The Great Stories

“It’s like the great stories, Mr Frodo, the ones that really mattered…”

I was a child who lived and breathed books. I was brought up with the written word and on the power that it together with only my imagination had to transport me far away in time and space. I was raised on, as Samwise Gamgee says, the great stories.

The stories of mothers and sons. The stories of far-away places, desert heat rising off the page and making itself known in the mind’s eye. The stories of ordinary people who did remarkable things. The stories of the impossible and of how it became possible. The stories of love that could burn down a city or raise it up in glory. The stories that tell of the triumph of good over evil, and of the sacrifices made along the way.

Remember,” said Albus Dumbledore. “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good and kind and brave…

This is the greatest of the great stories.

A story of a mother and her child, and of the man who loved them despite what it cost him. A story of stifling heat and an uncomfortable journey and a bare floor. A story of one woman who accepted an extraordinary task and did it with joy. A story of a man who accomplished the impossible and of his father who so loved the world that he gave us his only son. A story where good will always triumph over evil and where life will always, but always, be stronger than death. A story that is the greatest story, because it is real.

A story that will end, in two millennia or three decades or a few months, in a garden, with a man who makes a choice between what is right and what is easy.

But, they said to each other. But. They gathered around a fire on a hilltop and they said to the children who were hearing the story for the first time. It was as though they were telling a secret. And they said: That wasn’t the end of the story. And it is because that wasn’t the end of the story that we gather and we tell it again and again and again. The most ancient and the newest of stories. An old tale and a living Gospel.

Tonight, we tell each other with one voice that, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

We tell it as the body of Christ.

We tell it to remember it.

And we tell it in the name of the one whose promise was true, whose coming is certain, and whose day draws so very very near.

Meet Me In The Dark Places

The candles are burning in the window.

Over three hundred people are dead in the Central African Republic, and thousands in Syria, and every day a new war.

The presents are bought and wrapped and shining under the Christmas tree.

A young woman with a terminal illness decorates her tree knowing that it will be the last time.

The turkey is stuffed.

I walked past eight people tonight who have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat.

The lights twinkle from every shop window.

And from the darkness, a helicopter drops out of the sky.

We want to have the perfect Christmas. In these weeks of preparation, we all convince ourselves that if we can only do it right, if we just do this thing and buy that thing and jolly everyone along, our Christmas too will look like something from the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. For the month of December, things will be all sweetness and all light, and woe betide anyone who interferes with that. And if it should happen this year, if there should be a knock on our door, if it should be us and now to whom the Unexpected and yet Long Expected Guest comes, there will be a place set for Him, and the fire on, and the children won’t have left their toys out for Him to trip over and nobody will be fighting with Aunt Muriel.

It is no less than Jesus deserves.

But it wasn’t what he came looking for.

We are promised a God who comes to us in our darkest moments, in the darkest parts of the world, in a darkness that never seems to quite lift, this time of year, and who squats down next to us in all our unglorious and undignified humanity. God sought us out when we were at our most broken. He doesn’t come to the house with the best turkey or the twinkliest lights or the shiniest gifts under the greenest tree. He comes to the places that are torn apart by conflicts. He sits on a dirty street corner with the people that society has all-but forgotten. He finds the weary and the grieving.

If he had been coming to that other place, that It’s A Wonderful Life place, the ideal that we strive for and never ever quite achieve — would he have come? And why would he have come?

The magic of Advent was never that things were wonderful. The magic of Advent was that things were going to get better.

Last week, I began Advent in a city where a helicopter really had fallen out of the sky. Never had we needed an Advent God as we did then. And in the notes of the old familiar melody, I prayed that we would meet Him in our dark places and that light would come once more.

O come thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny,
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them vict’ry over the grave.

Becoming Three

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do.

From The Journey, by Mary Oliver

Stir Up Thy Strength, O Lord

Last week, I was travelling on the train to work. It was a bitingly cold morning, with frost sparkling on the ground and breath mingling with the air and a sudden inability to feel my own nose. The streets were in darkness, quiet and empty at that hour even on a weekday morning. I had a warm scarf and hot coffee and, trundling through the Central Belt, the Advent responsory came onto my iPod as I watched a burnt orange sun start to rise over the Scottish hills, and I was filled with a profound sense of peace and joy.

At this time of year, it can feel as if Advent is an inconvenience. It’s not a season that we want to celebrate. From churches who put Santa up in the sanctuary on the first Sunday of December to the “O, come quickly” of Wesley’s beautiful carol to schoolchildren counting down to the last day of term, it can feel like this is a season to simply be got through, to be wished quickly away, so that we can get onto the real business of Christmas.

But it is about so much more than that.

If you give it a chance, there is a beauty in the darkness, in the cold, in the stillness. There is the beauty of a God who we believe in, because, once upon a time, when the Earth was very dark and very cold, God believed in us. It is in God’s believing in us that we find the thing that, now, when the Earth is very dark and very cold, we long for and wait for and hope for. And it is in that hope that the light will shine through the darkness.