Christmas morning of 1974 holds a special place in my memory. On that morning, as a seven-year-old boy, I received a Christmas present that signified an advancement in toy-making about which I was very excited. It was a Christmas present that I was convinced would change the landscape of my personal playtime.
The Christmas present to which I am making reference is G.I. Joe with Kung Fu grip.
If you were born after 1980, my reference to “Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe” will probably not mean anything to you. But if you lived through the mystical and whimsical decade of the 1970’s, then perhaps you recall the evolution that I am describing. Back in the 1970’s, long before the movement toward the miniaturization of children’s action figures, G.I. Joe was a hard plastic doll, about 12 inches tall—sort of like Barbie but with a beard and military equipment.
Although fierce looking and fun to play with, G.I. Joe was plagued by severe functional limitations. The hard plastic of which he was made was not at all pliable, which made it impossible for him to hold on to anything with any degree of security (which, as you might imagine, significantly hindered his tactical ability). But in 1974, the problem was creatively rectified. All the commercials talked about it. G.I. Joe was now equipped with a Kung Fu grip—large, pliable rubber hands attached to his hard plastic body. Did it look unrealistic in the commercial? Of course it did. But the cosmetic issues were far outweighed by the prospect of G.I. Joe being able to grab hold of the clothesline in the back yard!
On Christmas morning 1974, “Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe” found his way to that very special place beneath my family Christmas tree. When I opened the present and saw those plastic blue eyes looking back at me, and when I glanced downward to verify the existence of his disproportionate kung fu grip hands, I was instantaneously brought into a condition of Christmas morning euphoria. I played with “Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe” all morning long.
Utilizing his kung fu grip that morning, G.I. Joe found himself suspended from Christmas tree branches and extension cords and even the belt of my father’s bathrobe. It was a great day of kung fu grip playtime! Then, playtime came to an end with my mother’s announcement: “Eric, time to get a shower and get dressed. We’re going to travel to Pittsburgh so that we can have Christmas dinner with your Aunt Mary Jane and the rest of the family.”
I laid “Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe” under the Christmas tree, proceeded to get ready, and then off we went for the family Christmas celebration. What we didn’t know at the time was that our relatively new family dog, whose name was Jiggers, had a fondness for mischief. More specifically, Jiggers was a chewer, and, as we would soon discover, he seemed to enjoy sinking his teeth into anything made of wood, plastic, or rubber.
Well, to make a long story short (as if that’s even possible at this point!), when we arrived back home on Christmas night, all that was left of “Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe” was a plastic torso, riddled with doggie teeth marks. In fact, we didn’t find some of his plastic body parts until the next day in the back yard (if you know what I mean!). Suffice it to say that the newly developed kung fu grip didn’t help G.I. Joe one bit in his fight with Jiggers.
When I saw the freshly devoured G.I. Joe doll on the living room floor, I was furious. I stormed up to my bedroom and cried. To this day, I remember the angry and bitter lament that I whispered through my tears. “I am never traveling on Christmas day again! I don’t care where our family lives! Bad things happen when we leave the toys alone in the house! I mean it—I am NEVER traveling on Christmas day again!” It was a moment of childhood angst and revelation—a moment in which I learned that traveling on Christmas day is not without its logistical challenges and pitfalls.
But I don’t really have to tell that to any of you, do I? You are already well aware of the logistical challenges of traveling around Christmas time. In fact, one of the most important organizational questions that families and friends contemplate each and every Christmas is precisely this: Who’s going to do the traveling? Are we going to Mom and Dad’s house, or are they coming here? Are we going to grandma’s in the afternoon, or is someone going to pick grandma up so that she can come here? Are we staying overnight, or is it just a day trip? When do we leave? When do we come back? What do we have to pack? Do we have all the Christmas gifts?
Who’s going to do the traveling?
Much of the rhythm and content of our Christmas celebration is dictated by our response to that question. There are cooking and cleaning implications. There are issues of travel time to be contemplated. There are delicate family politics to be pondered (i.e., if I go to spend time with this family member on Christmas, will this other family member be offended that we didn’t travel to his house or her house?).
In the midst of these complex logistical questions, there have probably been times when all of us have articulated a viewpoint that was something like the viewpoint I articulated back in 1974, when my devoured G.I. Joe doll inspired me to mutter these words: “I am NEVER traveling on Christmas day again!”
Today, on Christmas Eve, the vocabulary of Christmas traveling is very much on my heart. I find it to be a vocabulary that illuminates some of the mystery and majesty of what transpired on that first Christmas night, 2000 years ago.
In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph that the name of the child born to Mary shall be Jesus, and that he shall be called EMMANUEL which is a word that means, “God with us,” or, perhaps more specifically, “a God who has traveled to be with us.”
Then, in the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says to the shepherds, “for I bring to you good news of great joy to all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” The angel’s message to the shepherds, essentially, is that God has done some significant traveling. God has made the journey into human skin and can be found in Bethlehem as a vulnerable baby in swaddling clothes.
The Christmas message, you see, delivered initially by the angels, is a message about traveling. It is a message about God’s merciful itinerary. It is a message about a heavenly Father who recognizes our inability to reach him and who, therefore, made the decision to travel for the purpose of reaching us. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. His name shall be Jesus, and he shall be called EMMANUEL, which is a word that means, ‘God has done the traveling.’”
Today, I ask you not to burden yourself with the task of attempting to comprehend all of the scientific specifics of how it is that a sovereign God travels into human skin. Resist the temptation to lose yourself in the kind of analytical mindset that would reduce the mystery and profundity of the birth of Jesus Christ to nothing more than a theological equation or a spiritual formula. Instead, make peace with the fact—and beyond that, CELEBRATE the fact—that something occurred on that first Christmas that is well beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. Somehow, in the mystery of gracious divinity, the God of the Ages traveled from eternity to the present moment; traveled from a heavenly throne to a Bethlehem manger; traveled from heavenly adornment to human skin.
Why would God make that kind of trip? Scripture would have us to believe that God made the trip simply because God loves us that much. “In fact,” God proclaims “I love you so much that I am willing to do the traveling. I am willing to come to you in Christ, because I know that you cannot come to me. And I refuse to allow your sin to keep us apart. I refuse to allow the alienation of your disobedience to prevent us from being in right relationship. Therefore, I will do the traveling, thereby bridging the chasm between us that you on your own are not able to bridge.”
Many if not all of the other world religions place the emphasis upon the kind of spiritual traveling that WE might do to reach GOD. Christianity is unique in that regard. Christianity places the emphasis upon the traveling that GOD has done to reach US.
Ponder for just a moment what it meant for God to make the trip into human skin. It meant that God in Christ willingly entered into the messiness and the fragileness of the human condition, with all of its cuts and its bruises, with all of its aches and pains, with all of its sins and its blemishes. “You cannot come to me,” God essentially said to us, “and so I will come to you. I will do the traveling. I will experience childhood with you and the mishaps that can occur in the experience of growing toward adulthood. I will break with you and bleed with you and breathe your air and experience your journey. And, when the time comes, I will die on the cross for you, thereby taking into myself the sins of the world.”
Such is the language and the imagery of a God who is willing to do the traveling for our sake. I don’t know how you feel about that kind of God, a God who traveled from eternal glory to the crude tangibility of a Bethlehem feeding trough.
Personally, I’m grateful that he saved us the trip.