The Fairy Tale in the Nativity

“There is a violent kind of truth in the most primitive myths, a truth we need today.” 

Ali Kjergaard / 12.20.21

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” -G.K. Chesterton 

“Once upon a time,” how familiar those words are to us. We’ve heard them again and again, they whisk us away to childhood memories. Those words cued to us we’d be entering a different story now, a world away from the one we were currently in. A distant kingdom, great evils, but an inevitable rescue. Can you recall the delicious excitement in imagining this world we live in might be more than it appears to be? That maybe, just maybe, fairies were dwelling in the flower beds, and we just didn’t have the eyes to see them. Or lying in bed on Christmas Eve, maybe there really was something magical happening that night. That time was more than hands on a clock, and that a magical being was somehow making his way around the world in one night. What felicity, what excitement! 

But then we grow up; logic and reasoning take over and we let go of the childhood imaginings. We’ve labored in the garden now, if there were fairies we would have seen them. Helping clean out gutters on the roof, I saw the size of the chimney and knew there was no possibility of someone fitting down it. And we let go of the old fairy tales and myths that filled our minds. 

But even now I’m drawn to myths and folklore. Reading about Aragorn reclaiming his throne in Return of the King excites me. A terrifying but powerful lion returns to undo a curse his people are living under in Narnia. In East of the Sun and West of the Moon a princess loves what appeared to be a great bear, but turns out to be a prince. There was no majesty to draw her to him, no appearance that she should desire him.* But once she recognizes him for what he is, she will devote her life to seeking him.

These stories fill us with a delighted hope, what if it were all true? Not the fairies and Santa Claus, but what if these stories hit me so hard because they’re a shadowy reflection of what I’m living. Do we love their words because they echo the words of Old Testament prophecies foretold and fulfilled? The prophets tell of a land in great distress, but that a king is coming who will end the curse, once and for all. 

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isa 9:2

It’s so easy as children to let ourselves get swept up in the wonder of fairy tales, believing that there is more going on in this world than any of us suspect. It is the simple faith of a child that is the one most likely to soak in myths and legends. Perhaps stepping away from that wonder is where we’ve gone amiss, when really inside us we know “the myth is actually fact,” to borrow from Chesterton and Lewis. Or as Madeleine L’Engle phrases it, “There is a violent kind of truth in the most primitive myths, a truth we need today.” 

But there is a fairy tale laid out before me, time stamped in history. There is a tale of a prince and king coming to earth, and there is magic in it. A star that follows him, a heavenly host that rejoices. But there is nothing to draw us to him, no mighty kingdom, just a humble stable. We must take him at his word when he tells us of the kingdom that is coming. The seemingly impossible becomes possible, water turns to to wine, the lame walk, the blind see. There is a little damsel in distress who he bids “come and rise.” Talitha Cumi. And she rises. 

But there is darkness to be conquered. The curse the people are living under is no small matter. There is oppression and it is a world in deep distress, needing to be rescued. Being locked in the tower of our sin isn’t a particularly hopeful place to be. And sometimes it doesn’t even feel like waiting, because that implies expectation and hope. In our world it feels like the story ends with “and the dragon laid waste to the land, and the people were terrified.” 

We need a prince, but He isn’t what we expected Him to be. His initial appearance to all of us is underwhelming. Could this baby turn out to be the Prince we all so desperately need after all? It doesn’t look like it. We did not realize He had come to slay death. But when our eyes are opened, and we realize who He really is and what He has done for us, how can we do anything but bow? How can we help but love Him and seek Him for the rest of our days? For He is our Prince and King; as Dorothy Sayers says, “For Jesus Christ is unique — unique among gods and men. There have been incarnate gods a-plenty, and slain-and-resurrected gods not a few; but He is the only God who has a date in history.” 

So perhaps when I read the nativity this Christmas I will utter the words “Once upon a time” before “in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree,” reminding myself that I read a fairy tale that is fact. The fantastic did happen; the world’s fairy tale has a place and time in history. I know I am in distress about the world around me, and I’m waiting for rescue. And as I read Revelation I know we’re moving towards “happily ever after.” As sure as the dawn will rise, there will be an ending, and it will be a happy one, I will not doubt but will believe. Oh, Joy to this weary world, the Lord, the King, has come. 

“Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.” Isa 60:20

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