The Visible Man (A Christmas Story)

As has been my custom for more than 20 years, Christmas Eve I told a story to the saints at Crafton Heights. It’s an original story, so far as I can tell.  I read a lot.  If you see something good in here, I probably remembered it from something else I read.  The inspiration for this story, and the truth to which it points (I hope) is found in Luke 1:46-55, the song of Mary known as The Magnificat.

Scott McBurney was not invisible.

He arose every morning of his life, trusting this to be the case.  He was not, and had never been, invisible.  He knew that.

He knew that even on the days when it felt otherwise.

When he was born, his parents were expecting twins.  And so when his sisters Susan and Sarah emerged from the womb, there was joy.  There was delight.  There was celebration.  There was…another baby!  Scott was born eight minutes after Sarah, to the utter surprise of everyone in the room.  For the first four days of his life he was known to all, including his parents, simply as “the boy”.

While a name was eventually found for him, along with a bedroom and the other necessities of life, he often felt as though he were, in fact, invisible.

Susan was the beautiful one.  She was simply stunning, and as the kids grew, she was never at a loss for a social life.  She lit up the social networks.  Scott did not.

Sarah was the brainy one.  Whenever the homework was arranged on the refrigerator, hers was the one with the most checkmarks, stars, or exclamation points.  She received a number of college scholarships and academic awards.  Scott did not.

Scott was the boy.  With the exception of being a triplet, he had about the blandest life imaginable.  Widely regarded as “a heck of a guy” or “one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet”, he still found himself – often – in the company of those who had forgotten his name.

He didn’t resent that.  He didn’t regret anything.  It just was, that’s all.

He taught High School English and Communications in suburban Chicago.  While there’s not much of an indication that he was anyone’s favorite teacher, the kids didn’t hate being in his class, either.

Late one autumn his second period Communication Arts class was studying Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.  He’d asked the class to take turns reading through the famous speech line by line.  At the end of the first paragraph, Marcus Dixon, a young man with a mild speech impediment, read, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in re- re- re- re- re- re- regard to it is ventured.”

And as young Mr. Dixon was wallowing in the re- re- re- of “regard”, Scott McBurney’s attention was drawn to Angela Wallace, who was hands-down the most attractive and most-intelligent student in the eleventh grade.  Although she had been blessed with looks and brains, kindness was not among her attributes, and she was very subtly, but unmistakably, drawing everyone’s laughter to poor Marcus’ plight.

And here, Scott did something he did not often do.  He assigned homework out of anger.  “All right, Miss Wallace,” he said.  “Since you are obviously so fascinated by the etymology of the word ‘regard’, I’d like you to enlighten the entire class.  On Monday, I’ll expect you to have a three minute speech, with at least four sources, on the meaning of and history behind the word ‘regard’.”

It wasn’t much, but Scott felt like he had to do something to support Marcus.

He was neither surprised nor disappointed when Monday arrived, and, like everything Angela did, the speech was flawless.  She was poised, relaxed and informative.  Scott, along with the eleventh grade Communication Arts class, learned that while much of the time “regard” is used to mean “esteem” or “glance”, it actually comes from a very old French word, garder, meaning “guard” or “watch”, and “re”, meaning “back” or with added intensity.  “Regard”, once upon a time, then, meant to look at, to watch out for, to pay attention to with some real energy.  Angela also pointed out that it carried with it a meaning of holding something or someone in esteem or respect.

And, because she was so, well, so Angela, she got an A on the speech and came out smelling like a rose.  And Scott McBurney gradually allowed that episode to fade from his mind for a few weeks.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Scott found himself in a place that was at once quite familiar and intensely uncomfortable: exactly halfway across the third pew from the front on the right-hand side at the church in which he and his sisters had grown up.  Susan’s children were in the pageant and it was expected that he would deviate from his normal routine and re-appear at the church to observe this spectacle.  And, because it was expected, and because he was still, in many ways, “the boy”, there he sat.

As he waited for the rest of the family to arrive and the service to start, he found himself humming the first line of a song that the kids at school had been playing over and over again: “I’m still alive, but I’m barely breathing / just praying to a God that I don’t believe in…”[1]

As he sat in that hard pew, it occurred to him that this whole Jesus thing reminded him of everything about his sisters that he resented.  He had grown up being taught to worship the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that wowed the multitudes with his amazing teachings and snappy miracles.  In other words, the Jesus who was every bit as attractive and intelligent as Susan and Sarah.  That, he thought, is why he had found it so easy to walk away from the church.

