The Christmas episode of R.O.D the TV centers on a classic Christmas miracle, where a little orphan girl on the verge of freezing and starving is adopted into a loving home just in time. For added Yuletide appeal, the entire drama plays out beneath the loving gaze of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus in an abandoned Catholic church, because nothing says Christmas like chiaroscuro and statues. But here’s the thing: this Christmas miracle didn’t have to play out just in time. It could have happened a day earlier, saving the little girl, Anita, from a frightening night spent wracked with hunger and in the depths of despair. But the delay to Anita’s miracle—the miracle that sees the Paper Sisters come together and forge the found family that carries this series—reveals something profound to us about the nature of the miraculous, which is at once both supernatural and natural, both wonderful and weird.
It’s a cozy Christmas Eve under the kotatsu, as the Paper Sisters and their friend Nenene celebrate the season with…a birthday cake? That’s right, it’s the sisters’ birthday! Not their literal day of entry into the world—that would be too big a coincidence even for anime—but rather the anniversary of the day that they were reborn as sisters. So settle in for story time, because this calls for a flashback!
It was a dark and stormy night. Michelle and Maggie, both workaday Paper Masters for hire, cross paths in a client’s dingy warehouse basement and hit it off straight away over a shared passion for a book about a giraffe with a short neck. They’ve been hired to check out a hidden cache of rare books, secreted away beneath a church somewhere in the wilds of Hong Kong. Once on-site, as they rummage through the suspiciously undusty tomes—the books are fakes, a mere McGuffin to bring the MCs together—a little voice pipes up: “If you’re Santas, then give me a present, and if you’re thieves, then let me join you.”
The voice belongs to Anita, who proceeds to mumble an account of her sad life story: her orphanhood, her inability to find food, her increasing desperation, and finally, her prayer to God for a miracle. “It’s Christmas Eve, right?” she explains, “So I was praying. Then I heard your voices.” Are Michelle and Maggie the answer to Anita’s prayer? She seems to think so: “God must have brought you to me.” But they aren’t ready to jump to any such conclusions. They certainly aren’t Santas, and they’re not exactly thieves either, but of the two, they’re closer to being thieves, as they admit. And so they dodge little Anita’s question, claiming that she’d have no future with them. They leave the girl to fend for herself as they go their separate ways, never to meet again. They don’t even offer to buy the girl a meal.
What a desultory Christmas Eve. Alone in the empty, cold church, Anita curses God. Her prayer was useless.
Or was it? After all, miracles are supernatural, it’s true, but they also have a natural element to them. God chooses to partner with people to do the impossible. And so sometimes, miracles need a little time to take root in the hearts of those who must help bring them about.
As Maggie wanders along streets alight with decorations and jolly with celebrating couples and families, she lifts up her drooping head (her head is perpetually drooping, possibly in an attempt to appear not quite so tall) and glances to the side, where she catches sight of her reflection melding with that of a statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. It’s a moment of realization for the lonesome gentle giant—recognition of the family that could be, perhaps.
Meanwhile, Michelle finishes reading the book that had fleetingly bonded her and Maggie, The Story of the Giraffe with the Shrunken Neck, and stares into the mid-distance. Is she recalling that moment of shared bibliophilic delight and the friendship it seemed to portend? In the let-down of the failed mission, Michelle and Maggie’s shared sympathy was overshadowed, too fleeting a thing to keep them connected. Like Maggie, Michelle is struck by a sudden understanding, though there’s no indication of what it might be.
Until the next morning, that is, because Michelle is a woman of action. When she returns to the church bearing a gift for Anita, the girl is despairing of hope and humanity and bemoaning her empty stomach, enunciating cynical remarks about Christmas Day. She is in no mood for Michelle’s offering of the giraffe book, partly because, as she points out, a good story won’t fill her stomach. But more so because, as earlier episodes revealed, Anita has a deep-seated loathing of books due to childhood trauma (insert series-long dorama arc). But no sooner does the complaint leave Anita’s lips than she finds herself in a warm embrace, with reassuring words from Michelle, “I can do something about that,” and an offer of a home to call her own. This is followed shortly by another gift, as this time Maggie darkens the doorway with that same book in hand and her heart ready to make room for the little girl. When Anita adds to her physical complaints (classic tsundere), pointing out that “a good story won’t warm my body,” Maggie unwittingly echoes Michelle’s words, “I can do something about that,” wrapping her scarf around the little girl as proof. And with that, beneath the indulgent gaze of Mother Mary holding Baby Jesus, the three decide to become sisters. Christmas miracle achieved.
