The Christmas Robot: A Story of Surprise and Incarnation

“Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.”

I am not so sure I agree with Jane Austen on that point. I like surprises. It’s Christmas and for many people the matter of surprise is very much on their minds – particularly, the children’s. At our home, before we go to church and Christmas Eve communion, we always open at least one present. Even though my son is 17 years of age this year, he asked me just yesterday, “we can open that one gift before we go to church?” I answered him, “of course!” And so we shall.

But it was not so for me in my childhood. It may have been that my Aunt Eva thought like Jane Austen about surprises.  But I rather think her reasoning lay elsewhere. Let me explain a Christmas memory.

When I was growing up in the rural, poverty-stricken area we called home in South Louisiana, in our 100-year-old cedar home, we lived a simple life that was so far away from cities, shopping malls, Santa Clauses, and main street lights and so many of the things that we may take for granted in our mostly suburbanite America today. Many things were different then. I have to admit that the older I get the more sepia the colors of my Christmas memories become. In my childhood we didn’t have an automobile. My Aunt Eva never drove a car in her life. So we depended on neighbors—neighbors were not next door, but across fields and pastures—to come and pick us up and bring us into the nearest town. In that town there was a store by the name of Gibson’s Discount Store. How I remember Gibson’s. It was the veritable North Pole of my secluded, little life. In that store, which was an early and very modest forerunner to, say, Walmart, we would go down aisle by aisle of toys and games. My aunt Eva would tell me, “well, Son, go and pick out your Christmas present this year.” So I would survey the opportunities before me. It was one of my first memories of having to choose something for myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though, today I look back and say to myself, “You were choosing your own gift!” One of my favorite Christmas toy memories from this chapter of my life was a Christmas robot. Upon the turning of a singular lever behind this crude precursor of Buzz Lightyear, the robot came alive! His arms would suddenly shift into firing position and a formidable, colorful display of crimson and yellow would begin to flicker, as if killer laser rays were being fired from his mechanical fists (think of the robot on “Lost in Space” [“Danger, Will Robinson”) and you get the picture). His Robotic ambulatory device would commence rotating over the polished concrete floor of Gibson’s Store as its other-worldly noise whined and screeched. I will never forget the first time that I witnessed that wondrous creature. My aunt Eva could tell that I was most enchanted with the little science-fiction gizmo. So she said “all right, then, this is your Christmas present this year. Do you like it?”  My treasure hunt was complete. We took the cosmic creation to the check out, and waited for our ride to go back to the country. We had my Christmas present. We made it home, wrapped it up with cheap paper also obtained from Gibson’s, and put the present under the tree. The tree—well, that is another story altogether. I would always go out in the woods with Aunt Eva to chop down a small white pine, drag it back into the house, too often through the soft Louisiana mud, wash it down with the garden hose,and spend hours getting it level in yet another item from Gibson’s, the tree holder. There the present rested in noble humility, next to the dark brown, Zenith console black and white television. So this was how I received my Christmas present each year of my childhood. This activity must’ve taken place, I think, several weeks before December 25th. Somewhere along the way, perhaps while watching Miracle on 34th Street, or Going my Way, or some other Christmas movie, I became aware that Christmas was supposed to have an element of surprise in it. I’m not sure Aunt Eva fully understood this. She most certainly would have never done anything to rob me of even the slightest possible Christmas delight. Nor was there an overwhelming utilitarian sense about this kind woman. To the contrary, she had a very rich sense of the divine and a very happy appreciation for the beauty and loveliness of the Savior and of the heavenliness of the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is just that somehow this 19th-century woman had missed so much of what was expected in celebrating Christmas in America in the 20th century. And so I missed it. Or, rather, I should say, I missed nothing at all. For mainly, I didn’t know I was supposed to be surprised! So there set the Christmas robot under the white pine next to the Zenith console television set for about two weeks. Christmas morning arrived. I would get up, like any other child on Christmas morning, put my feet on the cold linoleum floor, and make my way with Aunt Eva, who always seemed to be in the kitchen, to the living room.I would look at the present and then turn and look at Aunt Eva. Both of us knew exactly what was in the Christmas box. It was no surprise. Yet, as I have said, because of the influence of the popular culture all around us, I wanted my dear Aunt Eva to feel like that I was enjoying the surprise which was really no surprise. So I would say, “I wonder what is in it this year?” Aunt Eva would smile. On that particular year, I opened up the box. There he was. I eagerly removed the mysterious creature from outer space from his cardboard holding tank and set him up right on our floor. I hit the lever. We watched. He moved not an inch. No flickering laser hand. No roaring sound. No movement. Still. Nothing happened. I looked at Aunt Eva and she looked at the robot as if to say, “well do something!.” She belted out, “what’s wrong?” I calmly studied the situation with great scientific interest, as if I were a Ph.D in astrophysics in my white-lab coat trying to break the code or discover the malfunction that was keeping this robotic gift from awakening from his manufactured slumber. The two of us scrambled and begin to look through the papers in the box. We discovered the answer to the quandary. The little creature needed batteries – two of them — AA. Now ordinarily that would be no problem, right? One just gets in the car and pops over to the market or to a 24-hour BP station and gets batteries. But not there.  Not then. With no car, no store, and no hope, the little robotic beggar was destined to stay inanimate. There was no surprise. What might’ve been disappointment to many was not a disappointment to me. We lived like this. No surprises. Ah, but the story continues. The surprise that did happen on that day was that my Uncle John and Aunt Georgie drove out to wish us a Merry Christmas. Uncle John and Aunt Georgia lived a long way off in the capital city of Baton Rouge. They drove out to the country that day and, lo and behold, they brought a gift and with that gift—a flashlight, as I recall—came two AA batteries! Uncle John got down on the floor with me and put the batteries into the backpack. Pretty soon the little robot was destroying sinister aliens and ambulating across the linoleum bumps of our floor and running into the chair legs of the coffee table! Oh what a invigorating sight!

As an adult, as a pastor, I return to the same places, wonderful places, glorious places, and I find the same thing to put under a tree on Christmas Eve. No surprises. For the pastor, we will lead the congregation in singing “Once in Royal David’s City” and our little choirs will process down the aisle to the front of the church.There will be the Christmas reading from Luke’s Gospel about that first Christmas day. There will be a message on some aspect of the Incarnation. We will close with “Noel” and “Silent Night” with candles (keep the wet blankets just outside of the sanctuary just in case too much hairspray creates a disturbance). For the most part, there will be no surprises. Everyone will know that the story will end with the wonder of God becoming human flesh, to live the life that man could not live, to die the death which should’ve been ours, and to bring redemption from heaven to earth so that we can go from earth to heaven. No surprises. Yet every now and again, we unwrap the gift that we knew was there anyway to discover that it’s missing something. It may be that way for you this year. It may be that you’re missing the batteries, life, the spark, that will bring God’s glorious Christmas gift alive. If you think you need it, or that others need it, I will let you in a little secret: “pastors need it most of all.” And so I will pray that this year, as I prepare to go and administer Holy Communion, that the Holy Spirit will show up just in time. I pray that He will come like Uncle John came with batteries to animate the Christmas robot, and animate my soul and yours. May the wonder of the Surprise, which has become no surprise to so many, cause the our hearts to sing again, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King” as if we were there. Or even better that we are here, but we mean it.

Then, our old sepia memories become colorful realities of Christ the King, alive in our hearts and animating our very lives—leaving us forever surprised.