Long ago, when I was in 8th grade, I made a wooden sign with “The Sheas” carved into it by a router. I cut zigzag edges into it, stained it brown and gave it to my brother, Rick, for Christmas in 1972. Much to my satisfaction and honor, Rick nailed that sign to every house he ever lived in–a kind of tribal badge that gave us both a sense of belonging and pride in our family.
In 1992, my wife Janet and I finally managed to buy a house. So when we moved in, Rick brought us a special gift: the sign I’d made 20 years before. As we both knew, this wasn’t just a hunk of wood. This was a kind of succession. Rick is my oldest brother and he stands, in a way, in the place of my dad who died in 1983. So I was deeply honored by this singular treasure and felt a certain sense of paternal blessing as I nailed the sign to our aging white fence out front.
The following spring, our fence needed paint. So we took the sign off the fence, set it on the top of the car and proceeded to whitewash the fence. Then disaster struck. I forgot about the sign until long after I had gotten into the car, driven somewhere…and in the process lost the sign in transit forever.
I lost our family name.
I felt terrible, stupid, and irresponsible. I missed that old wooden sign, that bond of brotherhood, that gift of love twice given. I felt a twinge for a long time after. It was a small, but real, death.
Then came this past Christmas.
My nine-year old Matthew is a boisterous, precocious little kid, given to popping out from bushes with a “boo!”, suddenly lunging at you for a hug or a wrestle, and unexpectedly leaping off swings or gym equipment just for the sheer spontaneous excitement of the thing. He pays for this with the occasional busted wrist or concussion, but his zest for life is such that this seems a fair trade-off for him. And it is, as you might guess, deeply endearing.
On the other hand, this fascination with the sudden, the abrupt and the immediate doesn’t always speak of a great attention span. He is wonderfully distractible (which is handy when you want to sneak a birthday present into the house under his nose, but difficult at homework time). So I naturally assumed the whole sign incident passed unnoticed by him, particularly since it happened when he was four.
What then, to my wondering eyes should appear on Christmas morning, but a beautiful piece of wood, stained brown and with jagged zigzag edge, bearing the legend “The Sheas” in white paint. Matthew had conceived and executed the idea all by himself and labored steadily on it in the six months leading up to Christmas. He had struggled with little inadequate saws that kept breaking. He had kept the whole project secret (till Mom accidentally stumbled on it out in the workshop). He had insisted it be stained brown just like the original.
He had, in short, taken the greatest care to restore to our family something that we had lost through my carelessness. Like another Son, long ago, he had surprised everybody by giving back to his family a name they had lost, seemingly forever, through the carelessness of their first father. And in so doing, Matthew, like that other Son, unexpectedly gave us far more than we had ever had before.
In that moment, this gift of love, now thrice-given, was transformed for me from a sign to a Sign. For in it, I now see the link between the merriment of Christmas and the joy of Easter. For redemption–the miraculous turning of loss into fullness, destruction into creation, frustration into fulfillment–is what the birth of Christ signals and the resurrection of Christ accomplishes. When I opened that Christmas present, it was full of Easter. Like the first Christmas was.