And on any other day, or had it been any other reading, by any other child – well, it might have just slipped by.  But on this particular morning, his own niece stood up and moved to the microphone and read Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat.  And as that halting soprano raced through the lines, one word caused her to stumble: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has re- re- re-garded the low estate of his handmaiden.”

Mary's Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission.

“Seriously?” Scott thought to himself?  “Regarded?”  And because he’d been brought to that pew every week as a boy, he knew that if he reached into the little cubby underneath his seat that he would find, in addition to some ancient bulletins and candy wrappers, a battered pew bible.  He thumbed his way to Luke 1 and there he satisfied himself that he had heard correctly: apparently, the Almighty is in the business of regarding…of watching.  Of looking for, or respecting, or guarding.  Of taking second glances. And he wondered.  And then he thought that maybe he’d been spending too much time at school, or, worse yet, too much time thinking about Angela Wallace.

A couple of days later he found himself back in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side of the church – his twice-yearly appearance (not counting the bonus points he’d earned for showing up at the children’s program).  And, as it happened, the preacher had chosen to read again from Luke.  This time, it was about the shepherds and the innkeeper.  And it struck Scott, again, that these were folks who were widely un-regarded.  Not worth a second look.  Shepherds and innkeepers and carpenters and unwed mothers were a part of the furnishings… but not here.

For the first time in his adult life, Scott McBurney wondered if this blond-haired blue-eyed popular miracle worker was, well, was not really Jesus at all.  Maybe that character didn’t even exist.

During the week between semesters, Scott sat down and read through the entire Gospel of Luke. It only took about an hour and a half.  And as he did so, he encountered an old man named Simeon, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a tax collector, a centurion, a whole bunch of bleeding and disfigured people…an assembly of outcasts, all of whom would have been dis-regarded by the people of that time, as well as Scott’s own.  None of whom was worthy of any consideration.  And yet each of whom was sought out by Jesus of Nazareth.  Here was this son of whom Mary sang, honoring these people with his presence.  He was, in fact, regarding them in their lowly estate.  By the time he’d finished this exercise, Scott had left the shepherds and the fishermen and the sick masses…and wondered about himself.

Scott McBurney knew that he was not invisible.  But he never thought much about the fact that he had been regarded.  And somehow, that changed things.

Angela, and Marcus, and the rest of the second period Communication Arts class probably didn’t notice anything.  Mr. McBurney was still a nice guy.  He was still, mostly, the boy.  Oh, if anyone had had reason to thumb through his calendar, they might have noticed that he was spending more time not only at church, but in the feeding ministry the church ran on Tuesday evenings.  Had someone access to his checkbook, it would have been easy to see that his priorities had shifted dramatically.

Yet Scott would say that these changes weren’t really worth noticing, because they were merely symptoms of something more important going on.

He would say that once a person realizes that he’s been regarded, well, that person starts to do some regarding himself.  Once he realizes he’s been seen by Jesus, and he looks at Jesus, well…he just begins to look with Jesus.  And the world becomes a different place.

Scott McBurney is not invisible.  Nobody is.  Thanks be to the God who has regarded us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

IMG_1171Christmas Eve affords me with my absolute favorite view of the entire year.  It’s darker than it usually is…but I like to think that when I gaze at the congregation while they are holding their candles, just after we finish singing Silent Night, that we see each other more clearly than usual.  People who have hovered around the edge of the Holy, even on a dark and cold night, become more visible than we usually are.

When the writer of the Gospel of John was telling the story of Christmas, he didn’t monkey around with shepherds and angels.  He went straight to Jesus, and he said this:

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(Jn. 1:14, The Message)

The Word – the Son of the Father – is the Visible Man.  God – in Christ – has a face.  And tonight, I celebrate that it looks like the people I get to worship with.

Scott McBurney took a couple of hours and read through a Gospel.  This Christmas season, I’d like to challenge you all to do the same thing.  Put aside the new toys, the fix-it projects, and the dirty dishes.  Grab your old Bible, or simply go to Bible Gateway, and look for a Gospel.  Read it in a new translation – like The Message.  And don’t read it for answers or for the Jesus you already know.  Read it as if you’d never heard it before. And look for yourself there.  Because you are visible there, too.

Thanks be to God, I can see you in the Gospel, and I can see the Gospel in you.  Never forget – you are regarded.


[1] Breakeven (Falling to Pieces), recorded by Irish band The Script, 2008 Phonogenic Records

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