Aslan is on the move!

“What will you preach?”  That is a question that has been circulated on every Zoom clergy group of which I am a part these past few days.  What does one say on Christmas Eve this year?  How does one relate the Gospel promise of Christ’s Nativity in a world so uncertain, an environment so fraught, a winter so unrelenting in so many ways?

Even in balmy Houston, we have experienced a metaphoric winter nine months long, in which the coronavirus has put our lives in deep freeze.  Indeed, one consultant I read has called this our existential “Ice Age.” As after a blizzard, the world has ground to a halt.  Like many of you, in a year’s time I have not seen loved ones beyond those who live in my household.  I have not sat face-to-face with most of my friends or colleagues in almost that long.  And lest some still think that COVID-19 is only a half-step more severe than the common cold, know that I have conducted Last Rites through a computer screen for someone dying of this insidious virus alone in a hospital room, while his family wept through their phones.  It has been winter, indeed.

Snowy frozen landscape of sunrise on lakeside with trees Photograph by Oleg  Yermolov

In an otherwise even-keeled world, the coronavirus would be enough to capsize us.  But our world is not otherwise even-keeled.  There is an ambient anxiety coursing through this season.  It distorts our thinking, making us uneasy, distrustful, prone to respond poorly and inaccurately to events swirling around us like a wintry mix.  It is as if we’ve gone through the looking glass, or, perhaps, into the wardrobe.

In such circumstances, how can Christmas come?  What does Christmas even mean?  And, what word of hope can a preacher offer?  No theology will do.  It will all seem too esoteric, too academic, too bloodless for the visceral days we presently endure.   So instead, let me tell you a story.  It’s a story you’ll remember, perhaps almost as familiar to your childhood as the Nativity story itself.

Lucy, and then her siblings Peter, Susan, and Edmund—the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve—find themselves transported from war-ravaged England into the equally-threatened land of Narnia, caught in the wintry grip of the White Witch.  In Narnia, everything is frozen.  Life is ground to a halt.  Mr. Tumnus, a faun, explains to Lucy that this winter is as joyless as it is eternal.  “Always winter and never Christmas, think of that!” Mr. Tumnus says to Lucy, scarcely believing it himself.[i]  The long winter has affected Mr. Tumnus.  He, himself, has gone to work for the White Witch, gradually allowing his thinking to be distorted and his actions to collude with hers.

As the story goes on, Edmund, Son of Adam, also falls prey to winter’s confusion and the White Witch’s spell, but the other three children hunker down and hope for better.  And then, one day as the three children (along with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver) hide out in a snowdrift, they hear the jingling bells of a passing sleigh.  They are terrified that it is the White Witch, caught up to them at last, and Mr. Beaver sneaks out to take a look.  Soon he returns, and dancing outside their warren he says, “Come on!  Come and see!  This is a nasty knock for the Witch!  It looks as if her power is crumbling!  Didn’t I tell you that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas?  Didn’t I tell you?  Well, just come and see!”[ii]

The children climb a snowy hill to find there, atop a massive sleigh led by mammoth reindeer, Father Christmas.  He is not Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly elf, but a spirit both joyous and solemn.  The reader is told, “He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still.”

ts Father Christmas visits Narnia: Christian Birmingham for The Lion, the  Witch and the Wardrobe picture book. | Narnia, Chronicles of narnia, Lion  witch wardrobe

When Father Christmas, finally arrived in Narnia, speaks, his words are a miracle, for the children, for C.S. Lewis’ readers in war-torn England, and for us today in the midst of our own travails.  Father Christmas says, “I’ve come at last.  She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last.  Aslan is on the move.  The Witch’s magic is weakening.”

Father Christmas gets it exactly right.  He recognizes that, however desired he is—however needed the Spirit of Christmas that buoys our own spirits—Christmas only comes because Aslan is on the move.  And in Lewis’ fantasy world, Aslan is, of course, the Christ, the begotten of God, the Incarnate Lord whose entrance into the world breaks the grip of any winter and thaws any heart.

Before he leaves the children, Father Christmas does what Father Christmas always does: He gives them presents.  But he tells them, “These…are tools, not toys.  The time to use them is perhaps near at hand.  Bear them well.”

The gifts are specific to each child, and they are each items that empower the children to support Aslan, to play their own unique part in thawing winter, to usher hope into the world.

This is our message on this Christmas Eve.  Christmas is here, because Aslan is on the move!  Christmas is here, because this night the Christ child is born.  Try as it might, the winter of the world this long year past begins to break.  There are signs of the thaw all around us. 

And, beyond the trinkets and baubles we may give and receive this night, we are each given, by God, gifts beyond measure that we must bear in the world to strengthen hope and further grace.  Christ is born, and that includes in us, as Christ’s hands and feet and heart that can use our abundant gifts to quell anxiety, abate fear, lift spirits, and share love. 

