Article of the week: A familiar story

4 December 2021

Ron Thomlinson and the Rev James Macfarlane continue a series of reflections for Advent.

JIM, anyone who has ever been press-ganged into reading a child their favourite book at bedtime knows they are on to a hiding to nothing should they dare try to skip even the shortest of sentences. The child will not be rushed. An infant’s knowledge of a story is so perfect it puts any prompt in the wings of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to shame.

Isn’t it fascinating that, in childhood, as well as later in life, we so often return to the stories we know the best? We know the plot, the characters and how it will all end. So why do we reread books, see different productions of the same play, repeatedly watch our favourite films and still enjoy every word?

As you know, Jim, my favourite stories are more in the ‘Do you remember when?’ genre. Despite having told and heard them so many times, I can still dissolve into thigh-slapping, tears-rolling, table-thumping laughter when the punchline comes. I never tire of them.

The problem is other people. Some love to share my oft-heard tales. Others look at me like the expat coming into the clubroom with his boring old talk.

But the Advent stories are in a different league. As with a child’s bedtime book, we dare not skip a word. We must not be in a hurry when reading because of some other pressing matter.

Even though we already know what will happen, what magnetic force attracts us back to the Advent narratives each year and what power can they give us to cope with life in the here and now? Advent readings are neither entertainment nor children’s bedtime fare.

Is it true that, like my anecdotes, we need to be an insider to appreciate Advent? Is it only for believers?

Some years ago I became interested in legends, myths and fairytales. Discovering their truths showed me the power of a story to turn a life around. What can the Advent story do for me this year?

Ron, I have to bow to your expertise with bedtime stories but, as you rightly point out, adults also find profound satisfaction in books that are hallowed by familiarity. As with stories, so also with music. We love the familiar, returning to listen again and again.

Mozart once described how he composed pieces. At first melodies and themes came to him at random but, under his creative impulse, he could hear the entire composition in his mind. There ceased to be a beginning, middle and an end. He could conceive the entire piece as an organic whole.

Ordinary listeners can have the same experience, but on a smaller scale. The enjoyment of music is enhanced by what we have already heard and the anticipation of what is yet to come.

We somehow hold these successive things together in unity.

In such moments, we experience time in a different way. Looking at the clock in the doctor’s waiting room, we can count off every dragging minute, but when absorbed in art or music we are utterly unaware of the passing moments. We almost touch the rim of eternity.

Can the Advent stories captivate us like this? I believe so. On an aesthetic level they possess haunting beauty; a trained reader bringing before us the cadences of the Christmas narratives will charm any sensitive listener. As literature the narratives have universal appeal, but to faith a deeper dimension will be perceived. Our ordinary life that includes average men and women, boys and girls, cats and dogs – that concrete world is touched in these stories by the divine.

Just as the child needs the reassurance of the familiar story, as adults we need the assurance of God’s grace in our messy lives. Why does the drunk stagger into the midnight service like a scared child entering a darkened room? Just for the faintest touch of that assurance, and sure enough it is there.

That does something for me also.

The shadows that ever haunt the corners of this life lose their power to frighten. We experience, as if for the first time, the ancient proclamation in Matthew 4:16: ‘The people living in darkness have seen a great light.’ On them, ‘a light has dawned’.


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