“How will we get out of here, Guys?” Diane and I were at Beningbrough Hall, just outside York. It’s an impressive Georgian House with a superb garden and a WWII love story to boot, from when the RAF, WAAF & Canadian equivalents were billeted there. Although there is plenty for adults, great effort has been taken to make it interesting and engaging for children: a pumpkin trail (it was October), an entire play fort, secret trails, pictures in the house highlighted in the garden, dressing up rooms in garden and house, even nose re-modelling and a digital portrait painter. There were giant toys in the gardens, and a number of other surprise features. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.
One of these surprise features was a labyrinth, a simple single line of bricks set into the grass, winding back and forth, so it covered around 4 or more times the maximum width of about 100 feet (30m). As we approached it, two girls of about 7 and 9 were tracing the labyrinth by running along the bricks, followed by their patient parents. The younger girl reached the centre, and called out, “How will we get out of here, Guys?” “Follow the path back!” came the instant reply from her sister. Waiting only for their parents to reach the centre, the girls set off again tracing the bricks back carefully to the start, followed once more by their long-suffering parents. “Don’t you feel tempted to take the short cut?” I asked them; “More than our lives are worth!” shot back the Father with a smile, and doggedly continued along the labyrinth to the waiting triumphant girls.
For the sake of the girls, Mum & Dad had entered their story and were playing by their rules, even though they could see in reality there was an easy way back from the labyrinth – but it would be cheating, at least in the eyes of the girls. Children given an opportunity to exercise their imagination really enter their powerful fantasy; I was telling the story of Zechariah in school assembly, and as he passed through the thick (imaginary) curtain out of our sight, I asked the assembled children if they would like me to make the curtain invisible so they could see what happened on the other side, and they chorused ‘Yes!’ Euan and Zach were playing with an Egyptian playmobil pyramid; as I passed, Euan was engrossed in a fantasy involving a camel, a tomb-raider, and some treasure. Meanwhile, Zach was involved in an equally unlikely flight of imagination – as he studied the edge of the box, he said, ‘When I have the money, I’m going to buy all the sets on this box.’ an enterprise at his rate of pocket money likely to take 2-3 years or more.
As we approach Christmas, it is easy to get sucked into a powerful fantasy involving Santa and sleigh bells, elves, penguins, donkeys, decorated trees, universal good will, endless presents, improbable illuminations, and somewhere in the swirl, a baby in a manger. This fantasy rarely ends well; the wonder toy breaks, the children squabble, parents quarrel, the baby is put away with the tree, and the bills arrive in January with monotonous regularity. I don’t know about you, but January always seems a little colder, darker, bleaker once the Christmas season ends. Our fantasy is as close to reality as is Zach’s plan to buy the entire playmobil Egyptian sets with his pocket money.
Yet, there is a sense in which Christmas can speak into our busy lives, penetrate our fantasy and bring reality to light. The baby plays a key part, but it is only the beginning of a story, not the end. Looking back, the baby represents an enormous investment by God. Through Incarnation, He becomes flesh, and dwells among us, He penetrates our collective fantasies, plays by our rules, and leads us along the labyrinth to the truth and light. Looking forward, the baby is to grow into a man, the man to show us the way out of here, even by his death on the cross. Grown-ups build their imaginary castles in the air, no less than Zach, and bury reality deep within this ephemeral fantasy, only to be deeply wounded as the whole edifice comes crashing down. Only the One with the clarity of vision can offer the promise from the middle of the labyrinth: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (The Bible, John 3.16) “I am the way out of here, the reference point of truth in all these fantasies you have built, the animation of all that is and will be; I am calling you to follow me to Life in all its fullness.” Into the cold, dark, bleak future, Jesus calls us, guides us, carries us and opens our eyes to the glories of the eternal father, greater than anything we can imagine or fantasize.
Praying that this Christmas, you mind find peace in Christ Jesus in the midst of the celebrations, and in that peace, find truth and light, and so walk His certain way ahead.
Your servant in the Lord Jesus Christ,