sermon begins with video clip of Lucy entering Narnia from the back of the wardrobe from “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, 2005, Walt Disney Pictures.
I have always thought having a child in one’s life was great cover, a marvelous excuse to indulge in stories & music, art & play. With a child by your side, you can sing Disney songs with abandon. You have a built in excuse for reading Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, Alice in Wonderland…even Winnie the Pooh. The days of December hold some of our most favorite stories and fairy tales. Would it be Christmas without watching Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer? Do you have a favorite holiday film?
Mine, as I know I’ve said before is The Bishop’s Wife. It’s the story of a parish priest turned bishop. He struggles with the weight of his new position and works relentlessly to find funding to build a new cathedral. He is so distracted by his project, he no longer has time for old friends, parishioners, or even his family.
In response to his prayer, a generic prayer for help, an angel comes. He will get help, not in building the cathedral, though. It doesn’t hurt that Cary Grant is an angel–of course. With this heavenly visitor the bishop’s life is interrupted, just badly enough, so he’s able to see his situation clearly for the first time.
The writer C.S. Lewis was born 117 years ago today. A middle-aged Oxford don teaching English literature at Magdalen College, with no children of his own, sets out to write children’s fantasy book.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of a 7 book series, The Chronicles of Narnia was published in 1950. Later in explaining the origins of the Narnia series, Lewis wrote he had no agenda in telling the stories, but rather “It all began with images: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord.” (1)
C.S. Lewis was a lover of stories, from the great ancient Greek myths and timeless fairy tales. He wrote, “When I was ten, I read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” (2)
In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe we’re invited to put away childish things such as that pernicious desire to be very grown up. And perhaps, during the seasons of Advent & Christmas, our apprehensions of seeming childish, are lessened, so, we can enjoy the storytelling without reservation.
Little Lucy Pevensie finds the entrance to another world while playing hide and seek with her siblings. They have been sent away from London because of the Blitz during World War II. They are refugees of war in their own homeland, sent off to stay in the country with an old professor and his housekeeper.
The children are exploring the big old country house and begin to play hide and seek. Lucy finds an old wardrobe, the perfect size for hiding, filled with long fur coats. As she keeps backing up to hide better behind the coats, the wardrobe seems to go on and on. “This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” she murmurs to herself. And suddenly she turns to discover the snow-covered world of Narnia.
Once she finds her way back to the professor’s house, she tells her brothers and sister, ‘It’s–it’s a magic wardrobe. There’s a wood inside it, it’s snowing, and there’s a Faun and a Witch and it’s called Narnia; come and see.”
But of course, as in every good tale, the entrance in the back of the wardrobe is now closed. Her siblings don’t believe her and her brother Edmund teases her mercilessly, as big brothers are wont to do. Even Lucy herself begins to doubt what she saw, wondering if it was only a dream.
It is that moment of discovery, that instant between feeling the fur coats in the wardrobe and the sharp cold air and falling snow–that’s where I want us to pause for a moment. It is by all appearances an ordinary wardrobe, holding extra coats, just a piece of furniture, nothing particularly unusual. Yet in that perfectly ordinary wardrobe
as Lucy waits, and time moves slowly in a game of hide and seek, she crosses a threshold from her every day world into a strange, mysterious land.
It is an in-between place firmly set in Lucy’s world, yet also an opening into the imaginative other land of snow-covered Narnia.
It stands as an invitation, both to the Pevensie children and to us. Can we, even for a short while, suspend our certainty about the world and open up our imaginations for what might be. And in doing so, see what actually is.
J.R.R. Tolkien in his classic essay On Fairy Stories, argued that myths and fairy tales take the ordinary, disorient us from what we think we know, so that we can see once more.
“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness…. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.”
If we were ever entering a time in which the windows of our world need cleaning, when much of what we encounter seems trite, it must be Christmas time in America. The nonstop advertisements and the insidious commercialism which insists that with the perfect gift we can have or give happiness, for a price.
The windows of our world need cleaning when we hear calls for peace, while waging war without end.
The windows of our world need cleaning when we easily speak platitudes of love, all the while isolating ourselves more and more from anyone or anything who is different from us.
Advent in Christian worship is a pause in time, just as the hide and seek countdown continues and Lucy waits in the wardrobe. Advent is the time before, a time of waiting and reflection. It is an entrance to the life of the Spirit.
Advent opens up a world which we most often pass by, in a rush to be somewhere else. We miss the chance to see what is close at hand. After all, we know the story of Christmas, with its beautiful nativity sets and creches, familiar Christmas carols, with the candles and the rituals–all the traditions we hold dear.
Yet, if we are open, we may find the familiar stories hold far more truth
than we remember and hold the possibility of new life for us and for our world.
G.K. Chesterton, reflecting on fairy tales, wrote, “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” (3)
This Advent let us dust off our imaginations and explore long-forgotten nooks and crannies of this Advent house. Perhaps we may discover a wardrobe in our own lives, shoved to the side, no longer noticed. If this Advent, we suspend the desire to be all grown up and instead open ourselves up to unexpected encounters, we might find ourselves bumping up against the Sacred–
which instead of being afar off,
is as near to us as breathing
and as close as the ground beneath our feet.
1 C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories.
2 C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” quoted by Alan Jacobs, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis.
3 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.