One of the recent advances in technology is virtual reality. You can now buy a headset to turn your smartphone into a virtual reality screen. The Playstation 4 is advertising games that are designed for the virtual reality medium. For now, you strap on the headset to block out the real world, so you can be totally immersed in the virtual world. The technology recognizes where you are looking, so that as you turn around, the field of vision changes, so the bad guys can come from behind you, from the side and up above.
I think that is pretty amazing, so much more immersive than the Super Mario Brothers I played when I was a teenager. There was no illusion of reality. You might get lost in the challenge to defeating the boss in each level, but there was no question that you were in the real world, that your Mom could stand between you and the screen and simply break all concentration that you had, any connection to the game.
Science fiction has long played with future scenarios that blend the real world and a virtual one. Total Recall involved implanting false memories of vacations and adventures in your head, so real that you would swear you had actually experienced them. Star Trek had the holodeck, where players could escape to any virtual setting they desired. Perhaps most famous are the Matrix movies where all of humanity was kept in a virtual world and only a few could access the real world, but the real world was so bad and depressing that one of characters was willing to sell out all his friends just to forget the real world and go back into the virtual one.
In all of these stories is the theme that the virtual world is better, more entertaining, more exciting. It makes sense in the gaming world, because once the game starts, you immediately have a purpose and a mission. You have to get from one place to another or blow this thing up or get that object at all costs. This is far more interesting than the real world where you have to do your taxes, brush your teeth and walk 10000 steps to nowhere every day.
In some ways religion plays into this as well. For most of Christian history, heaven was the virtual reality the church promised and proclaimed, because for much of Christian history, life was not pretty for many people. The real world was dirty and difficult. War wiped out millions. Plagues wiped out millions. Diseases like cholera wiped out millions. Farming without the help of modern machines broke the body down at a young age, especially as one started doing hard labor as a child. And the solace that the church could offer was heaven. If you can get through this lifetime without doing anything terrible, you will get to be in heaven where everything is perfect.
The emphasis on this message that made sense in its time. Heaven was used as both carrot and stick, encouraging people to good behavior and forcing them be part of the church (because if you don’t go to church, you can’t go to heaven.)
Certainly eternal life is part of the promise of the good news. But tonight, this Christmas Eve, we are invited to consider that there is more to the story than heaven, there is more to eternal life than life after death. If that were it, there is no need for this evening, this story. There is no need for angels or shepherds, a baby in a manger and a no vacancy sign. There is no need for Jesus if this life is just a temporary home, a testing ground, a place from which to escape. I believe that the nativity story is one that draws our attention to this time, this place and this life. The Christmas story is about God making this life into a piece of eternal life. Because eternal doesn’t just mean from now until forever. It means always and always. It means right now and back then and over there and until forever. Eternal life is the journey as much as the destination.
Christmas celebrates Jesus coming down and saying, “Come follow me. Come walk with me.” When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.
But, you may counter, the world is not perfect. There are hungry people and people who are afraid and people who get sick and not just serious illnesses but really irritating illnesses that do nothing but stuff up your nose and take you out of circulation for a few days. What about mosquitos? Not just the ones with disease, but the ones that suck your blood and leave you with nothing but an itchy bump. What about poison ivy? That’s just misery for touching the wrong plant. Not only are there car accidents but there is Boston traffic and there are Boston drivers. And what about all the stuff I have to get done? What about my job and saving for retirement? What about all the errands that won’t take care of themselves? How is all this part of eternal life?
The child in the manger is there in the manger precisely because this life matters, this reality matters. Jesus is born into our reality this night not to draw you away from this life but to experience it with you. The child in the manger is there to transform this life, your life, into eternal life.
The child in the manger is going to grow up and look at you and love you and say, “Walk with me.” Walk with me through sick days and traffic and worry. Walk with me through mosquitos and poison ivy (maybe walk around the poison ivy). Walk with me through your job and your retirement and through that moment when you breathe your final breath. Walk with me and approach other people with love and kindness. Walk with me and learn to be content with what you have and who you are and where you are (even in Boston traffic). Walk with me and be a person of peace and hope and joy. When we are walking with Jesus, we are already walking in eternal life.
Virtual reality is not better than the real world. This world is already fascinating. Every breath gives us the possibility of a new start, a new change, a new direction. Every person gives us the opportunity to love and be loved. The child in the manger says, “Pay attention to this life because it is beautiful; it is already a gift.”
The child in the manger alerts us to the possibility that we are already in the midst of eternal life.