"The Magic Lantern"
Dear LifeSharers, December 2010
Having given you a year end review in last month’s letter, one which told of a challenging yet momentous year for Vital Signs Ministries, I’m offering you this month a short work of fiction I hope you’ll find appropriate to the season. It is, as you will see, inspired by conversations we have enjoyed with residents and activity directors of the assisted living and nursing home facilities where we’ve presented our new “When Swing Was King” outreach. So, brew up a cup of tea and give a few minutes to “The Magic Lantern Christmas.”
“The Magic Lantern Christmas”
Frank hadn’t seriously thought about Christmas for an awfully long time. He always liked Christmas and had pleasant memories about the holiday but not since that Christmas he spent in a military hospital in 1944 had he given thought to what the holiday really represented or what it meant as far as history or religion were concerned.
Frank’s family had celebrated the season when he was a kid but it was never too much; it certainly didn’t involve any real expense. That part of Christmas came later when he and Doreen had their own children. Doreen could get pretty extravagant in buying presents for the kids and so a lot of Frank’s Christmas memories were nervous ones about lay-away plans and hopes that the company bonus would cover the overdrafts on his checking account. But generally Christmas had been okay for Frank. He liked the colored lights. He liked fruitcake and eggnog. He liked having the kids realize (at least in that one time of year) that he was a good and generous provider.
They didn’t play Christmas music at the house but you heard it on the radio and later on the TV. They even played it in the stores. Doreen always had him put up a tree but otherwise they didn’t decorate much for the holiday. And he now realized, most significant of all, that their Christmases together hadn’t been at all religious. Neither of them were hostile to religion but they were not churchgoers or people of prayer. The way they celebrated Christmas, Santa Claus was as much the hero as was Jesus Christ.
How had that happened, he wondered. Especially after the remarkable experience in that hospital in ’44. Especially when his heart had been so deeply stirred by that magic lantern program that the good vicar presented that night. He hadn’t thought about that Christmas for years. But he was sure thinking about it now ------
The mortar shells hadn’t hit Frank. Rather it was the stone fence he had ducked down against just before the shells started exploding. The force of those blasts had driven pieces of the wall into his body – some pretty big and three or four pretty deep. He almost gave it up right there and then but the medic got to him and stopped the worst of the bleeding. By the time he was actually in hospital, the doctors got him stabilized but they thought his left leg might need to be amputated. Still, he was the lucky one, his sergeant said. Three of his buddies, including the young cowboy from Wyoming that he played cards with, didn’t make it.
Frank had never been more scared in his life than he was at Christmas in that hospital. He was safe. He was clean. He would almost certainly be shipped back to the States to be reunited with family and his pretty fiancée. But the alarm over his leg, the worry about how Doreen’s feelings might change after such an operation and, to a larger degree than he wanted to admit, the fears of what would have happened to his immortal soul if he had been just one second slower in getting behind that rock wall – those things haunted him something terrible.
But on Christmas eve itself, he should have been more optimistic. After all, the prognosis from the doctors had actually improved in the last few days. The feeling had come back throughout the foot and the surgeon had actually smiled before he walked away that morning – the first time Frank had seen him do that.
The fears persisted though. In fact, the fears had crystallized into more of a spiritual anxiety. Frank had never wrestled with weighty questions of morality or religion, let alone think about what happened to a person’s soul after death. But then, he had never seen anyone die before. Was death a complete annihilation? Was it some disembodied drifting without pleasure or friendship…maybe even without self-awareness? Or as so many seemed to believe, was death all about going either to heaven or hell? All filled him with intense dread. For none of those things provided him with much hope. Except the possibility of heaven. Yet Frank was pretty convinced he wasn’t fit for that. He hadn’t thought of himself as a great sinner but, on the other hand, he was anything but holy either.
Then came that magic lantern presentation. The English vicar who served the hospital as a volunteer chaplain had come that Christmas eve like he came several evenings a week. But instead of just bringing in biscuits or cigarettes or books like he usually did, he now had an infantry captain and a couple of nurses help him hang a bed sheet in the mess hall on which he was going to show slide pictures from his old magic lantern contraption. He then announced that they were going to give a special Christmas program for any of the boys who wanted to come. He was going to tell the story of Christmas – a story that would be told in word and picture and song. Frank grabbed his crutches and hobbled in.
He had seen magic lantern shows before. In fact one of his school teachers back in Woodbine used one every year that featured maps and photos of Civil War battles. But the vicar’s program that night was about the history of Jesus. And for Frank, the next hour really was magical. The captain operated the magic lantern. The nurses played carols on the phonograph. And the clergyman talked about the first Christmas. Illustrated by the scenes on the wall, he talked with great understanding about Israel’s hope of a Deliverer, about the Magi and evil King Herod, about shepherds and angels and the Holy Family. Sometimes the vicar read from the Bible directly; sometimes he filled in the details on his own. And sometimes the pictures were accompanied only by the old Christmas songs whose lyrics explained the religious message of hope and revelation, of mercy and salvation. Those old carols and the pictures from the magic lantern deeply moved Frank’s heart.