Christmas this year lacks the frivolity of years past.  Clement Clarke Moore’s jolly Santa seems out of place and out of touch with our reality.  But C.S. Lewis’ Father Christmas does not.  Solemn yet joyous, Father Christmas knows the truth.  He knows that, though there are chilly days yet to endure, the news arrives each day now that the icy grip of winter is losing its hold.  Aslan is on the move!  Christ is born!  And the way we choose to wield the gifts God gives us has a real impact on what happens next.  May we bear those gifts with the forthright courage of children, who always teach us so much at Christmas time.  May we care, and love, deny the White Witch wherever she appears, and be agents of the Incarnate God.  As Father Christmas rides out of sight, he calls out to the children in words inspiring and true: “Merry Christmas!  Long live the true King!” 

[i] Lewis, C.S.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 2.

[ii] Lewis, C.S.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 10.

The Fixer

Oh, you can feel it, can’t you?  It all starts to seem real when we get to the Gospel lesson on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  Young Mary is alone in her room.  Gabriel shows up and speaks.  There is Mary’s moment of perplexity, when she protests her virginity, followed by the angel’s explanation of what will happen.  The whole thing leaves us giddy, because we know that the Advent time of waiting is almost over.  Christmas is almost here.

For several years when I served St. John’s Church in Roanoke, Virginia, I was one of a few local pastors who appeared in Mill Mountain Theatre’s annual production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”  It was great fun.  “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is the hilarious story of a church pageant invaded by the Herdmans, the wildest, most disruptive kids in town.  The best lines in the play are given to Imogene, the eldest sister in the Herdman family.

When Grace, the pageant’s director, reads today’s portion of the nativity story to the cast, Imogene asks, “Why didn’t Mary get to name her own baby?  I would have named him ‘Bill.’  What did the angel do, just walk up to Mary and say, ‘Name him Jesus’?”

Grace, who is entirely flustered, responds, “Well, yes!”

And it is a little odd, isn’t it?  The angel Gabriel does just walk up to Mary and take over.  Gabriel arrives like some sort of fixer and begins dictating how things are going to go:

“And now,” he says to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

Why is this so?  Why does the Christmas story necessarily begin this way?

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: Robinson, Barbara: 9780060250430: Books

The summer after second grade, my family took our first and only summer vacation to the beach.  We rented a huge, rambling house on the Florida coast outside of Pensacola.  My grandparents went with us.  In my memory, this vacation has mythic importance rivaling Scripture’s nativity story.  It was wonderful.  Among the memories, I recall waking up early every morning to the sound of the surf and wandering down the boardwalk to the beach.  I was up early, but not as early as my grandfather, Pop.  Pop arose with the sun to take his net and bucket and go crabbing at the edge of the water.  I would hit the beach just in time to meet him walking back to the house.  He’d smile, and I’d look down at a five gallon bucket full of crabs.

Pop never put a lid on that bucket, and I asked him if the crabs could climb out.  “Just watch,” he said.

Anyone who has ever been crabbing knows what I saw.  One crab would extend his body up the side of the bucket.  A second crab would climb up the first crab’s back and almost make it to the bucket’s lip.  But just as he reached forward with his pincer, a third crab would latch onto his legs and pull him down.  I was mesmerized.  Endlessly, the crabs would make the effort to escape their predicament, and each time any hint of cooperation quickly gave way to a primitive panic, with one crab pulling another down in the attempt to leap frog to freedom.

There may be no better image to describe the human condition.  Sometimes, it feels as if we are but crabs in a bucket.  We prove incapable again and again of saving ourselves.  As individuals, we attempt to reorder our lives so that we are good and pure and fair at least to those we love and cherish, if not to the stranger we meet.  We wake up each morning and say with commitment, “Today is going to be different.  Today I will offer the kind word and make the right decisions.  Today I will…”

And on some days breakfast is barely digested before we feel the worst in us grab hold of an ankle and begin to pull us back down.

Beware of Crabs! - Conifer Area Chamber of Commerce, CO

Then we turn on the television, read the newspaper, or open the internet and realize that, as disordered as our personal lives are, the society in which we live is far worse.   With politics, the economic cycle, foreign relations between our nation and others—take your pick—everything we do seems to cause the crabs to tumble back over one another into the bottom of the bucket.  Even our best attempts to make things better create unforeseen consequences, collateral damage that is often worse than the original problem we set out to solve.

And this is not academic. Trust me.  Those who lose hold of hope and tumble to the depths are actual, real people.  They line up outside the Beacon.  They desperately seek help from our At Risk Youth Program.  They lie in hospital beds hooked up to innumerable tubes.  They sit in these very pews this very day, and join us by the hundreds via livestream, anxious about all the ways in which we seem to flail around and almost smother under the mass of the desperate others around us.

Sooner or later we find ourselves realizing the futility of trying to save the world.  With each faithful attempt to make things better, other things get worse.  We can’t even reorient our own hearts with any lasting effect.  And our striving exhausts us. 

