H.M. hits another home run

Here’s the last bit:

At Christmas I am always struck by how the spirit of togetherness lies also at the heart of the Christmas story. A young mother and a dutiful father with their baby were joined by poor shepherds and visitors from afar. They came with their gifts to worship the Christ child. From that day on he has inspired people to commit themselves to the best interests of others.

This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas Day that his example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others.

The carol, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, ends by asking a question of all of us who know the Christmas story, of how God gave himself to us in humble service: ‘What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part’. The carol gives the answer, ‘Yet what I can I give him – give my heart’.

In her quiet and winsome way, H.M. surely must be one of the best evangelists in Britain today.

Christmas in Narnia

I wonder how many of you have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or seen the movie? I’ve loved this story since I first read it as a child, and like many people I’ve gone on to read all seven of the ‘Narnia’ stories by C.S. Lewis; they are children’s books, but they are definitely among my favourites.

Now, you might ask, what do the Narnia stories have to do with Christmas?

C.S. Lewis didn’t start off writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a Christian allegory, even though he himself was a Christian. He started out writing a children’s story, and he found that the specifically Christian element crept in gradually as the series developed. But there’s no denying that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as we have it, is full of Christian teaching, much of it with things to say about Christmas. Let me point out a few of those things to you.

For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s centred around four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are evacuated from London during World War Two, and they find themselves living in a huge country house owned by an elderly professor. One day not long after their arrival they’re playing a game of hide and seek and Lucy, the youngest, finds the perfect hiding place – an old wardrobe in a spare room. She climbs into the wardrobe and moves toward the back; she moves further and further in, and suddenly discovers herself in the middle of a wood in the middle of winter.

Lucy walks around a bit and comes to a clearing with a lamp post in the middle of it. As she stands there, she sees someone approaching, a very strange someone, with horns on his head and feet like a goat. He is in fact a faun, right out of Greek mythology, and he introduces himself to her as Tumnus. They go to his house where he offers her tea and tells her about the country she has stumbled into, the world of ‘Narnia’. He explains to her that in Narnia it is ‘always winter, but never Christmas’. When she asks why, he goes on to explain that Narnia is ruled by the White Witch, a usurping queen, who has made the Narnians her slaves and has covered the land with winter for a hundred years.

This, you see, is how C.S. Lewis saw the world we live in. It’s a good world, created by a good and loving God, but it has now become ‘enemy occupied territory’ and is under the thumb of an evil power who has made people his slaves. As a result of this, evil and sin have spread throughout God’s good creation and everything is infected by them. This doesn’t mean there are no signs of joy, of course! There are family gatherings, there are wonderful examples of love and self-giving, there’s art and beauty everywhere. But at the same time, everything is flawed and shot through with suffering. A child dies of starvation somewhere in the world once every three seconds, and every day in the news we hear of wars and injustice and oppression and violence. ‘It’s always winter, but never Christmas’.

Narnia needed to be set free. Our world too needs to be set free. It needs a ‘saviour’ – someone who will deliver us from the power of the usurping ruler. Is there in fact such a saviour? This question leads us to the true meaning of Christmas.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, eventually all four children find their way into Narnia through the wardrobe. Through a series of events they find themselves at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver – I should explain that Narnia is full of these talking animals. The beavers explain to the children again about the White Witch and the long winter she has caused, but then comes a word of hope; Mr. Beaver says, “Aslan is on the move”. “Who is Aslan?” they want to know. Mr. Beaver replies that Aslan is the son of the great Emperor-over-Sea; he’s the true King of Narnia, and he’s coming back to set his people free from the rule of the White Witch. The children are curious about Aslan, and Lucy asks “Is he a man?” “Certainly not!” Mr. Beaver replies; “Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion”.

I mentioned that there are seven Narnia stories. In another one of them, a book called The Horse and His Boy, one of the main characters is a horse called ‘Bree’. Bree has believed in Aslan all his life but has never met him. Toward the end of the story Bree is explaining to some friends from outside Narnia why Narnians speak about Aslan as a lion. “Well”, he says, “we mean he’s as strong as a lion, or as brave as a lion, or as fierce as a lion – to our enemies, that is! But of course, we don’t literally mean he’s a lion! That would be absurd! If he was a lion, he’d have four paws, and a tail, and whiskers!” But unfortunately for Bree, as he is explaining this to his friends Aslan is approaching him quietly from behind, and as he says the word ‘whiskers’, Aslan’s whiskers tickle his ear! He runs way in fright, but when he gets up the courage to come back, Aslan says to him, “Now Bree, you poor, proud, frightened horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast”.

Just as Bree has trouble believing that Aslan could actually be a true Beast, so many people have trouble believing in a God who could become a true human being in Jesus. “Why”, they say, “when we say he became one of us, we mean he understands us, or is very close to us. But we don’t literally mean he became a human being! After all, if he really became human, he’d have to be a helpless baby, in need of feeding and changing and burping and all that! He’d have to grow up and learn things and get tired and feel pain like we do! How ridiculous!”

But Christians believe this is exactly what the Christmas story is all about. It’s not just a romantic tale about a baby born in a cowshed. The true miracle is who the baby in the cowshed really was. In the Gospel of John it’s explained like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-5, 14).

Aslan said, “I am a true Beast”, and in Jesus Christ, God could say, “I am a true human being”. As a true human being, Jesus shows us what God is like, and he teaches us the truth about the way God wants us to live.

