by Barbara Glasson.
The animated film The illusionist (2010), directed by Sylvain Chomet, is based on an un-produced script of the French mime, director and actor Jaques Tati. The film, set in Scotland, tells of the relationship between a young girl, Alice and an impoverished magician. Initially Alice believes the Illusionist to be a real magician and is in thrall to his ability to conjure up a different world, as time goes on, and as she grows up, the illusion is revealed. The Illusionist is a poignant and sad film, capturing all the hope and sparkle that magic promises in childhood, the possibility of defying nature, of making wishes come true, of enabling a new world crack open the mundane world of everyday. The sadness is, that it’s ultimately a trick.
The idea of magic is a seductive one. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, we all easily enter into a story of make-believe where good overcomes evil, where elderly chaps with long white beards have our best interests at heart and where Cinderella’s get interrupted in their drudgery by fairies in sparkly frocks able to rock up in a trice with some new shoes. I wish!
We are particularly enthralled with this magical scenario at Christmas. From Santa who seems to act as a cross between a benevolent grandfather and a mystery shopper, to the ridiculous world of pantomime we are sucked into the tinsel-garnished potential of another story with glimmers of stardust sprinkled on the everyday. In a last ditch attempt, we begin to make new year’s resolutions in the hope that they at least might help our daily lives be sprinkled with fairy dust. We sit down at our desks again, find the papers just where we left them, and the time-lapse of Christmas has not brought about an office filing system let alone peace on earth.
Christmas is not magic. Christmas is not about God squeezing himself into human form, or disguising himself as someone and being prepared to pop out and surprise us in some Divine Pantomime. Christmas is emphatically not about waving a magic wand and sorting out the world. Incarnation is God showing us what it means to be human, the cost, struggle and complexity of our lives. Prayer and worship are our response to this, but not a call to shut our eyes and hope for a magic wand to be waved. Incarnation, is about relationship with the God who, in Jesus, enters fully into the human predicament and takes it on.
A reminder then, at Epiphany that the Magic Men from the East,with gifts for the baby, lay down their powers to bring symbols of the stuff of life, that within life there is suffering, that the journey to the stable is also a journey to the cross.
At a recent gathering of Scriptural Reasoning, where people of different faiths discussed their Scriptures, there was an wonderful conversation I overheard between a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim cleric concerning a passage from the Psalms. The conversation went along the lines of whether or not we should argue with God. The Muslim, explained that his faith is about submission to God, that obedience to the will of God is at the heart of Islam, that to argue with God would not be a humble response Allah. The Rabbi laughed, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, ‘Argue? That’s what Jews do! We argue all the time, two Jews and five opinions!’ They then turned to the Christians in the room, ‘Do you Christians argue with God?’ they asked.
I suspect the answer we should have given is ‘Not enough!’ If we are in relationship with the incarnate God, who, through Jesus, shows us how to be human, then we need to argue more. Incarnation is emphatically not ‘being nice’ or ‘trying to be good’, or ‘hoping for something better’. Incarnation is an invitation to enter into the contradictory and troubling nature of what it means to be human – to take it on. In this endeavour we are called into a robust relationship with God, one in which we rail at the inequalities of the world, where we are called into political engagement. A relationship in which it simply isn’t good enough that some earn megabucks whilst others are sanctioned for being late for a Job Centre appointment. To make relationships with people of other faith is a vocational imperative, not a lifestyle option, because peace-building is about making relationships with people that some call ‘enemies’ and praying for them as we wrestle with our differences and non-negotiables. Being people who argue with unjust systems who engage with people different from ourselves, who keep on believing that God is with us in all the mess and muddle of life, is our only New Year’s resolution.
It is said that ‘The Illusionist’ is a film about the relationship that Jaques Tati longed for with his estranged daughter, Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel although the truth of this seems to be shrouded with some mystery. The hopelessness of the film lies in the fact that when it was revealed that there was no magic then there was no relationship. As Christians we are not magicians, but humans, called to live life in all its fullness, complexities and worries. It is only through such engagement that we offer any hope to the world.