Frank was remembering it all very clearly now. He hadn’t thought of that Christmas eve for so many years but it was all coming back to him. The warmth he felt. The sense of peace. The tears of happiness as he recognized that Jesus had come as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. Christ had come as a baby but He did so in order to be one of us and to eventually pay the penalty for man’s sins through His death on the cross. Frank remembered the vicar praying for the men afterward. And he remembered too how the fear had seemed to be lifted. So too the confusion and hopelessness. That magic lantern Christmas had shown him the way to peace and purpose…no matter what happened.
So how could he have so completely suppressed that compelling experience in the days immediately following it? He remembered feeling awfully embarrassed the next morning about his tears. And there was a Christmas party in the ward on Christmas Day where some Marines had liquor smuggled in. Undoubtedly that had figured in somehow. And then on Christmas night, the doctor came in with news that he was out of danger – no amputation would be necessary! The relief and excitement were overwhelming to Frank. In the days to come there were other distractions: several of Doreen’s letters, the announcement of his medical discharge, the offer from home to take a junior partnership in Mr. Grantland’s firm. The intensity of Frank’s Christmas encounter with God diminished and, as the succeeding years went by, so too had even the memories of that dramatic Christmas eve.
But my, God had seemed so close to Frank that night. The glow from that magic lantern had pointed his way to Bethlehem as surely as the miraculous star guided the wise men. But the glow had faded. And Frank forgot.
Until this afternoon, that is. Until today, in the nursing home where he now lived some 65 years following his time in that Army hospital. For today Frank had been wheeled out of his room for a special program of big band music to be played in the cafeteria. He had been looking forward to the afternoon’s program, not only because it was something to break the long monotony of nursing home life and not only because he took any opportunity to get away from the blare of his roommate’s television. Frank also hoped it would provide some distraction from his pain. The surgeons had finally been forced to take that bad leg a couple of years ago but the pains hadn’t gone away. They had just moved up into his hip and lower back. And sometimes they were just horrible.
But Frank wanted to go down to the cafeteria to see the program for yet another reason too. He absolutely loved big band music. He had always loved it and now, with Doreen gone, it was one of the keenest ways to stimulate memories of their life together. And the only chance he had to hear such music nowadays was from the church folks who started this program just a few months ago. It was really nice. At these programs they played the old recordings of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and a whole lot of the others he loved. There was also a fellow who told a few stories about the bandleaders and the songs. The small group that came with him were all very friendly and respectful. They made a guy feel like someone who was worth something. Someone whose life counted. And less like…well, like what Frank felt so much of the time.
And then there were the pictures. While the music played through the speakers, the pretty lady used a projector to throw photos on a big screen that everyone in the room could see. It was just like the magic lantern did on that hospital bed sheet those many years ago. There were pictures of bands and bandleaders, singers and movie celebrities, but a lot of them were just pictures of regular life in the 1930’s and 1940’s and 1950’s.The pictures helped Frank remember his youth, the early years with Doreen and when the kids were young – the days when he had life by the tail. The nursing home had several programs for the residents but this one was really special to Frank. But he certainly didn’t know what was in store for him that afternoon.
It was a Christmas presentation that was on tap for the day. And along with Ellington doing “Jingle Bells,” Woody Herman doing a jumping version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and other festive songs, the program had several specifically Christian songs for the season – songs like Frank Sinatra singing “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” the Mills Brothers doing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and the Glenn Miller Orchestra playing “Silent Night.” And while those carols played, the pictures on the screen told the grand story of Christ’s birth, that serene yet cataclysmic story that had so deeply touched Frank more than 6 decades ago.
The lyrics of the carols were clear and profound. And whether they were sung by Perry Como or Kenny Gardiner or any of the others, they seemed to Frank like they were being sung directly to him. Could it be that after all this time, after turning away from that powerful appeal back in 1944 (and all the long years afterward) that there might still be an open door to the manger? Frank thought to himself, “After I’ve spent my whole life away from You, indifferent to You, disrespectful of the true meaning of Christmas, would You take me even now as a worshipper? Would You take me as a sinner who needs grace even at so late an hour?”
As if in answer, the photo on the screen changed. A simple silhouette of the manger scene cast a light pointing upwards to a cross, the cross on which the adult Jesus was dying for the sins of mankind. And as Frank looked from the manger to that cross, the words of the carol struck deeply in his heart, “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
Once again, just like that Christmas in 1944, the tears came. And again, the fears and confusion lifted. But this time, true belief was added to the sentiment. By the matchless mercy of God, a magic lantern had once again illuminated for Frank the meaning of this holy event. But this time, Frank came to Christmas…to stay.
Merry Christmas, friends.