Exactly.  That’s why Gabriel shows up that day two thousand years ago.  That’s why he speaks like a fixer, because we cannot, ultimately, fix ourselves or our world.  The time had come for God to take the initiative; the time has come for God to take the initiative.  We may be helpless to help ourselves, but, as Gabriel reminds Mary and reminds us, nothing is impossible for God.

As we careen toward the joy of Christmas, we must not forget that.  We must not forget the “why” of our joy.  It is nothing less than the reality that when we could not move to save ourselves, God moved.  When we like a solitary adolescent child—like Mary—stand paralyzed in the world, knowing that everything we touch seems to fall part, God enters and says, “Do not be afraid.  I will overshadow you, and my Son will reign forever and ever.”

Our joy is the joy that, in the end, we are not crabs trapped in a bucket.  We are the beloved of God.  Our world is, in fact, God’s world, and God’s Son comes to redeem it.

Seamless Loop Features the Bethlehem Stock Footage Video (100%  Royalty-free) 3148003 | Shutterstock

There is, of course, a role we must play.  It is the same role Mary plays.  Though Mary, a virgin, can take no effective initiative in God’s saving action, she must, for it to find purchase, be willing to receive it.  Gabriel has announced God’s plan.  Mary has listened.  And then there is that moment of pause, that moment when, the Irish tell us, the very stars in the heavens held their breath to see what Mary would say.  No doubt in the silence even she can feel the tug at her ankle seeking to pull her down.  But Mary says, to the stars’ relief, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

All we must do is be receptive.  All we must do it loose hold of the one above us and quit trying to save ourselves by pulling another down.  Then God will do the saving work.  God will act in us and through us and, through invisible yet powerful tendrils of grace, in our world. 

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says, “for you have found favor with God.”  Get ready!  Keep your eyes open!  God is coming to save you.  Our joy is almost here.

Miss Havisham and the Wise Bridesmaids

I am the son of an English teacher mother and a father who reads voraciously. As such, our home was always full of books. Perhaps because of that, I was aware of Charles Dickens from a very young age. At Christmas time, we would drive the hour-and-a-half to Memphis to see the annual stage production of A Christmas Carol. I knew the story of Oliver Twist by heart. But the first Dickens story I studied with any intention, probably my sophomore year in high school, was Great Expectations, about the young protagonist Pip and his journey to adulthood. There are several haunting characters in Great Expectations, but none more so than Miss Havisham.
Miss Havisham was defrauded and abandoned by her fiancé on their wedding day. As a result, she arrested her life at exactly the moment of her abandonment: twenty minutes until 9 in the morning. All the clocks in her house are frozen at that mark. Miss Havisham continually wears her tattered wedding dress, and her wedding day breakfast remains on the table, uneaten, years later. Miss Havisham is, herself, the embodiment of her surroundings. In my mind, cobwebs hang from her moldering dress, as she decays along with the house around her.

Miss Havisham - Wikipedia

In the novel, Miss Havisham is waiting. First, for the nightmare of her abandonment to prove to be an illusion. Then, for her revenge on the world to satisfy her grudge. Eventually, the dry and papery cloth of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress catches fire from an errant fireplace ember, and she burns to death.
As a teenager, I found Miss Havisham to be ominous. As a middle-aged adult, I know why. In my life and work, I’ve encountered plenty of Miss Havishams in real life, male and female in equal measure: People who have allowed an event (often beyond their control; remember, Miss Havisham is not at fault for her initial circumstance) to stop the clock in their lives, and slowly devolve them into bitterness that crowds out all else. Ironically, such people are often waiting on a redemption that can never come so long as they lock away their inner lives like Miss Havisham locked in her house, closed off to encounters with grace. That is the character of Miss Havisham’s waiting.
Contrast Miss Havisham to Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids in the 25th chapter of Matthew, which we read each year in Advent. The five wise bridesmaids wait, but not absorbed by what has been, not by pretending that the past is unreal or that pain is illusory (and attempting thereby to keep it at bay), and not by projecting that pain onto the world in bitterness. The five wise bridesmaids wait, expectantly and alert, because they know that God is always at work, doing something new. They know that encounters with grace require vulnerability, that we continue to live open-heartedly. They know that only in such a posture can one recognize the Divine when it brushes past us in the world. And when the Lord arrives, despite whatever may have come before, the wise bridesmaids know joy.
This matters this Advent more than ever. As we continue to endure the long Advent-like waiting season until we have relief from COVID-19, I see people lapse into bitterness, interpreting the natural flaws or mistakes of others as personal affronts, lashing out in frustration and anger rather than extending generosity of spirit.
Our lives were arrested back in March. Nothing since then has been what we’d planned for. But in our waiting, we always have a choice. We can become Miss Havisham, or we can be the expectant bridesmaids. The wonder is that the world is transformed either way by our choice. When we become bitter, so does the world. But when we open our hearts to God, like opening the morning curtains, light and love flow in. When we wait upon grace, grace appears! So let the hands of the clock turn. Be generous with yourself and with one another. Stay alert for occasions of grace. And you will know the love of God that redeems all things.