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Eternity wrapped in a span

21 December 2017

Catherine Fox finds it a struggle to grasp the magnitude of what happened in the Bethlehem stable


Lift up the latch: a byre door at the Palloza Museum, Casa do Sesto, Ancares, Spain

Lift up the latch: a byre door at the Palloza Museum, Casa do Sesto, Ancares, Spain

Here is the little door, lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more but enter with our gift.

BEFORE I received my musical education in the English cathedral tradition, I had never come across this carol (words by Frances Chesterton, music by Herbert Howells). Springing as I do from good Nonconformist stock, I knew the carol section of the Baptist hymn-book. I also waited eagerly each year for the new Bethlehem carol-sheet to be distributed at primary school. There was considerable overlap between the two publications, but the carol sheet always included more pagan nonsense than we Baptists had any truck with (three ships, holly and ivy, etc.).

These carols were a jolly good sing, of course, but we were aware they weren’t biblical. I dare say we were encouraged in this by our father, who mischievously made up extra verses: “The holly bears a branch as tall as a pylon. And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ, who was wrapped up in nylon.”

Nylon. You tell that to young people nowadays, and they just look at you. What even is nylon? Ah, a whole generation has grown up not knowing the pleasure of creating a static storm in the privacy of your own nightdress! Much has changed since the Christmases of my youth, but traditional Christmas carols are still a staple. Like family, a proper tree, and Brussels* sprouts, carols crop up on the list of Christmas sine qua nons. (Or perhaps — bearing in mind my erudite readership — I should say sine quibus non.)

Carols are everywhere: in churches and cathedrals; on the radio; on your doorstep; in schools, hospitals, and old folks’ homes. They are also on the high street, where they are promiscuously mixed with secular schmaltz, and poured like Bailey’s over our festive retail experience. We slog through the shopping mall with Mommy kissing Santa cheek by jowl with the incarnate deity. I find this disorientating.

But perhaps that’s the point? The deity did not become incarnate in some rarefied space, hermetically sealed off from the slog of daily life. The magi discovered this. They started with the obvious. Where is he who is born King of the Jews? Where kings belong, presumably: in the palace in Jerusalem. But no. Here is the little door. It’s not some vast imposing door found at the end of a sweeping drive, up marble steps, set between pillars on hinges of gold. Just a little door to a humble house.


SOMETIMES, a phrase lodges in my head and I turn it round for months, pondering. I try not to do this aloud in public (though I have caught myself in the car thoughtfully repeating place names — Clatterbridge, Strines Moor — for several minutes). It’s a by-product of the writing life, I expect, this obsession with words: the sound and meaning of them, their curious networks of association.

Here is the little door. We have no means of knowing what the door of the house looked like, the one that greeted the magi when they finally arrived in Bethlehem, and found the child with his mother. Did they have to stoop to enter with their gifts?


Our gift of finest gold,
Gold that was never bought nor sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about His Bed;
Incense in clouds about His Head.


I need it to be a little door. It feels right that these travellers — full of knowledge, full of treasure — should have to lower their sights in their quest for the King, and finally bend to get in.


OLD houses can be charming, but low doorways are not. (“Duck or Grouse” as pub signs put it.) If you live in an old house, the brute fact is that you will have to adapt. The doorway is not going to change, no matter how many times you clout your head on it. Here is the little door — deal with it. In my pondering of that phrase, I begin to sense a spiritual truth I keep clouting my head on. You are overlooking the obvious. It’s not that difficult. The door to life is very small and very low. Ditch your dignity and stoop.

This reminds me of Naaman. He travelled in state from Aram to Israel, to be healed of his leprosy. Like the magi, he started with the king in the palace. Powerful men like to deal with powerful men. Like the magi, he came laden with gifts and treasure. Like them, he was bounced. He was forced to make a detour and call on the prophet Elisha, who didn’t even do him the courtesy of stirring from his house.

Out came the servant instead, with a terse message: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” What?! I thought he’d at least come out and wave his hands over me. The Jordan? We’ve got better rivers at home!

Sometimes the path to life is so very small and low, it looks like a deliberate insult. Here is the little door. Get over yourself. I smile in recognition at the words of Naaman’s servant: “If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” Can it really be that simple? Is there nothing I can contribute to this process? What about my talents of silver, my shekels of gold? Come on, guys. Look at my ten suits of clothing.


THE oddity of the life of faith is that it is simultaneously all too small and all too big. I am simultaneously too small and too big. How does it all fit together? How does it work? There is a tiny girl I am longing to meet. She’s due to arrive at Epiphany, and the building-blocks for her body come partly from me: she is my granddaughter. Or to look at it another way, the building-blocks for her body — like the building-blocks for everything in our physical universe — were forged in supernovae millions of years ago.

How can I take in the enormity of that? My brain is too puny to accommodate it. (To be honest, half the time it’s too puny to keep hold of my car registration, or to recall where I hid those Christmas presents I so brilliantly bought back in August.) And yet my brain — any human brain — is the most complex structure in the known universe.

How does it fit together, this incompatible vastness and tininess? What does it look like? Hail the incarnate Deity! Hail the God-programme running on human hardware, on our flesh-and-bloodware; stripped of omniscience and omnipotence, scaled down and down and down, until it’s earth-compatible and won’t crash our system.

This is what it looks like: it looks like a baby. (Such tiny hands and Oh such tiny feet.) Seriously? Can it be that simple? It looks like a child growing, learning, “waxing strong in spirit”, as the old translation says. It looks remarkably like one of us. It walks and laughs and weeps like one of us. It speaks our human dialect, drinks our wine, knows our songs. It gazes at us uncalculatingly. Like a friend. “They’re hurting. Let me go to them.” It looks like faithfulness, unwavering to the bitter end. And then it looks like death.


I THINK a lot about death. I try not to chant it out loud in lifts, as this can be disconcerting for my fellow lift-passengers. Death, that final door I will pass through. Into what? Sometimes it feels like a bottomless abyss, one I stare down into with my atheist friends. They think there’s nothing, and I hope there’s God. I can’t prove my case. I can only talk about what I experience, and what faith feels like. It feels as though there’s something like a God programme, downloadable to any human heart.

But how? Here is the little door. Instal now? How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Here is the little door. Here, where the playing field is level. The more you have, the harder it is to get through — or even to believe that the way could be so ridiculous, so low down. You must become like little children to enter. The only requirement is to believe that it’s this simple: that grace is a free gift to the undeserving poor. Then we can bend and enter with our gift.

I’m guessing it’s rather like “Mummy, look, look, I made you a Christmas bell!” To which no loving mother on earth ever replied, “What is this crap? It’s just glitter on a yogurt pot! Get out of my sight.” That bell will be hung on the tree, and the child scooped up and hugged to bits.

He stooped down first to show us how it works. No more wandering. Get over yourself. Enter. Here is the little door. Here. Here.


Catherine Fox is the author of The Lindchester Chronicles, published by Marylebone House and available through the Church Times Bookshop.


*Shortly to be rebranded British sprouts.

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