What an amazing miracle it was that happened in Bethlehem! In the last ‘Narnia’ story, The Last Battle, we see the end of the world of Narnia. At one point in the story the children find themselves in a stable. Seen from the outside it looked small and dingy, but when they go through the door they find themselves in a beautiful country that seems to stretch on forever. Someone comments that the stable is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Lucy replies, “In our world, too, a Stable once held something inside it that was far bigger than our whole world”.

So Christmas teaches us this enormous miracle, that God became a real human being so that we humans might share the life of God. But there’s one other part of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that we need to think about. One of our less well-known Christmas carols has this line in it:

Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
From the poor manger to the bitter cross.

The story of the birth of the baby in Bethlehem leads inexorably to the story of the Cross. And in Narnia, too, the time comes when Aslan makes the ultimate sacrifice for his people – and for one of them in particular.

You see, through a series of events Edmund, one of the four children, gets fooled by the White Witch and goes over to her side. He tries to lure his three siblings to her castle, but he is unable to do that. Eventually he discovers his mistake; the Witch isn’t a kind and caring person at all. She’s cruel and evil; she makes him her prisoner, and is on the brink of killing him when he is rescued by members of Aslan’s army. But the White Witch hasn’t given up yet. She demands a meeting with Aslan, and reminds him of the Deep Magic on which Narnia was founded; all traitors, she says, belong to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill.

But in the end Aslan voluntarily takes Edmund’s place. In the middle of the night he slips out of the camp and goes to meet his death. Susan and Lucy follow him; they see the Witch’s supporters tie him up, shave off his mane, and place him on the Stone Table. All the time the girls keep expecting Aslan to fight his enemies off, but he does not do so. Eventually they see the White Witch take her knife and kill the Great Lion. And then the Witch and her army leave, and the girls are left with Aslan’s body.

But all is not as it seems. As the first light of dawn appears, the stone table cracks, and just like the women in the Easter story, Susan and Lucy become the first astonished witnesses of Aslan’s resurrection. They have a joyful reunion, and Aslan explains to them that the Witch did not know about the Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. He explains that according to this Deeper Magic, when a willing victim who had committed no treachery offered himself in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would begin to work backwards.

Down through the centuries, all sorts of learned theologians have tried to explain the mystery of Jesus’ death on the Cross for us and how it saves us. The reality, of course, is far beyond our understanding. But C.S. Lewis’ simple story comes very close to helping us see the truth. A small boy chooses the wrong path and ends up enslaved and doomed to die for his mistake – just as we human beings choose to sin and discover, as the Bible says, that ‘the wages of sin is death’. And yet, astounding though it may seem, the Great Lion, the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, offers himself as a willing victim in Edmund’s place. And that’s what the baby in the manger did for you and me, too – he died for you, for me, for everyone, to deliver us from evil and give us a fresh start with God. And just like Aslan, death was not the end for Jesus; he rose victorious over evil and lives forever as the Lord of all.

The Narnia stories tell us of Aslan, the Son of the great Emperor-over-Sea, who was not content to stay ‘over sea’, but who came as a true Beast, lived among his people, and died as one of them. Christmas tells us that this is God’s story too. God loves us far more than we can ever ask or imagine. Out of his great compassion for us, he became a true human being, and lived and died and rose again for us. Now Jesus invites us all to become his followers, to choose him as our true King and to live by the values of his Kingdom, until the whole world is transformed by his light. Magic? Yes indeed – deeper magic, from before the dawn of time, but come to us, in time and space, in Jesus. Believe it – taste it – see it – live by it. Christmas has come; the world’s long winter will come to an end, because, as Bruce Cockburn says in one of his songs, ‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’.

What did it mean for the Word of God to become a real human being?

images-copy-108Over at ‘The Bible and Culture‘ Ben Witherington has an excellent meditation on what Incarnation really means. Here’s a taste from part way through the post:

While the hymn (i.e. Philippians 2:5-11) is clear that the Son was ‘in very nature God’ at the same time he chose before he became human not to take advantage of his divine prerogatives. What were those? I call them the omnis– omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence. Humans have none of these powers, though I have known a few megalomaniacs who thought they knew it all or had all power. What does it mean though for the Son to put all of that on hold, so to speak, to not draw on his omni-competencies?

It means, I take it, that while Jesus had a God button, and he could have pushed it when he got in a difficult situation, he refused to do so because it would have meant the end of his living a truly human life with all its inherent limitations. Look at the temptation scenes in Lk. 4 and Mt. 4. Now a moment’s reflection will show that these are no mere normal temptations. The Devil is saying ‘if you are the divine Son of God, then turn these stones into bread’. I have known some humans who could turn bread into stones, but not the reverse of that. Jesus, in other words, was tempted to act in such a way that he would obliterate his true humanity. And he refused to do so. Thus, for example when it says in Mk. 13.32 that even the Son doesn’t know the timing of the second coming, it means…. wait for it ‘the incarnate Son of God did not know’. Did he have access to such information? Yes, but he refused to draw on such knowledge. Notice as well that Jesus did not perform his miracles on the basis of his divinity. To the contrary he performed them by the power of the Holy Spirit as he says ‘if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons…’ And herein lies a key to why Paul can say ‘have this mind in yourselves that is also in Christ Jesus’.

There’s a lot more, and it’s all good. Read the rest here.