Animatronics refers to a type of robotic technology that seeks to make creatures or beings “look real” and “come to life.”
From the former Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band, to Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents, we have been entertained with the lifelike motions of animatronics for years.
Animatronics have become so common, they even appear in our Christmas decorations— from the lawn reindeer whose head bobs up and down appearing to eat the grass, to the life-sized Santa who waves to passersby with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!”, to even something like this…
Now we are not naïve to think that such animatronics is limited to reindeer, Santa, and whatever the heck this thing is. We know of course that there are animatronic nativity displays.
A cow or sheep may bob its head like the reindeer.
The Wise Men may extend their arms to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Mary, Joseph and the shepherds often tilt their heads toward Jesus, and sometimes twist or bend at the waist giving them the appearance of leaning in toward the manger to admire, and maybe bow a little, before the newborn king.
One clever designer has even created an animatronic baby Jesus that appears to be breathing in the manger. There, with his eyes closed, lying among the hay, the torso swells and shrinks, mimicking the inhaling and exhaling of a sleeping baby.
But while animatronics may enhance our appreciation of the scene, we know that these figures, and the far more complex robots being developed by the industry, are simply representations of real, flesh-and-blood human beings.
And without a doubt, they can never replace the real thing.
Our celebration of Christmas later this week is about God coming to us in the real person of Jesus. The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger is not some animatronic, robotic, human-like version of a person. He is instead a very real human being, just like you and me.
And it’s the realness of Jesus that makes for the realness of Christmas.
And it’ in the realness of Christmas where we find the hope, peace, joy, and most of all, love of God for our world.
What we must remember, of course, is that when we find and experience the realness of Christmas, we are called to share and spread it ourselves…not robotically, but in very real ways.
In today’s epistle the author of Hebrews is writing a devotion based on Psalm 40.
Looking at this prayer through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus long after they all happened, the author sees a prophetic word about the Messiah that was written long before the first Christmas.
The writer of Hebrews explicitly states that “when Christ came into the world,” he cited this psalm as referring to himself, and the “body you have prepared for me.” This is the one who “was written about in the scroll” who “has come to do [God’s] will.”
The author of Hebrews wants to convey that God has made the divine presence known to us in the person of Jesus who came into the world with a body God prepared for him.
Jesus is the one whom God has intended to send all along, and who has come to show us the way back to God.
But this body is not an animatronic body for the divine Son of God to appear as a fake human. This is a human body, a human Jesus, and, yet, of course, still the Son of God.
The person who walked the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem healing the sick and feeding the hungry was not a human-like robot, programmed and controlled from a remote access point like a divine drone.
He was, instead, a very real human being who also was susceptible to illness, and who needed food to survive, who even went to the bathroom.
He was a baby who fussed, and cried, and teethed.
He was a toddler who learned to walk by falling—a lot.
He was a child who needed his parents to monitor his time on whatever was the Xbox of that day, just like a normal kid.
He was a boy who grew, as we do, into an adult who worked and exercised, got tired and needed rest.
He didn’t just look like us. He was like us.
His body included a heart and mind, will and emotions. His body, like ours, was strong but fragile, agile but limited, deeply caring yet emotionally vulnerable.
This baby, born in a stable, is the very real presence of God alive in a very real human being who would later go to the cross for our sins.
He knew our fears as he prayed in the garden for this cup to pass from him. He felt the physical pain of crucifixion and the emotional pain of the loneliness of death.
That is what the author of Hebrews is emphasizing, using the old sacrificial system as an illustration because in the ancient world, worshipers would place on the altar the best animals from their flocks—sheep, goats and bulls—to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins.
But the psalm cited in today’s Hebrews text reminds us that sacrifice was not all God desired from us. Instead, God has always wanted us to: live God’s way, do God’s will, and most of all, to love as God loves.
That real life model came to us in the realness of Jesus. And the realness of Jesus comes to us in the realness of Christmas.
And when we understand, deeply, the realness of Christmas, we can begin to understand the real depth of God’s love for us. That God became so fixated on giving us a way to see and experience the realness of God’s love, that God would become one of us.
There’s a reason why animatronics are so popular and so widely used in places like Disney and kid-centric restaurants. There’s a reason why we use them in scenes like our nativity.
We do this, and use such technology to give us a glimpse of something peaceful, hopeful, joyful, fun, and whimsical.
We set them up to give us a picture of something that makes us ooh and ahh, and warm our hearts, because Lord knows more often than not we see things that make us groan and cry.
And while such technology is fine and well, even in our nativity scenes, this, though, is not a complete Christmas story—and we can’t let it be.
Jesus is not just a human-like form of God, but a real human baby. A real human boy. A real human man. Which all make up for the realness and the miracle of Christmas.
The omnipotent God, who is beyond space and time, chose to come to us not as a celestial being, but as a human being.
The one Mary holds and nurses; the one who cannot walk, talk or even hold up his head; the one who will need his diaper changed, and who cries for his mother’s breast is God in the flesh, come to make us holy.
Then, one day soon, when he is grown, this very real human being will choose to be fully obedient to God, even when it means giving his very real body over to be crucified, because through his painful sacrifice, we are made whole.
Christmas is no cute, animatronic scene. Christmas is very real. Christmas is love that comes to life for all, so that all will not just have a glimpse of hope, peace, and joy—but that all would find it and embody it for their life.
At this time of year we all have Christmas opportunities: office parties, dinners, programs, concerts—Christmas gatherings of some kind or another.
The people are real, but all too often the Christmas realness is as robotic as an animatronic Santa Claus waving a hand shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho.”
So what if we created other Christmas opportunities—one’s that make for the realness of Christmas to be experienced by us, and by others.
What if, in these days before Christmas and even the days following, we seek out real opportunities, for real relationships, that have real potential, for sharing the real love of God, that becomes real at Christmas?
Maybe we visit a nursing home, or some of our homebound members.
Maybe we volunteer at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or come tonight to Loaves and Fishes and join in the caroling for and with our guests.
Maybe we reach out to someone we know who has lost a loved one since last Christmas, and let them know we’re thinking about them, and their loved one—who we acknowledge by name.
For here is the thing… as people of faith, we will receive the realness of Christmas this week. We will be surrounded by the trappings sure, but I know we won’t miss having a moment when the realness of Christmas hits us.
But what we must then remember is that by having experienced such, we then become representatives of the realness of Christmas. For having received the real love of Christmas means we are then called to share the realness of Christmas through our real presence—however it might be.
The motion created by the animatronics not only makes the scene more lifelike, the movements draw our attention toward the manger, and lend a sense of intimacy to the scene. It somehow engages our emotions, draws us in, and invites us to be more present, and participate in some way or another, in this holy and divine scene.
And as lovely as such is, it is critical for us to know, and embrace, and live forth from the truth that God first became aware that human beings would need a real life example so that we might come to live God’s ways, do God’s will, and love as God loves.
So as we gaze upon our nativity scenes in the final few days before Christmas, as we make our final preparations, let us remember that the baby in the manger was a very real human being just like us.
He loved and was loved. He celebrated and laughed. He was energetic at times, hungry and tired at others. He knew joy and celebration, and, like us, felt pain and loneliness.
He was very real and he is everything that makes up the realness of Christmas.
We are invited to freely receive, and then follow Jesus’ ways of hope, peace, joy, and love by living and sharing the gift that is the realness of Christmas. Amen.