There are two key things about this story. The first is that the miracle here takes time. The two young women do not abandon their solitary lives right away. They are professional working women, after all, and taking on an orphan all alone (as each expects to be doing) is a big commitment, whether it is for life or just until they find the kid some proper help. And so in the moment, when faced with Anita and her desperate need, their instinct is to return to their usual routines and ponder awhile. They consider the implications. And then they act.
In the meantime, Anita is left unaware of what all is going on in the hearts and minds of her soon-to-be saviors, and she succumbs to anger and despair. Miracles can take time. That’s part of it. But there’s a beautiful picture of grace here as well: God had already put into motion Anita’s miracle, the answer to her prayer, and he did not interrupt or abandon it when she became ornery and impatient (i.e., her usual self!). He kept working on the hearts of Michelle and Maggie, even as Anita cursed him. He gives good gifts, regardless of whether or not we are gracious recipients.
There’s more too. Anita herself actually takes a long time to fully receive her Christmas miracle. Yes, the three become the famed Paper Sisters from that moment on, but they’re not yet truly sisters. On Christmas Day, Anita doesn’t admit to Michelle and Maggie that she hates and fears books; to do so would be to bare her own broken heart, and she needs time to learn to trust them first. For now, she misdirects them with the complaints about her physical needs, avoiding the issue of her emotional wounding. Opening up to Mi-nee and Ma-nee will come later—and in fact, it takes the rest of the series (providing it with its core emotional arc). In other words, the fullness of the Paper Sisters’ Christmas miracle doesn’t play out on Christmas Day. It takes years, with many painful downs, yet also joyous ups, along the way. Just like the original Christmas miracle, the incarnation of God himself into our world. Yes, Jesus’ birth was a miracle in the moment! But the fullness of that miracle took many years and much heartache to be fully realized.
The second key thing about this story has to do with family. This episode brought home to me the strangeness of the Holy Family—of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Let’s face it, the Holy Family is weird: an unwed mother, a seemingly jilted fiancé, and God in baby form. I guess I never really considered how weird a family they must have made! Just like Michelle, Maggie and Anita. The Paper Sisters’ origin story as a found family highlights something crucial about the Holy Family and, indeed, the Family of God more generally—that Family of which we are all a part. You see, it isn’t their shared identity as Paper Masters that binds the sisters together, or the commonality of their worldview, culture, and ways of engaging with the world, which are distinct from those of “regular people”. Nor is it a shared passion for books and seeing books respected and loved throughout the world that knits their hearts. (Anita’s bookworm side takes a very, very long time to emerge!) Instead, it is Anita herself who brings and keeps them together, forging them into a family.
In the Paper Sisters’ family scenario, as it plays out in this episode, Anita is the Baby Jesus. Just so, it isn’t our shared worldview, culture, or identity that ties us together as Christians, or even our passion for God and his Word that keeps us together. Frankly, those things aren’t actually enough to prevent the schisms and splits and feuds that emerge in the church, which is why we struggle with unity and grace for one another. Neither doctrine, worldview, nor even good worship music is enough to bond us together through thick and thin. Instead, it is Jesus himself who unites us. So when we get distracted and we think that Family is about how we celebrate together or how we vote or how we make decisions and the opinions we hold about both worldly and church matters, it falls apart. But when we keep the one who brought us together in the first place front and center, it is much simpler to navigate the ups and downs of the miracle of life together.
So, maybe you don’t have a family to celebrate with this Christmas. Or maybe your family has a poor track record of being able to celebrate together in peace and with grace for one another. If that’s the case—and even if it isn’t—let’s all take a page out of the Paper Sisters’ book and ask God to continue to outwork that first Christmas miracle in our lives and hearts, and bind us to our Family through Jesus.
It may take time. In fact, it most likely will, because these kinds of miracles often do. There may be healing we need to go through, like Anita, as we learn to trust, or a courageous step we need to take, like Michelle and Maggie, in being willing to disrupt our daily lives. It may not be only up to us; our miracle may rely on someone else pitching in and partnering with God and with us too. Together, we may need to recenter our family lives—be it with our natural family or with our church family—on Jesus himself rather than on the other, more frangible ties that bind.
But the good news is that the necessary miracle is already in play! And God is inviting us to be a part of it, and to receive it, all at once.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
With love from the Beneath the Tangles family.
R.O.D the TV isn’t streaming anywhere, but it can be purchased on DVD. Totally worth it too!
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