My father passed away in February. One of the things I miss are his stories.
His father built boilers for ships. I loved the story Dad told about how, when he was little, his brothers stuffed him into a 14-inch-wide ship’s gun barrel. Another favorite was how a boilermaker intentionally hit my grandfather in the head with a red-hot rivet. Though a small man, he jumped up and beat the daylights out of his attacker.
One more was about pi. My grandfather started to work in the shipyards when he was a child. With little education, he had few advancement opportunities. No one in the competitive yards would tell him the value of pi, essential in shipbuilding. My grandfather taught himself, eventually becoming boiler shop supervisor.
As a child, I groaned at hearing Dad’s stories over and over again. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood that they told me who my Dad was and who I was. They taught important lessons. I learned the value of good-natured kidding from the story about the ship’s gun. The red-hot rivet taught me that you had to get back up when life knocks you down. I understood the importance of learning from the one about pi. Every society tells its own stories to teach its values and lessons.
This time of year, our consumer culture, through feel-good movies, heart-warming specials and touching commercials, weaves a sentimental tale about giving. This seemingly altruistic message has one goal – selling. The most important December news after all is whether Christmas sales are up or down.
The two biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are anything but such a self-serving confection. In Matthew’s Gospel, Herod attempts to kill the baby Jesus by murdering every boy 2 and under in Bethlehem (2:16-18). Luke’s angels appear to shepherds, considered little more than shiftless bandits at that time in Palestine, as Mary gives birth in an animal shed and lays her baby in a feeding trough (2:7-9). Even the seemingly innocent details of Jesus’ birth point to his death. The magi’s gift of myrrh (Matthew 2:11) was used to embalm ancient corpses (John 19:39-40). And the cloths that wrapped the infant (Luke 2:7) would enshroud his corpse (Luke 23:53).
These gritty stories offer real hope in a world plagued by violence, disease, poverty, doubt and division. Jesus brings something more than the Disney Frozen Sparkle Princess Elsa doll, as great a gift as that might be for your daughter or granddaughter this Christmas. In a nation where half feel burdened by past mistakes, he brings redemption from sin. At a time when most Americans worry about the future, Christ offers eternity as sons and daughters of the living God. Jesus shows what it means to be human, fully human. He shows how to live in love, how to have a purpose and how to make a difference.
The all too real stories of the Christ child’s birth are the story of God’s love for the world. This is the true story of giving. This story shines the light of faith, hope and love into even the darkest areas of our lives. This story we can hear over and over again.
The Rev. John Gibson is pastor of Grace Episcopal Church in Clayton.