It remains the most watched single episode of television of all time, and it was also just about the most anticipated. I speak of Lucy Goes to the Hospital, the episode of I Love Lucy when the title character has her baby, ‘Little Ricky.’ 72% of households with tv’s as of January 19, 1953 tuned in (1.5x as many as watched President Eisenhower’s inauguration the next day); the fact that Lucille Ball was actually pregnant like her character, and happened to deliver Desi Jr. by C-section 12 hours before the episode aired (it was shot in mid-November 1952), added to the mystique and excitement.
Chances are you’ve seen the episode, but as we are still in the middle of the Christmas season and prone to watching programming with holiday themes, I encourage you to watch Lucy Goes to the Hospital again. It brings some especially helpful insights into the real meaning of Christmas, at least as communicated in Luke 2.
LUCY GOES TO THE HOSPITAL (Click this link to watch the whole 26-minute episode on hulu!)
“Wow!” you may notice, “These two ‘episodes’ from Lucy and Luke share a lot in common!” (And it's not just your laced eggnog talking....)
For one thing, both episodes are about the birth of a child, a very special child.
For another thing, the birth in both is highly anticipated and celebrated, more than just about any other.
For yet another thing, both episodes are peopled with religious characters. In Luke we have angels, the Holy Family, and God; in Lucy we have a voodoo doctor. (Har!)
Finally, and most importantly, these episodes bring the same message: when everything around us is going wrong, is wrong, is nothing like what was expected or hoped for, wonderful new life nevertheless is springing forth to change everything.
This message is very clear in the Lucy episode. The baby comes at the wrong time – while Ricky is in the middle of his new number at the club. Ricky shows up as the baby's first visitor dressed in a wacky voodoo outfit, making him look like the totally wrong kind of person (especially in the 1950's) to be visiting a maternity ward. Poor Mr. Stanley, also of the waiting room, can’t begin to get it right, get what he wants. Now he's got nine girls! (They're going to need a new house, just with bathrooms!)
Best and most telling is the scene where Ricky, Fred and Ethel calmly and perfectly rehearse getting Lucy to the hospital once she’s ready to deliver; however, the moment she uncomfortably walks out of the bedroom muttering, “This is it,” all hilarious hell breaks loose, with Lucy’s three “delivery assistants” becoming utter stooges as they can’t get the first thing right in calling the doctor, packing Lucy’s suitcase, or hailing a cab.
Everything in Luke 2 likewise goes wrong. Jesus is also born at the “wrong time” – during a census which forces Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. His first visitors are clearly "wrong"; they're lowly, despised, dirty shepherds -- this is not at all how the King of the Universe should be initially welcomed! Jesus’ parents can’t get one iota of a break – there’s no room in an inn so their baby is born in a stable, in a cattle trough.
Luke 2 is the antithesis of everything the Israelite religious authorities had dreamed of and prepared for. Their endless array of austere purification rituals were supposed to make the nation undeniably holy and clearly Messiah ready. When the angels suddenly came upon the scene saying, essentially, “This is it” all hilarious hell (as it were!) broke loose. And wonderful new birth happened amidst all that was wrong and unexpected.
We are so conditioned to see the nativity story as quiet and flawlessly executed, just the way we’ve seen it on the cover of Hallmark cards and without the least bit of “stage business.” We can’t imagine the story as a comedy, a wacky comedy as that.
But really, how helpful it might be to let ourselves see Christmas story as an ancient version of the Lucy-giving-birth episode. That's really the spirit in which the Bible presents it and, also, that’s the way it intersects our lives more often than not.
I have become aware more than ever just how disappointed and depressed the celebration of Christmas can make people – me! It’s so hard for the reality of the holiday to live up to our expectations, fantasies, memories, and careful preparations; no matter how hard we may work, dream or pray to make it so.
While we can let this disconnect drag us down and cause us to “endure” the holiday season even though it’s awful, we can alternatively see ourselves as Ricky, Ethel and Fred playing out the ridiculous fantasy of how easy and smooth getting Lucy to the hospital will be. And, after we've been knocked around a bit, run into walls, and metaphorically packed the land line into our suitcase, we can laugh at our presumptions, trusting the goofy, giddy good news that wonderful new life is seeking to spring up, even though it's not at all what we expected or prepared for.
This morning I found myself accompanying the Christmas Day worship services at the nursing home where my mother is a resident. I offered at the last moment to help out in this way, as the pastor of the nursing home was desperate; his usual musicians were unavailable. My piano playing is quite rusty, I’m overwhelmed with other tasks right now, and I was up quite late last night trying to get this blog done so folks could have it to read on Christmas Day.
Disappointed that the blog wasn't yet done and quite cranky that I'd said "yes" to this most-burdensome-feeling task, I grumpily came to the nursing home this morning, expecting to unhappily endure the worship services as I was sure the congregation would be enduring my poor piano playing.
But I decided to keep thinking about that crazy Lucy episode, and wondering how/if that spirit indeed crack through my deep Scrooginess. And then the pastor announced at the beginning of worship that "where on the worship bulletin there was a blank next to 'accompanist,' but Jane is here to fill in the blank!" Something in me then blurted, “Just call me Phil!” And everyone laughed, including me. As I then plunked through “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” only so-so, I suddenly remembered this was what “Janie” sounded like in It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite movie of all time. I was suddenly thrilled to be actually living IN my favorite movie...and as Janie!!!
Of course I should have been in a better mood anyway, etc etc etc, but I was just sooo grateful I’d found my way into Christmas joy, because the Lucy episode helped me know it was there. And it was a little child who led me. And, more to the point, it was the guy who rushed over from the club in his wacky voodoo costume.
Merry Fabulous Joyful and Surprisingly Goofy Christmas (Season) everyone!