Length of a Day
Length of a Day
The Rev. Dr. Fred G Garry
I am fascinated by the math of memory. Some memories have greater value than others; some memories seem to be so much bigger than they are. How is it that in life changing moments, cataclysmic events occurring all around you, and the memory you walk away with is something trivial: a person was wearing an ugly sweater or someone put a hand on your shoulder or there is a bird in a tree. How do these particular details, truly trivial parts of life, become the place where we go in our mind, the conjurers of memory? How can something so small become so large?
One part of the math of memory comes when I check my childhood experiences with dates. How often did something happen? I have these great memories of Thanksgiving gatherings, moments of splendor and joy and excitement from the times I gathered with family as a boy. Truly wonderful memories. They feel like, seem like, they were always there; this was a tradition; this is how life was for me. And then I do the math and these memories that seem so vast and endless become five years; and the five years are really five days; and the five days are all less than five hours. So when you add it up this ocean of experiences and feelings and memories come down to less than one day, less than twenty-four hours.
I just did this math with a Christmas memory. As a young boy I was encouraged to play with the Sears and Roebuck Nativity set my grandparents kept beneath their tree. The small wooden lean-to barn with livestock, shepherds, magi, and the holy family was made complete by an angel that hung from a nail at the peak; the angel held a banner that read “Gloria”. There was also a small light bulb that poked through the back and illumined the darkness of the cold December night in Bethlehem, or the warm afternoon in San Diego. To the side of the nativity scene, attached to the wall on the outside was a little wind-up music box that played Silent Night a few times through, first at a clip and then slower and slower as the gears unwound.
The math of this memory is intriguing. I know the memory is only five years; this experience only happened five times because of where it took place and with whom. The memory is from being a young boy from the age of 4 to 9. After that I was too old and my grandparents moved to a different home. I still saw the set; I inherited it when they passed. I gave it to my eldest son. The math though is not about location and ownership, it is the occurrences, the times I played with the nativity set as a young boy.
I would lay on the ground for hours and arrange the set. Sometimes the shepherds were there alone with Mary and the baby. Sometimes they were inside, other times just outside. The magi were fun to arrange. Again, sometimes it was just the magi in the stable with the baby; other times the magi and shepherds commingled like a scene from a Frank Capra movie where the rich and the poor are mixed up together in the swirl of life.
The math of this memory is just like my thanksgiving memories: there is five years, five times I came and lay on the ground and arranged the ceramic characters provided by Sears; all in maybe the length of a day.
Like all great childhood memories, I carry them with me always. They pop up at the oddest times; nag at me; remind how wonderful life can be.
Oddly, there was a whole other experience with the nativity. The memory of the Sears Nativity set was one of the few parts of religious devotion from my childhood that was confirmed in my theological education and training. It turns out that Sears really put a lot of thought into the set.
One feature that seemed odd as a child but then became valued was the two sets of magi provided. One set of magi was big and present and could be placed in the stable/barn. The other set was small and seated on camels. There were three magi riding camels and they were a quarter of the size of the other pieces. It was as if they were at a distance. Which they were. The magi would not have reached Bethlehem for quite some time after the birth and would never have been crowded into the creche with the shepherds the way I often arranged their visit. The distant camels were a way to have the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke coincide beneath the Garry tree on Hilltop Drive so the play of a young boy could also be historically accurate.
The other feature of the set that didn’t quite seem to match up or make sense to me as a child was the modern snow covered ranch homes that came with the ancient barn. The suburban homes were illumined from the back. There were four small suburban houses with snowy roofs and colored glass windows that were lit up by the small light that was placed inside. Like the camel riding magi they were a fraction of the size of the barn. They were tiny.
Just as an aside, these houses were the most exotic part for me as a boy, the most magical. The Christ child and magi bearing gifts and a barn in a semi-arid Near eastern town held no candle to the idea that snow could cover the roof of a house. To a young boy in San Diego this was the true miracle Christmas may someday provide.
Again, though, Sears did their homework; they were exceptionally thoughtful. For what they did with the small snow covered houses was to create a town square nativity scene. The houses represented the lives of the people in a town just down the street, just over there. With their small size they were meant to be seen as close but not too close. They created a moment where the ancient world and the modern world came together.
I will forever by in my grandmother’s debt for letting me play. She allowed me to linger alone for hours without caution or chastisement. I could empty the barn and fill the barn again and again. The houses were moved around, sometimes in a row like a city street, sometimes scattered like the Midwest. The animals and people each got a turn to be alone with the baby and the mother. Joseph as he is in the gospel account was always lingering nearby, but never at the center, never a focus. And the angel that hung from the nail was often times added only at the end, like an extra scene from a movie, cut but kept.
An indelible part, of course, was the small music box playing Silent Night over and over. Each year, when I reach the moment in the Christmas eve service when Silent Night is sung, you can imagine I become five years old again filled with awe and wonder, moving the people and animals here and there, lost in the transport that snow could be on a roof. Mostly I have a moment of complete delight where I now grown old can come unto faith as a child.
My debt to my grandmother is not only the birth of a biblical imagination, the freedom to play that allowed my faith to be born in delight not fear, my debt to her is not only the freedom allowed to a small boy, but also something even more important. Her gift let me find the place to withstand the cynicism and disenchantment of life.
You see the birth stories of Matthew and Luke are not necessary. The gospel of Mark gives the message of Jesus and his life and has no birth stories, and John replaces them with a rather mysterious poem about words and flesh. The story of the shepherds in the field and the magi making their way were not seen as essential to the gospel message. They are magical and have all the markers of legend and lore serious scholars try to remove from our critical thinking religion.
The hours I spent beneath the Christmas tree as a small boy on Hilltop Drive in San Diego, the rearrangement of the figurines and the houses, created in me a bulwark to withstand the demand to reduce life, to make our faith only what can be measured and proved. The music box of the nativity set has proven to be a fortress to keep at bay the forces of life that remove the tune, the song, the enchantment of life. I trust the song no matter the math.
It turns out the math of memory only enhances the value for me. I am shocked and in awe of how these little moments, these few hours of childhood could grow to become a kingdom of joy.
If you don’t feel the need to do math today, there is no worry. But do open your heart, invite the memory where joy is kept, where delight and splendor abide. The memory maybe hard to conjure; it may be buried beneath hardship or loss; the memories of splendor where faith was born in you may be something you laid aside long ago. Be patient with the request. You know how hard it can be to remember a name or a date or where you left your keys. Be patient with the memories of joy. It may take a moment for them to find you but rejoice when they do. Revel for just a moment in the truth: unto us a savior has been born. This is good news and a great tiding for peace on earth.
If it helps move the people around your nativity set at home. Be careful not to drop them but do play. Remember the rich and the poor, the exalted and the lowly all gather to this small town and find the joy transforming the world. Remember this as you lift the shepherd or place a magi beside a lamb. Remember this for no matter where they stood or who was with them, faith was born in their heart by a child laid in a manger; he was born unto them just as he is born unto us. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Senior Pastor & Head of Staff
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