The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, December 26, 2008

Jesus, What's Your 20?

We are all familiar with the employment of modern technology for an imaginary purpose every Christmas Eve to “track” the journey of Santa and his sleigh around the world. Local newscaster once liked to announce the occurrence with faux gravitas at the end of their December 24 broadcasts. These days, websites allow one to trace the Jolly Old Elf’s route all evening long “in real time.”

Just when we all thought there was nowhere further to go with such escapades, engineers are now able to extend the same convenience to Jesus, as millions of Christians mark the annual remembrance of his journey from heaven to join the rest of us poor slobs here on Earth. Specifically, high tech is now helping to keep vandals from carrying off Jesus’ likeness from outdoor Nativity displays.

In my part of the world, that is good news indeed for the city of Cheviot Ohio.

Cheviot is, in itself, something of a miraculous conception. First settled by a single farmer in 1796, it grew to village size in 1818. John Craig, a prominent early resident, named it after a town somewhere in southern Scotland. One can still see headstones dating back to the 1830s in the Baptist Cemetery, located alongside Harrison Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Incorporated as a municipality in 1901, Cheviot is like a small island surrounded by the ocean that is larger city of Cincinnati. At a mere 1.2 square miles in size, it is tiny. Many consider it the symbolic heart of western Hamilton County – home to a little over nine thousand folks, all solidly blue-collar middle class and 96.9% white.

For its small size, it attracts a lot of attention each fall with the Harvest Home Festival, a small fair held every year the weekend after Labor Day since the early 1800s and reflecting a rural heritage that Cheviot now entirely lacks.

But back to Jesus.

The city began promoting another tradition, going back forty-five years this year, in the form of a large outdoor nativity display, sponsored by the Cheviot Westwood Community Association and also located along Harrison Avenue.

In recent years, another somewhat more notorious tradition commenced of stealing figurines from this display, with the baby Jesus as the most commonly purloined character. Objections to religious displays in public spaces are not at play here (you would have to visit Cheviot to understand how unlikely that motivation) and simple vandalism is the main reason behind the thefts.

The 2005 Christmas season was particularly bad, when the Jesus figure disappeared not once but twice. A local twelve-year-old girl saved the day when she temporarily loaned Cheviot a life-sized statue of the baby Jesus that had adorned her bedroom each Christmas holiday since she was six. (See what I mean about Separation of Church and State not being much of an issue for this particular burg?)

In 2007, thieves made off with the Jesus character again. It turned up a few days later but too badly damaged for continued display.

This year, for the forty-fifty anniversary, Cheviot officials decided enough was enough and employed technology to help ward off would-be hooligans. A surveillance camera now sits nestled in the display among the wise men, shepherds, and friendly animals. So far, it seems to have worked.

However, BrickHouse Security, a New York-based company, can go this one further. They have begun lending out GPS devices and providing tracking service free of charge to schools and places of worship with holiday displays. The device is only the size of a pack of cigarettes and thus easily hidden inside the baby Jesus or other Nativity figurines. It sends a text message and e-mail in the event somebody attempts to make off with a statue.

With such devices selling for $300 to $800 apiece, this gesture by BrickHouse is not insignificant. There is no word yet if any thieves have ever found the devices and ditched Jesus in hopes of pawning the expensive GPS equipment instead.

In any case, the story struck me sentimentally as an example in which science and faith have found a way to coexist, with the former even acting to benefit the latter. If this trend keeps up, can co-dependence be far behind? Ah, then religion will have relevance in our modern world indeed.

Until then, we can all say our prayers and rest our heads serenely tonight, knowing that, at least in the tiny city of Cheviot, much like in Bethlehem before it, a (fiberglass) child remains lying secure in its manager. Yea, let us join the Heavenly Host in praising what has come to pass, saying, “Peace on Earth (at exactly 39° 9’ 28” North and 84° 36’ 45” West), Goodwill Among Men (or else the police will track you down and throw your burgling ass in jail).”

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