“Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
This is a strange time of the year and impressions and memories that have been formed from early childhood still influence how many of us understand the Season of Christmas as it spills over into the New Year. I read a recent article from a NZ columnist who explored that thought with insight and reverence.
“When I was little, Christmas seemed such a big thing. It loomed in my child’s mind as the final, familiar headland, around which the Ship of the Year must pass before dropping anchor on New Year’s Eve.
And it wasn’t just the gathering pace of the festival; the choosing and decorating of the tree, the steadily mounting pile of presents, the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, that quickened my excitement. Underpinning it all there was an awareness of the Christmas Story itself.
We are so familiar with the biblical narrative now, that it is easy to forget its impact upon the imagination of the very young. For me, the wonder of the story of the Nativity has always been encapsulated in the lines of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie,
Within thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent hours go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
That sense of immanence, of something miraculous and terribly important taking place amidst the mundane and the ordinary; of a supernatural presence smashing through the barriers of the workaday world – as it did for those shepherds on the hillside – was incredibly powerful. It was as if a voice was whispering: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
To a little boy growing up in the Otago countryside – where at night the stars burn bright and clear - the whole Christmas story glimmered with mystery and magic.”
In this our columnist (Chris Trotter) demonstrates an instinctive understanding of the power of the Christmas story; a recognition of the irruption into normal finite time of something transcendent in essence and of a measure of reality far beyond what can understand: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
I utterly agree. It is of course outrageous – those words ‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ are surely a warning of where such thinking leads - and theologians opposed to all such notions of transcendence have warned us and argued the point, affirmed the ‘Death of God’ theology, but, in the process have seemed to paint the faith into a corner. At their hands our universe can seem drained of the sacred and our imaginative capacity is denigrated and diminished as an aberration rather than a complement to our use of reason and science.
Great Christian writers have worked tirelessly go restore our imaginative richness and renew our openness to the sources of transcendence at work within the natural order. The gospel vision appears re-framed within the fictions of C. S. Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkein. There is an expansive contemporary movement of Christian/ religious fantasy fiction and a growing number of writers whose works extend its notional boundaries.
The strange novels of Charles Williams fall clearly within that category but also some names I had not thought of – John Masefield for example, in his children’s novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. Similarly the possibly neo-pagan aspect of Susan Cooper’s children’s fantasy The Dark is Rising, presents our familiar world as a place where good and evil, light and dark, are enmeshed in conflict. “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
These are stories that may or may not be recognised as Christian in essence, but doctrine and orthodoxy (as the creeds may express it), need imaginative relocation to refresh and renew our faith. We all need help to see our world as a place where there is mystery and wonder, and where our hopes and deepest instincts draw upon a deeper wisdom than we allow for or can easily explain.
In doing this we reclaim a sacred space for the imagination and we acknowledge the reality of evil and, alongside it, the capacity for goodness in our world. To read such works is always to imaginatively realign ourselves with God and the good; this is reading to warm the heart and stir the will; it is reading with the intention or hope of transformation.
As the apostle John has expressed it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.” “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!” This is, in effect, an invitation to view the New Year and its changes with hope, caution and resolve.