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Opinion | Christmas Is Weird

When I was growing up, one toy captured my imagination: a Power Wheels Jeep. It was the Christmas present that seemed out of reach of my family’s limited finances. The commercials during the Saturday morning cartoons were a constant reminder of what I would never have. In those 30-second segments, the tiny Jeeps and Corvettes were driven by blond kids zooming through neighborhoods filled with green grass and nice homes.

But every Christmas, I woke up to find that we were still, in fact, poor and I would not be driving my Power Wheels through the hood. Until the Christmas that changed everything. One year my mother, my siblings and I made our way to my grandmother’s house to enjoy Christmas dinner with our extended family. As we approached the home, I saw a red and blue Power Wheels Jeep sitting in the driveway with a red bow attached.

My grandmother had a gambling addiction and played the illegal lotto that operated in the Black neighborhoods of Huntsville, Ala. This particular year, things had apparently gone quite well. She had used her winnings to buy many of her numerous grandkids the gifts of our dreams. That is how I got my Power Wheels.

I have always considered that lottery a Christmas miracle, evidence that God had not forgotten the little Black boys and girls in my corner of the world. But as I have aged, I have been tempted to reconsider. Are these merely the pious memories of a naïve child looking for hope wherever he could find it? Is it wrong to see God’s presence in a gift bought with money of questionable origins?

When my doubts about my Christmas miracle surge within me, I am somewhat comforted by the story of the Magi, the wise men who visited Jesus sometime after he was born.

Scholars are divided on just who these Magi were, but there is unanimous agreement (a rarity among scholars) that they were not Jews or worshipers of the God of Israel. They seemingly had no business anywhere near the holy child.

The Magi were probably Babylonian or Persian religious leaders whose expertise ranged from interpretation of dreams to astrology. They made their way to Bethlehem by means of an astrological sign. To make a modern analogy, it might be the equivalent of someone showing up at church on Sunday after her horoscope suggested that she try new things. The story of the Magi is religiously odd.

But the oddness appears to be the point. The birth of Jesus was not an event that celebrated the insiders, the people who had it all together. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew depict the birth of Jesus as the gathering of not the rich and powerful but the lower class (Mary and Joseph), the common workers (the shepherds) and the religious outsiders (Magi).

And so it is not so unexpected that God would reach into my neighborhood through the gamblers and the addicts, drug dealers and misfits. They were the ones who shoved $20 bills into my hands when I didn’t have lunch money. They told people to leave me be because they saw potential in me when I didn’t see it in myself. Besides, they were the only ones there. The respectable people — the city officials, mayors and governors — had abandoned us long ago. We were the forgotten ones, left to make our way through the land of trauma, helped along often only by miracles.

This Christmas, many boys and girls will wake up in very difficult circumstances. Their basic prayers for food, rescue, safety or a particular toy will go unanswered. Many of my most urgent and desperate entreaties during childhood went unanswered for years on end. Why God answers some prayers with miracles and not others is a question theologians have pondered for centuries.

But Christmas, for the Christian, has never promised to soothe every pain or cure every ill. Unfortunately, life with God doesn’t work that way. Instead, Christmas is the grand miracle that makes space for all the smaller miracles. It gives us enough hope to walk a little farther in the dark toward the glimmer of something that seems too distant to reach.

Christmas is, in the words of the Gospel of John, the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The path to that light has taken many forms. For the Magi, it was an astrological sign with roots in a religion far outside the Jewish world of Jesus and the first disciples. For a little boy in Alabama, it was the right three numbers pulled out of a metal cage full of bouncing lotto balls. In both cases, these odd incidents led us directly into the presence of a child who filled our hearts with wonder.

Christmas suggests that God has not forgotten anyone. He came as a child, weak and vulnerable, unable to lift his head without assistance or to wipe his own bottom. He did this so the weak and broken things might feel comfortable approaching the divine.

I did not ride the Power Wheels for very long. In the language of the Walmart brand jeans of that era, I was husky, and I soon became too heavy for the vehicle. But that Christmas Day, my Jeep rumbled across the grass like the chariots of old. There was no bounce to my hair as the wind blew through it, like the blond kids’ on the commercials. My low-cut fade was decidedly stationary. But I felt seen and heard by God, if only for a moment.

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