I imagine that most of us can remember being told fairy tales when we were children. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White; or perhaps Alice in Wonderland or Narnia or the Singing Ringing Tree. These at least are stories we hold in common and they are stories that help us face some of our deepest fears, of losing or being lost, of the darkness, of wickedness and dangers of many kinds. Marina Warner, an expert on fairy tales, says that all of us ‘are walking through the dark forest, trying to spot the breadcrumbs and follow the path. But the birds have eaten them, and we are on our own.’ Even my great hero Rowan Williams has written about fairytales – and he argues that they are more than stories for children, they could give all of us a way of speaking about what matters most to us and of learning something of the truth about life.
I noticed a lot of fairy tales around me this year over Christmas as I visited places, listened to music or watched DVDs with my grandchildren. From Grimm’s fairytales in a ‘Grimm Christmas’ – with Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel – at Killerton House to the Nutcracker Suite to Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, there were stories all around me that took me into strange worlds of danger and darkness, of magic spells and strange transformations, yet with glimmers of light and hope. And if we had not been so busy we might have been to see Ruth’s celebrity nephew, Ed, playing pantomime in Aladdin – apparently his best yet. Oh yes it was…
I once saw a production of Aladdin that suddenly reminded me of the story of the magi. In the version I saw, in shadow puppets, that comes from Iraq, the story begins in a shop in the souk and with a couple who have no children. The couple receive visitors, three magicians, who give them a magic apple and then 9 months later they have a son. The son is Aladdin and this miraculous child, when he grows up, discovers a magic lantern in cave lined with shining jewels.
Seeing this telling of the story made me see that in the story of the magi we are also, somehow in a strange way, in the world of fairytale. But I don’t mean at all to demean the story in saying that or to say that the story is false or childish or can be thrown away. Not at all. But I do want to say that it can take us to the kind of deep place that fairy tales, at their best, can take us. It can help us face our fears, face the dark paths on which we walk, and offer us the reassurance that even in the kingdom of the most wicked king of all, even a King like Herod, a different king rules.. and that joy can be real.
The story of the magi who visit the child and bring such strange gifts is a story full of darkness and danger. Their visit is profoundly connected to the Christmas story we often forget, the story of the killing of the children. The holy family themselves have to flee to escape the wicked king. This is a dark story, too dark for most Christmas cards. But into this story come three visitors, bringing unsought and mysterious gifts. And in the darkness of the sky, there is a mysterious star-light and a revelation of overwhelming joy.
What should we make of this story, do you think?
Tolkien, a great writer of a certain kind of story, believed that the best stories point to the ‘joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. He saw and wrote about worlds full of darkness, and yet he always believed that joy comes into such worlds as ours and light shines there still. In all our lives we are blessed if we find glimmers of such a light and hope of such a joy. As one writer puts it,
‘There is no less danger and darkness in the Gospel than there is in the Brothers Grimm, but beyond and above all there is the joy of it, this tale of a light breaking into the world that not even the darkness can overcome.’ (Buechner, Telling the Truth; The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairytale; Harper and Row, 1977, p.90)
And in the Gospel story, as in the very best fairy tale, it is the poor child who is blessed and the most vulnerable who is saved, and the most unexpected child who lives into the next story and next chapter.
It would be easy to misunderstand fairy tale and it is easy to misunderstand the Gospel. I can remember that I always rather liked Hans Christian Andersen’s stories because they didn’t have simplistic comedy happy endings. There was something wistful about them, a hint of sadness, poignancy and pain. The little Mermaid who sacrifices her mermaid’s tail and even at the end her life, for love. The solder with the tin heart.. The ice queen. These are very far from straightforward happy endings. And the story of our faith is like this too. It is not in denial about suffering and pain, or terror and threat. It knows sadness and grief and death. But it says that even in the midst of these come unexpected and overwhelming gifts of joy and love. The gifts that the wise men brought to the baby were of course wildly inappropriate at the practical level – what would a baby or a new mother need with gold, incense or anointing oil? And to this day no-one can really say with absolute confidence what they really ‘meant’, these gifts. But they certainly do not stop this child’s suffering or help him escape from his ordinary life – because living an ordinary life was exactly his purpose and God’s purpose. In the story of Jesus’ temptations, just a page turn away in Matthew’s Gospel, we see him defeat the temptations to magic himself out of hunger or death or to worship anyone other than God or to seek power for himself. The gifts are signs but they are not magic solutions.
I know that it can be tempting, for any of us, to see our faith as a kind of magic, and God as a power to summon like a genie to put all our troubles right. Say the right prayer the right number of times, with the right amount of sincerity, and we can escape from the darkness and the demons and find our path home, escape from the souk or the forest or the mess that our lives are in just now or the pain that life brings. The Gospel story tells not of a God who rescues some of us with magic, but of a God who joins us on the path and who lights up the dark by walking with us. We have a God who comes to share our vulnerability, to hold a fragile light in the threatening dark and who, in doing only this, can transform our lives.
In the fairy tale of the magi, we see, you might say, the power of magic, the simple solution of a waved wand, humbled before the greater power of love. I heard or read somewhere this week (if only I could remember where) that the magi are not so much giving their gifts to Jesus, but giving up for him all the things that have marked their lives so far – the riches that help us shield ourselves from life’s pain, the kind of worship that wants to manipulate the gods by our prayers, and the desire to escape mortality that many ancient cultures craved. The magician’s arts are laid down. The desire to control the world around us is set aside. The heart is given to God to hold and heal.
You may know that the words ‘Hocus pocus’ are a kind of corruption of words from the Latin Mass – Hoc est corpus meum. They came from those who thought that the words of consecration were like a spell, changing as though by magic bread into body, wine into blood. But nothing could be further from the truth. Because it is not we who can change the world by our incantations or prayers – the world is not under our control in that way. It is God who is sovereign, it is God who comes to change us when we need it and it is God who, when bread and wine is shared, has promised to be present with us. Ministers are not magi and prayers are not spells. All of that is given up as we discover another world. As we walk along the paths of our lives trying to spot breadcrumbs, like children in a forest, we are given bread in abundance. As we wrestle with all the things that assail us and make us afraid, we find that in the darkness a light shines, and it will not be put out.
Fairy tales may be at their best, suggests Rowan Williams, when they show us that the world is irrationally generous as well as unfairly hurtful. We live in a world that is chaotic and unpredictable, where tragedy strikes unfairly and where any one of us might suffer. There is a problem of evil – how could the world be so unfair? But there is also what you might call a ‘problem of good’ – there are times when, as the magi found, there is overwhelming joy even in the midst of terror, and there is light that shines in every kind of darkness. The story we tell at this time of the year, the story of God coming in small and great ‘epiphanies’, is a story of those times when, unexpected and unscripted, love is made known.
The Gospel is like a fairy tale. But a fairy tale that is true, where the ‘once upon a time’ is now. We are those who walk through the dark forests of our lives trying to spot the bread crumbs, and we are those who travel looking for God, bringing with us the best we can for the journey. But we find, to our constant surprise, that God has strewn our path with bread…. and has come to meet us, not in grandeur and glory, but in a child. And we, with the magicians of old, kneel in amazement and gratitude, our gifts, left in the straw, but our hearts made new by the astonishing gift of God. Amen.