What makes you real?
Our third grader got this question wrong on his Velveteen Rabbit quiz last week, which prompted me to look up the childhood classic as we prepared for the end of book test. What makes you real? According to the wise old rocking horse in The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real… is a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
As the little boy becomes ravaged with scarlet fever, the rabbit is his constant friend and comfort. When the boy recovers, the doctor orders the nursery be sanitized and anything the boy touched be burned (pillows, blankets, and even his most cherished bunny). Instead of burning in the bonfire, the bunny is magically transformed into a real bunny. His love for the boy has made him real.
I revisited this old story just days before we were thrust into our own modern equivalent. Our toddler was hospitalized with RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus), which usually appears as a common cold in adults and older children. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in babies and toddlers. Our three-year old experienced severe difficulty breathing that could not be alleviated in the Emergency Room. He ended up being admitted and treated with IV antibiotics and steroids and supplemental oxygen. For two days he lay hooked up to heart and oxygen monitors round the clock. The first attempts to wean him off oxygen were unsuccessful. The doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapist patiently walked us through what was happening and what they were doing to encourage his immune system along.
His favorite stuffed animal, a sloth that he calls his “baby brother”, went on the same painful journey. The sloth went to all the scary places, underwent all the new and uncertain treatments, and lay cuddled next to Matthew in the hospital bed the whole time. When Matthew was finally alert enough to be carried around the pediatric floor to look around, he insisted that his baby sloth needed to go with us. When I asked if the sloth needed a mask like the rest of us, Matthew stared at me like I had lost my mind and said “he isn’t real mommy… AND he doesn’t have ears.” Later that day, the baby sloth was too scared for the hospital bed to go up and down and he needed to sit with Matthew while it happened. I laughed because while Matthew might have been correct that stuffed animals don’t need masks to walk the halls of a hospital, the sloth was very real. This special toy absorbed all the fear and pain that Matthew was feeling, and reminded him of his own strength. Love made the sloth real, just as love made the Velveteen Rabbit real for the boy. Fortunately, after Matthew was discharged a good dose of Lysol saved this cherished toy from a burn pile.
What makes you real? As we move closer to Christmas, we experience love that becomes real through the person of Jesus. Today’s Gospel is one of the most boring passages in the liturgical season. Listening to Jesus’ genealogy is about as inspiring as listening to someone read the Yellow Pages out loud. So why is this family tree important enough to include? It demonstrated to the early Church that Jesus came from a real family, with genuine ties to the community and the history of the Jewish people. The miracle of God made flesh on earth can feel a bit far-fetched, too amazing to be true. The infancy narratives re-ground us in the reality of who Jesus is. The love and legacy of his family reveal his real-ness.
So what makes you real?
Love, and loving, makes you real.
How is God making himself real through in you?