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.

Joy of the redeemed


“The wilderness will rejoice and blossom.

Like the crocus it will burst into bloom;

it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy…

…Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Then will the lame leap like a deer…

…Water will gush forth in the wilderness

and streams in the desert.” (Is 35;1-10 NIV)

Somehow, the rejoicing of Advent 3 has found itself being drowned out by the contemporary collective rush, where people either consciously or subconsciously reach for the “fast forward” button to get to the stable and manger too soon. But as we journey over the hills deserted by the shepherds, as we draw ever closer to the cradle, we peer through a receding darkness to see the pink flush of a new dawn of hope.



The Word was God

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I am seven and a half years old.  On Christmas morning, after a flurry of gifts, and cookies for breakfast, my mother and I go to 9:30 Mass.  We leave behind my brother, who’s only three and doesn’t have to go to church every time, and my father, who’s not yet Catholic, and a boy named Roger, who is fourteen.  He is a foster child and I am supposed to call him my brother. He terrifies me. 

I wear my best dress, and the tights I hate but my mother loves, and my black shiny shoes I adore.  It’s a special day, because our brand-new church is open for the very first time, and when I skip inside it seems vast and magical, candle-lit, glowing.  The pattern in the carpet looks like puzzle pieces.  I tap my shoes against it.  The overhead lights reflect off the patent leather.  I am happy to have left behind the tree and the presents and half my family, happy to be in this sacred place with my mother, alone.  And I am only ever safe in Roger’s absence.

In the beginning was the Word.

I don’t always listen to the Gospel.  I am only seven.  I’ve made my First Communion and I am supposed to listen, but the second reading–Paul’s epistle–never makes a lick of sense to me, so I tend to drift off.  I make a tent with my fingertips.  Here is the church, here is the steeple.  Open the doors, and see all the people.

In the beginning was the Word.

It startles me.  In the beginning was the Word?  The Word?  In the beginning God created light from the darkness.  I know my creation story.  But Word?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.

Now I’m pushed backward against the pew, eyes wide, mouth agape.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Understand that my life, happy on the surface, was filled with darkness. Horrible secrets threatened my soul. I escaped into books. I read constantly. I pulled my entire self into fictional worlds in order to survive.

In the beginning was the Word.

Words were the only thing I trusted. Not words spoken out loud, but words on the page.

And the Word was with God.

I might be okay, then. I might have latched onto something true.

And the Word was God.

It was like a great wave of light pouring over me.

In the beginning there were stories, and the stories were with God, and the stories were God.

If I could count on stories, I could count on God.

God could make the darkness light.

I was not alone

The Loosening of Winter’s Grip- A Prayer


Outside, the wind howls in a rage. Without mercy, rain lashes against the window.

With his back to the fireplace, he stares through the glass and sees the limbs of the tree stretch out towards him, gnarled and clawed, gnashing at the window panes. Not yet the silver tinsel or twinkling, coloured lights. Darkness seeps through towards him. Darkness threatens to envelop his heart. Relentlessly, rain lashes against the window. He sees his own reflection, tears of rain streaming down a distorted face in the glass. A frozen, broken smile stares back at him.

Behind him, he sees a flickering light. Embers in the fireplace flicker to life. A delicious, involuntary shiver of longing. Body trembling, he closes his eyes. Soon, very soon. Be patient.

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.”


In the dim tent,
Its dark hides
No longer needed
To protect
My beauty,
My fertility
From lascivious eyes,
But still my refuge
From the fierce light,
The yellow sun
Beating the earth
As my childlessness
Battered my soul,
I saw three men
Brighter than heat-haze,
Until Abraham’s greeting
Transformed them
Into the simulacrum
Of travellers.

I baked,
The calf was killed
For these rare creatures,
Visitors to the old man,
Patriarch only
To a slave-woman’s son,
And his wrinkled wife,
Her womanhood,
Her beauty
By age and disappointment.

In the dim tent,
Sheltered by propriety.
I knew it a mistake
When the bright stranger
Promised me a son
And I laughed,
Presuming him ignorant
Of my withered womb.

But suddenly
His light
The beating sun,
His power
A vast shadow
In the shadeless day,
My refuge-tent,
My heart,
My all,
As he promised
That no wonder
Was beyond the Lord
And I knew
I had laughed at
An angel,
At the living God.


The majestic Lord,
The Lord of wonder,
Assured me
That my womb
Would flower
And I laughed
In scepticism,
In bitterness,
In unbelief,
Until my fear
Struck the laughter
From my lips.

I knew
When Abraham
In cautious,
Breath-holding love,
Began my miracle,
But I could not laugh
For fear.

I tiptoed
Through each
Weary, aching,
Joyful day,
Each hour of confirmation,
Of the child within,
My too-old body,
For my willing gifts,
But I dared not laugh
For fear.

After endless days,
Each too short,
Too long,
I held my living,
Screaming miracle.
I named him Isaac,
Because now,
All fear assuaged,
All bitterness
In his birth-blood,
I could only laugh.

Open Our Eyes

There’s a woman whose blog I greatly enjoy and have followed for years. It’s mostly a knitting blog, but every year she writes so movingly about Christmas that I was astonished to discover, last year, that she’s an atheist.  She doesn’t believe in God.

Christmas without Jesus is Santa Claus.  Christmas without Jesus is Rudolph instead of Joy to the World, crowded malls instead of silent nights, “a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The blogger would disagree, I feel sure. She would talk of Solstice, of the ancient customs commemorating the return of the light, or of the importance of celebrating family and friends.

And I think, but that’s not Christmas. That’s easier.

On the other hand, many of my Christian friends are advocating doing away with Santa Claus entirely. Tell the kids that it’s baby Jesus’s birthday, and he’s sharing his gifts.  They can still have presents–just remember the Reason for the Season, and leave out the fat man struggling to get down the chimney.  Make it real.

For most of us, that’s too hard.  There’s a reason we all talk up Santa Claus.  It’s not that we, as Christian adults, really believe the jolly bearded guy has anything more important to offer than the Savior of all humankind.  I mean, of course we don’t. The problem is that it’s very difficult to grasp the Savior of all humankind, even as an infant, even in a stable. We can’t wrap our small brains around the Word Became Flesh. We lack the capacity to really understand God manifest in the infant Jesus. We tell our children about Santa Claus because it’s easier for them to think that a crazy old man breaks into their house once a year, leaving behind plastic toys, than it is for them to think about the creator of the universe distilled into a child. It’s also so much easier for us.  Santa is mythical the way dragons are mythical; most of us find dragons easier to understand than saints.  And saints are easier than God.  And God, the bearded Guy in the sky, is so much easier than that tiny, vulnerable, venerable child.

Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!”  Help us, oh God, to see you clearly.  Open our eyes to your wild, difficult truth.