not to get choked up. And that’s when you start to notice these hind legs you didn’t know you had, that propel you to serve beyond what is convenient, that propel you to give more than you used to and that push you to forgive more than you planned. You’re kinder, more compassionate toward those around you who have sharp edges or lots of moving parts. You laugh with your whole bunchy body and start to tell the longer truer story about yourself because it can never be ugly, except to those who don’t understand this real love yet. What’s more, you’re grateful and there are new friends who are there in the tall grass with you. And then, you realize that hurting and crying and even dying were never the end of the story. Not for Jesus and not for you. Jesus is the one who told you how much more there is to hope for.

Then, you become real. And not only you, but Christmas, your faith, your hope, your whole reason for being here. And all you can do is kneel down in the straw of your own life and say thank you.