We live by images, and we never have enough of them. Artists don’t sleep because there is always that restlessness to capture an image, to create a symbol. The rest of us move around in a more inchoate dissatisfaction, staring more blankly at life, more content to be dissatisfied.
Somebody once asked two workmen at a construction site what they did for a living. The first man’s reply had some life in it: ‘I am helping to build a cathedral!” The second man, in a more tired voice, replied “I lay bricks!”
Images and symbols make a difference. They give meaning. They define experience, shape it, and, ultimately, decide whether we will touch life and each other deeply or superficially. The deeper the symbol, the deeper the contact. They also tempt us towards hope and despair.
Hope and despair. Looking at the image of the year just gone by, 1987, you can see reasons for both.
Year of Awakening
It was a year of adultness and disillusion. We woke up somewhat in 1987. Some of our naiveté died and with that some of ourselves. Iran-gate, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Gary Hart, Jimmy Bakker, Haitian terrorists, and crashing stock markets and bankrupt banks, among other things, each in its own way helped open our eyes. In bits, piecemeal, we woke up a bit and some of the child in us died.
But 1987 offered other images as well. In mid-summer, a tragic airline crash just off the runway in Detroit killed more than 130 people. There was a sole survivor, a child, Cecelia. There was something special in the sole survivor being a child. It was like the miracle of birth itself, except that in this case the whole world became a midwife and helped deliver a new life from that fiery womb. In October, in Midland, Texas, an eighteen-month-old toddler, Jessica, fell down a well. She should have died, from the fall, from exposure, from a myriad of other causes. She didn’t. She defied the laws of medicine and logic and lived, a miracle in a world short of them.
Again, it was the child who survived, who defied the odds, made it a special miracle, something the world would rally around. Then, in December, one of the worst accidents in recent history occurred in the Philippines. A ferryboat struck an oil tanker and more than 2000 people died. Several days later, a 4-year-old boy was found, alive, hanging onto a piece of debris. He too should have died, but he defied the odds. He survived. Again, there was something special in that he was a child. The world stopped for a brief moment, everyone watched together, felt together, pulled together, prayed together, gave thanks together, hoped together, and felt a common consolation. That’s a miracle too!
When Jesus was born, Scripture tells us that a bright star came and stood over the place where the child was.
Messages from God
Three times this year, on international television, the star stood over the child and the world, like the magi, stopped and offered its gifts to Cecelia, Jessica, and the unnamed Filipino child. There is something deeply symbolic in that. For me, the survival of those three children and our world’s response shows both that our religious instincts are not dead and that God is still active and doing miracles in our lives. Our religious instincts are still alive because the world still worships at a crib. We are still moved by vulnerability, helplessness, innocence, and childlikeness. Christ is still born in them.
When the world looks for its meaning in a child, there is reason for hope. This year it did: bankers, presidents, truck drivers, housewives, movie stars, professors, farmers, plumbers, car salesmen, accountants, civil servants, journalists and janitors beat a path to the crib to see the child. Only the very sophisticated, like the Pharisees in Scripture, stood back to judge and criticize and disdain the worship of those who do not have their religious smarts. A deeper image still, however, is simply the survival of these children. They lived when everything dictated that they should die. In that, God spoke.
God doesn’t send us typewritten letters from heaven, nor, ordinarily, part the Red Sea. But, ordinarily, God does give us signs, the signs of Jonah, the phoenix rising from its own ashes, people walking away from war, tragedy, heartbreak, brokenness, and even from death, to new life. Life goes on, we live to see another day. Annie Dillard says that when we awake, we can never slip back and be free of ourselves again. This year we awoke to a new adultness. But God gave us a sign, Cecelia, Jessica, and an unnamed Filipino child so that we could slip back and be free of ourselves again.