Psalm 96 (vv. 1,2, 9-13)
Christmas Eve 2022 ©Suzanne Grimmett
There is in Christmas a power to connect with our deepest hopes, and reawaken our inner child. If we suspend our judgement for long enough to reflect on this and silence the inner voice which might be whispering to us to grow up, we might recognise the truth that that inner child is also the part of us that is most fully alive. Christmas can make us all kids again, if we allow it, and in the best possible ways. There is that in Christmas which can find a chink in the most fortified adult armoury, enticing our inner child to come out and play. There is in the story of a God who comes as a vulnerable baby, power to disarm the most rigidly sensible and serious amongst us. But of course, that God would come to us to take on flesh and frailty for the sake of an aching love for humanity and all creation is deeply serious… and also the best and most astonishing news we have ever heard…news that overturns the despairing narrative that we inhabit a lonely and soulless universe.
For you see, a story is never just a story. Humankind has been haunted by dreams of hope and goodness since there have been people to tell them. These good hauntings…often we call them fairy tales… speak to us of glories hidden in plain sight, of the extraordinary dwelling within the ordinary and of things revealed to be so much more than they seem. We might think of a little girl named Lucy in a game of hide and seek going through a wardrobe, or perhaps our mind might drift to a young hobbit who agrees to go on a long and arduous quest to destroy the evil contained in a golden ring… Or if we think about the season, we might recall a miserly old man whose door knocker suddenly spoke to him with the voice of his old and equally grumpy partner Marley.
In all of these examples the fairy-tale world was not far away- rather, it became in different ways in all of these stories a power of seeing for the first time what had always been there – that the everyday world had been enchanted all along, but they had not realised it. There was a power for goodness at work, and an unveiling of a glorious truth about the way things really are and what really matters. But they are not stories of universal happy endings. Indeed, it is through the deepest of dark times that heroes often traverse, with tragedy, hardship and loss along the way which require courage and defiant hope. Fairytales, particularly the oldest and most enduring, do not shrink from nor deny the reality of suffering. What they resolutely never accept, is universal final defeat of all that is good.
It is hard to understand why, when all our favourite stories and best dreams do not accept such defeat, popular rhetoric and cultural attitudes seem quite prepared to be nihilistic under the guise of being realistic. We shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s life” or “that’s just people” and keep going, not noticing the little deaths we die each time we convince ourselves not to hope for anything better..
And yet these fairy tales persist with an urgency that cannot be gainsaid, and they break out with all kinds of power at Christmas. There is the heartbeat of a beautiful truth to be heard as we recall the angels’ song and a young woman quietly pondering these wonders as she gazes at her newborn son lying in a manger. In this story of the inbreaking of eternity we are hushed and entranced, year after year. However, this does not stop us harvesting the story for less noble causes or shrinking it down to something we find more believable. Whether it is for fear that this story tells us something about our humanity that is too good to be true, or a desire to make a tale more believable by reducing its power, it can seem that at Christmas the stories we tell are poor imitations of one that is infinitely more beautiful.
This year’s Coca-Cola Christmas commercial gives us the tag line, “Christmas always finds a way: Coca Cola. Real Magic” One ad shows a man bringing back the memory of his mother by cooking her recipes, washed down of course at the Christmas dinner table with Coca-Cola. While touching, it is a shrinking down of the magic of Christmas to something far smaller than the heaven opening, shepherds rejoicing, angels singing power of a God who takes up residence with us. Small wonder that we have lost the sense of an enchanted universe when we are being convinced by the consumerist machine that “real magic” is more likely to be found in a soft drink. Too often we have sold out our dreams to something as small a commodity or lifestyle we can buy or possess. Even the great Australian dream has been said to be no greater than owning your own home. While there is a sense of the comfort and security of a home to live in…surely that is far too small to be our great dream? Now that home ownership is beyond the reach of most of our younger people and many in generations above, perhaps we might see that we have aimed too low and have taught our children to pitch their dreams too small.
If we tune into what the prophets and teachers and healers in scripture and history tell us, we will find dreams that are as big as the universe. In Isaiah, we may hear those beautiful words, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…he shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, Prince of Peace’ and we may easily slip into hearing the glorious soundtrack to those words created by George Frideric Handel. But have we attended to the words that come before?
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
The prophet Isaiah is speaking a word of great hope to people who have suffered under a succession of violent oppressive kings, all of whom had sold them out to foreign empires. It is into such a context that we need to hear the hopeful word. It was a word that must have seemed impossible to those suffering under the conquering Assyrians in the 8th century BCE; Assyrians who invaded, brutalised and deported those living in the region of Galilee. The words of the prophet speak of God’s steadfast commitment in the face of these horrors, and the dawn of a new day when the rod of the oppressor will be broken, the war boots tramp no more and all people shall know freedom. These words speak loudly not only to oppressed Galileans of the ancient world, but just as clearly and hopefully to those in Ukraine, sheltering and fearful of the next military offensive. It speaks to women in Afghanistan denied an education and women in Iran crying for liberation. It sings of a new day to those who are sure their days are spent and those who cannot find the strength to begin again. It offers a promise to those who have only known violence and to those who have never known love. A Saviour from that same region of Galilee will be born to live in solidarity with all of humanity and speak over and again that word of liberation and peace.
This is the story that we have been telling since the beginning; the story that the greatest power on earth is found not in military might nor wealth and influence but in the power of love. This is a power that breaks through our sensible but despairing narratives with the story that ultimately love wins. It is the fairytale that is told again and again, and is true again and again in every time and place. It does not take away the suffering of the world, but reawakens our hearts that we may see it is not the end.
So may you attend to what makes your heart beat faster, notice those moments where you catch your breath in wonder and remember those stories that bring a rush of tears to your eyes, recognising them all as deep intimations of the one great story we are living… the story that tells the truth that God is with us. And not just with us in spirit, but with us in flesh and blood, getting hungry and tired, playing silly games and scraping his knees in the dirt. May you allow the Christ child to call out the joyful, playful child in you and discover that the magic of Christmas really is there to be found just below the surface of our everyday world at any time of year, and live the story of your life with defiant hope.