As if life isn't tough enough already when you're five, Jamie was told one day after school that he had been cast as an angel in the nativity play. He announced this with dignified restraint, as he stood in the hallway wearing his favourite Liverpool away strip, quietly smouldering at the prospect of having to exchange it for public humiliation in tights, tinsel and feathers.
It wasn't until the following Saturday morning that the idea for his rescue came to me. We were watching cartoons which came, one after the other, with the same storyline: always our heroes, against all odds, engaged in a death-defying struggle to thwart some archetypal power-crazed evil character poised to destroy the world. They were in fact apocalyptic. The next time Jamie mentioned the dreaded event I told him the stories of Michael and the dragon in the sulphurous lake, and of Daniel's vision of the messenger with fiery torches for eyes. These angels in their indigenous habitat, apocalyptic, caught Jamie unawares and, in his imagination, he said they seemed more like Gladiators. Once he had provided the key, it was a short step to the day when he was able to stride on stage and bellow "Fear Not" with all the force and attitude of the Wolf-man, and no hint of the traditional Good Fairy anywhere in sight.
If Jamie had been granted a flash of insight, mine was to dawn more slowly. Days later, as I browsed the children's Bibles in the local bookstore, I realised they were all the same: David, Goliath, wise men, shepherds, fishermen, loaves and fishes, and an angel who looked almost indecently innocent. No stars falling out of the sky, earthquakes, rivers of blood, and certainly no angels on horseback. It was as if 4,000 years of religious vision and imagination had been taken on by Enid Blyton, and Enid Blyton had won. The churches, desperate to retain their influence, have been co-conspirators in this inoculation of a weak representation of faith into children which has rendered them immune to the real thing when they get to an age when life starts to bite back. Then we wonder why our young abandon church at the age when they experience the mini-apocalypse of their hormones kicking in.
Yet Matthew's tale is an ominous dream-directed narrative with more terror than joy. Joseph's dreams suspend the dread of his fiancee's infidelity, anticipate the hoofbeats of Herod's horses, and prompt the safe time to return from hiding. The child whom he protects is silent at the centre of this dark tale; we know little other than that he has escaped. Who is this child: who can inspire such protection in Joseph, awe in the astrologers, hatred in Herod? Behind him is a grisly trail of carnage as the hopes of parents for the future are destroyed. The viciousness withdraws leaving the eerie wail of Rachel, symbol of motherhood, crying out into the darkness, her head back baying at the moon for all time.
Luke offers an enchanting tale set against the backdrop of Imperial Rome. A young woman in an occupied country, engaged to a descendant of an indigenous folk-hero, is visited by an angel of war who announces that her child will assume the throne of the nation. Her assent initiates a course of events more powerful than she can imagine.
In the meantime, the elderly, who have kept vigil for a new day, are rewarded by their own annunciation. Zechariah is told he will be the father of a son by a wife as old as Sarah's laugh. He is struck mute, and at the birth of his son he will sing.
Who is this child, who is quietly at the centre of all this enchantment, where barren women and virgins conceive, angels direct events; and Mary's heart, where all these things are treasured, is promised a sword?
These stories are filled with fear and awe. They point to a life which will later have even more danger and wonder than surrounded its birth. When we neglect to introduce them to our children, they are denied the chance to see real power at an age when their capacity for dread and enchantment is at its keenest. The opportunity evades them to trust that the hand of God is present when they are amazed, or when their life is shattered by tragedy.
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