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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Heaven in a Shop Window: a meditation at Christmas

Here is a piece I wrote for Christmas, published today in the Durham Times and other local papers.
For many North East people, a highlight of the Christmas season is going to Newcastle to admire the windows in Fenwick’s. They are always beautiful to look at, even if you have to queue in the bracing December air with scores of excited children to get anywhere near them.

This year’s theme is Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were my favourite bedtime reading as a child. Maybe that tells you something…. But back to the windows. They are wonderfully dramatic and colourful. You can see the White Rabbit and his house, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mat Hatter’s tea party, Caterpillar on his mushroom, the Cheshire Cat, and a fearsome Queen of Hearts looking for all the world as if she were wearing a bishop’s mitre. It’s all beautifully done.
What’s it got to do with Christmas?, you ask yourself. Well, the connection isn’t as direct as the Nativity windows Fenwick’s devised a few years ago. But Christmas can speak to us in many different ways. One of them can be by stretching our imagination, helping us think thoughts and dream dreams beyond the ordinary and every day.
Looking back to my childhood, I can see that this was what Alice did for me. I loved the thought of plunging down a rabbit hole and falling into a new world, or pushing through a mirror on the wall and stepping into topsy-turvy-dom. In those imaginary places, the laws of normal life didn’t apply any more. Nothing was what it seemed. And yet it didn’t feel any the less real. In some ways, these worlds of fiction seemed almost tangible, populated by characters you got to know. Yes, in the end Alice has to wake up from her dream. But her journey has changed her. And those of us who travel with her.

I don’t reckon it’s fanciful to think about Christmas in this kind of way. It’s a time of year when we not only dream about a kinder, fairer, better world, but even dare to try living it out. How? By thinking of other people through Christmas greetings, the presents we give as symbols of our love and care, noticing the needs of others far and near and responding with compassion. We long for a new start for our world, our society, ourselves and those we care for. And in small ways, we enter into the spirit of that new beginning.

These are the dreams, the hopes, the vision embodied in the Child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. We ask so much of this Infant in the manger. And we are right to. When he becomes a man he starts to speak about the ‘kingdom of heaven’. It’s the language of the grand vision, the great hope, the wonderful dream: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In that kingdom, things are different. There is no more conflict or pain. People don’t hurt or damage one another. Everyone lives in peace and harmony. There is happiness instead of grief, laughter not tears. Who doesn’t long for such a world?

Alice ends on a charming note. She wakes up and runs home for tea, thinking ‘what a wonderful dream it had been’. Her sister lingers, thinking ‘how this same little sister would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and happy summer days’.

Christmas says: this tender vision of innocence, happiness and a ‘simple and loving heart’ is God’s gift to us and all humanity. In Wonderland, goodness wins out against all that is cruel or hostile. This is what the Infant Jesus promises us. It’s why we love him, why his birthday fills us with hope once more.

If you live in the North East, you've still got time to see the Alice windows. They paint a wonderful dream. And hint that the reality can be even better. Happy Christmas.

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