What kind of Christmas are you looking forward to? This is the second one impacted by Covid and its restrictions, anxieties, and irritations. How many more? Will it always be like this? Always Covid and never Christmas, or at least never Christmas as it used to be? In the CS Lewis book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, Mr Tumnus explains to Lucy that since Narnia has been under the rule of the White Witch, it has always been winter and never Christmas – a metaphor for how restricted and impoverished life had become.
Stories can inspire our imaginations and expand our horizons. Lewis was a great storyteller. In one of his books, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, Lucy finds a Magician’s Book in which she reads a story that promises to bring refreshment. It so delights her that she would like to reread it but finds that she can’t turn the pages back, and already she has started to forget it. She knows it was about a ‘cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill’ but can’t remember it. We are told that ever since then, what Lucy regards as a ‘good story’ is one that reminds her of that forgotten story.
We are about to celebrate the birth of Jesus, what is arguably the beginning of the greatest story ever told. The account of his life, death, and resurrection influences every other narrative and profoundly affects every one of us. It is a story of good news. It is a good story. It is the good story. And, like the rest of God’s story set out in the Bible, it is rich with the symbolism of cup, sword, tree, and hill.
The baby sleeping in the manger is the one who will pour out on himself, and in our place, the cup of God’s wrath. He will offer the cup of fellowship and Covenant at the Last Supper. He will drink of the cup of suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and at Golgotha. And Jesus, literally ‘Saviour’, will be our cup of salvation through the shedding of his blood.
Even amidst the joy of the new birth, a sword of sorrow is prophetically poised to pierce his mother Mary’s heart in the suffering he will endure. But through that suffering, he will divert the sword of judgement that hangs over all who are distant from God. With the eye of imagination, one can see the flash of the swords of Herod’s soldiers as they massacre the small boys sometime later. Yet here lies the one who will rule the nations and beat swords into ploughshares. And as we gaze upon the helpless baby in a dimly lit stable, darkness all around, we see the sleeping Lion of Judah, the one who is the Living Word and sharper than a two-edged sword who will soon roar and strike terror into the heart of darkness.
Trees bookend the Biblical narrative, from the Tree of Knowledge in a garden at the beginning that triggered separation and decay of the Creation, to the Tree of Life in another garden at the restoration of all things. And trees feature importantly in the life of his Son, who is the agent of that transformation – from the wood that his carpenter’s hands work upon (and ‘do to’), to the wood of the Cross where he will be worked (and ‘done to’).
‘Hung on a tree’ on a hill outside the city wall. The shadow of Calvary falls across the scene. The dark hill where the journey ends. Or so it seems to the watching world. But around that manger are shepherds, arrived post-haste from another hill outside Bethlehem. Fresh from an encounter with the heavenly host of angels and bursting with the news. The greatest news of all time. Tidings of great joy. For all mankind. The Saviour is born. And beyond Calvary lies yet another hill – the hill of ascension from which the resurrected Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father, leaving death and darkness defeated and in disarray.
Joy. It’s the currency of the Kingdom of God. Lewis describes being ‘surprised by joy’. Finally grasping what he always yearned for but was always out of reach until he gave in and believed. A faith that he thought would restrict his life turned out to be completely the opposite. At the end of Lewis’ book ‘The Last Battle’, Lucy finds herself in a stable, which is a gateway to another world. A world far more real and expansive than the ‘reality’ of the world she inhabits in the adventure. The stable was bigger on the inside than the outside. She comments that in her world, too, there was once a stable that had something inside it that was bigger than the whole world.
Covid aside, all our lives are in some way restricted, less than they could be and were created to be. We can be prisoners of our own fears, slaves to our passions, fugitives from the image of God that is stamped on our souls. But Christmas has come. The simple, safe, familiar – perhaps over-familiar – Nativity stable contains something bigger than the whole world, opening up possibilities yearned for by each of us. It offers us an ever-present reality that we can experience whoever we are, wherever we have come from, and whatever we have done – and no matter how restricted our lives appear to be. Life in all its fullness.
Jeffrey Stephenson is a palliative care specialist