Ada playing in the Clearview Primary School grounds
Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 5 smartphone
My Grandchildren teach me so much because they are open, simplified exemplars of the processes at work within myself. My own pretence at sophistication masks the fact that I have not actually arrived anywhere; I am, like them, in process and their learnings are only slightly less complicated versions of the stuff which occupies my own intellectual and spiritual explorations.
6 am and there is the usual knock on the caravan door. Noah has got himself out of his bed in the house, and is making his customary early morning call. Clemency stumbles up to let him in, and he climbs into her sleeping bag. He lies there quietly for maybe 5 minutes, and then there is a pattern to be followed. I will play a game which involves a conversation between me and Beebop (Noah's constant companion: the faded, battered, stuffed rabbit which is exactly the same age as him) in which I have to assist Beebop by voicing his part as well as my own, or, instead I will tell Noah a George the Mouse story. Then he will sit at the table and eat a breakfast of milk, shredded cheese, toast and Vegemite. Then he will fiddle about with a puzzle game for a bit, before announcing that it's time to go inside and see Daddy.
George the Mouse is the protagonist of a series of adventures I have been extemporising for a progression of very small audiences of very small people for...I'd guess, about 35 years now. He lives in the woodpile at Noah's house. He also lives in Sydney and he has had various other residences since he made his first appearance as an actual mouse underneath the heater in the Morven Manse. This year he committed a significant breach of categories by giving Noah a Christmas present: some cheese and a small Thomas the Tank Engine, all properly wrapped and left under the Christmas tree with a personally written card. Noah thought it was very funny, both haha and peculiar. He had had, only 12 hours previously, a Christmas Eve conversation with his mother about Father Christmas. How does Father Christmas get down the chimney, Mummy? The chimney is very small. How does he open the door of the woodburner? He accepted the answers given but with the first faint hints of scepticism. He knows the difference between pretense and reality, and juggles the two with a great deal of sophistication as he plays with his lego or pretends to be a robot or a dinosaur. And now, a few hours later, his very favourite fictional character, whom he knows full well to be the invention of Pappa, has left him an actual present. His 3 year old eyes are opening to whole new levels of pretending and dissembling.
Of course it won't be long before he knows that Father Christmas is in the same category as George the Mouse, although he will play along for a while for the sake of his sister and because he likes the benefits the little charade brings him. But once he realises that Father Christmas is just pretending, perhaps he will ask questions about the Christmas story, and about Jesus, as well he should. Although we adults may well fear where that line of questioning will end, it is one we ourselves should never, ever desist from.
The Christmas story as it is popularly told in Sunday School plays and as it is pictured on our Christmas cards is also a fiction. The whole business with a stable and a manger and oxen and asses is an elaboration on a couple of verses of Matthew's gospel and bears little relationship to life in First Century Israel, nor indeed to what is actually written in the scripture. We don't look too closely at the story as we have received it, though, because if we don't believe that, then maybe a lot of other things we believe about Jesus might need to be questioned as well. Which is not a possibility we should shrink away from. It is, rather, an invitation into a larger God and a a larger Gospel than the one we have comfortably carted about for so long.
We all make up stories. This is the way we make sense of the world and find our place within it. If we didn't make up stories we couldn't function as social beings, nor as solitary ones either. Of course there is no George the Mouse; but there is a time to lie in Pappa's arms and hear a story of daring and adventure, which involves yourself and everybody you love as occasional characters. Of course there is no Father Christmas but there is the excitement and generosity and mystery of this beautiful day filled with surprises and food and conversation and games. Of course there was no inn or stable, but there is the Word, who was with God and who was God, becoming flesh and dwelling among us, full of Grace and Truth.
Our experience of Christmas Day will be a sorry one if it depends on there being an actual Santa Claus. In the same way our experience of incarnation will be limited if we think it depends on the literal truth of a medieval folk story based loosely on a mistranslation of a couple of verses of Matthew's Gospel. George the Mouse invites my grandson into a deeper, warmer relationship with me and with his lived world. The Christmas story invites us into a deeper awareness of our world, and the life giving presence who is there, waiting behind the story for us.