Merry Christmas! We made it! All the preparation, all the waiting… it’s finally fulfilled. Christmas is here, and Jesus is born! Joy to the world! Peace on earth!
I wish joy – I wish peace – for every single person here, and all those whom you love. But I know it’s a hopeful wish. If you’re one of the lucky ones, tonight and tomorrow will be a time of goodness and warmth. With family and friends wrapped around you like a cozy blanket, sharing happy memories and making new ones.
But that’s not what Christmas holds for everyone here. Some of you will be alone. Some of you will be struggling with family dynamics that make you wish you were alone. For some, happy memories cast the shadow of loved ones lost, and good times gone by. Some have to work; not everybody gets Christmas off. Some will just be weary or out of sorts. The gifts we give or receive won’t be quite right. The matching pajamas won’t quite match. Christmas won’t live up to the hype.
It can be uncomfortable – the gulf between our realities and the Hallmark-movie vision of what Christmas is “supposed” to be. All those words printed in gold foil on Christmas cards: Merry. Peace. Joy. Jolly. Happy. Bright. Fun. Cheer. Social media can make it even harder, because it’s not just the people in the movies and advertisements who seem to be having a perfect Christmas; it’s also our friends and acquaintances. Their smiling pictures can seem so much brighter than our own unfiltered realities.
Sometimes I wish we could tease apart what we celebrate here at church – the feast of the Nativity, the feast of the Incarnation, in which the only gift that matters is God coming among us as a helpless infant to show the depth of divine love—
Sometimes I wish we could tease that apart from cultural and capitalist Christmas.
But I can’t; we can’t. They’re all tangled up together. We’ve all collected a lifetimes’ worth of ideas about how Christmas is supposed to look and feel, sound and taste. We arrive at Dec. 24 laden with memories and expectations. Will the hours and days ahead fulfill our hopes? Will this Christmas be Instagram-happy and Pinterest-perfect? Will it be memorable in a GOOD way? …
Who here remembers watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood?…
It was a children’s television show, with this man who talked to the TV as if he were talking to a child, and invited us into adventures with his puppet friends. Sing it with me, folks: “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day; since we’re together, we might as well say, Would you be my, could you be my, won’t you be my neighbor?”
I watched some of it, as a child. During my teens and young adulthood, Mr. Rogers was punchline. We made a joke of his weird puppets, his gentle voice and careful words, his cardigans, his deliberateness, his overwhelming kindness.
But sometime in the past couple of decades, we all started to get it. Maybe it was his death in 2003 that finally made us all re-assess. Maybe it’s the quotations that circulate on Facebook. Maybe the rest of the world just finally caught up with his profound, ahead-of-his-time understanding of kids’ social and emotional needs. Something made us all take a better look and realize that Fred Rogers was the real thing, an honest-to-God saint walking among us, preaching basic human decency on syndicated television.
This year has seen a new biography of Rogers and a movie about him. And some of you may have seen an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, by writer D. L. Mayfield, reflecting on what Rogers has to offer us this Christmas season.
Mayfield points out that Rogers wasn’t just nice. He held some deep principles that put him at odds with the society around him, on many occasions. He loved television because of its potential for learning and connection – and was dismayed to see it increasingly used as a tool for marketing, to kids and adults alike.
Mayfield writes, “[Rogers’ ideology] was a well-thought-out war against a culture that needed kids to feel inadequate to become good consumers.” Think about it: If you believe you’re OK and you have enough, you won’t whine to your parents about that toy that you NEED, that toy that ALL THE OTHER KIDS are getting; and then how will the toy companies make any money?
In the early 1970s, when the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was first becoming well known, the Hallmark Company decided to have different celebrities do each of the windows of their flagship store in downtown Manhattan. And they asked Fred Rogers to design one of the windows.
Now, big, bright, glamorous holiday window displays have been a thing in New York City – and other big cities – for a long time. I haven’t been able to find any pictures from the year Mr. Rogers designed a window, but I found a website that describes some of the “most brilliant” displays this year. Maybe that can set the tone.
At American Girl New York, a large window is “seriously blinged out” with “200 Swarovski crystal strands and 130 pounds of crystal star dust.” Bergdorf-Goodman’s display “is always opulent and over the top, and 2019 is no exception… Each window depicts an aspect of holiday revelry illustrated in avant-garde opulence. We loved the sequined chess scene and the neon pinball machine!” At Bloomingdale’s, “a touch button… allows visitors to bring a robotic orchestra to life and hear classic Christmas carols… There’s plenty of glitz and glam, and a pretty impressive rocket ship seemingly blasts over your head and onto Lexington Avenue.” At Macy’s, interactive displays allow you to “power a neon light show, scratch a dreaming dog’s nose, drive [a] truck while trying to smash presents in an Asteroid-like video game, and pose for a selfie to see yourself in the windows.” Not gonna lie – the dog sounds awesome. Nordstrom’s holiday decorations are more understated, featuring a mere “253,000 twinkling lights.”
Now, that all sounds like a lot of fun to walk around and look at! But maybe all that glitz and glam might make our own lives seem a little… dull and dark? And of course all those stores put on this amazing show because they want you to come in and buy stuff.
So. Rogers and a friend traveled to New York to scope things out and think about what Rogers would like to do for his window. And after taking a look at that year’s array of star dust and robot orchestras, Rogers went back to his home in Pittsburgh and came up with a design. His window display looked like this: A simple setting – no lights, no fake wrapped gifts. In the center: A small pine tree, the height of a four-year-old child. No ornaments or decorations – just the tree itself, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so you could see its roots – see that it was real, and alive. And in front of the tree was a sign that said, “I like you just the way you are.”
One of the things Fred Rogers said often, to kids and adults, friends and strangers, speaking or singing: I like you just the way you are.
D. L. Mayfield writes, “A tree just [a child’s] height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one… The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products, while centering the emotional well-being of children… It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods.”
I like you just the way you are. Fred Rogers was, among other things, a Presbyterian minister. His Christian faith was one of the deep roots of his work. I’m sure it’s no accident that these words resonate with the message of the Incarnation. In God becoming human, embodied; the infinite becoming finite, the cosmic becoming specific, the eternal born into time.
What God says to us by becoming human, by coming to live among us, to share our struggles and triumphs, needs and pleasures, joys and griefs – what God says to us in the Incarnation, to all of us and each of us, by name, is a lot like what Mr. Rogers said, in a song that goes like this:
It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like.
The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you,
Not the things that hide you; not your toys – they’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like, every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like, it’s you yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.
The Gospel of John says it this way: God so loved the world that God gave Godself to us, not to judge and condemn the world, but to save it.
To say all that is not to say God doesn’t invite us to change, to renewal, to turning away from some things and towards others. I once heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preach that God loves you just the way you are, but God isn’t going to leave you that way. I think about that a lot. The life of faith means opening ourselves, day by day, year by year, to what God wants to do in us and through us. It means making ourselves available to God’s gracious work in our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our world.
But we do not have have our sh*t together before God shows up. God’s longing to be welcomed into our hearts and our lives – God’s grace ready to shine through the cracks in everything – does not need us to be Instagram-happy or Pinterest-perfect. God does not care if our pajamas match.
God’s birth into the world God made, God’s dawning in our lives, asks us to trust that we are seen and known and cherished. Tells us that God reaches out for us in love and yearning, not in condemnation and shame.
“Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
I like you just the way you are.
D.L. Mayfield on Mr. Rogers:
Holiday window descriptions taken from this article: