I love beginnings. The first book or movie in a series, the first day of school, the first memories of a friendship: these things all have a special meaning for me.
The first book in the remarkable Harry Potter series, The Sorcerer’s Stone, is no exception. In fact, the reason I love it so much is one line, a line that is my favorite part out of everything found in all seven books.
The book begins with an introduction to the Dursleys, the now infamously unpleasant family that Harry must live with for the entire series. Mr. Dursley attempts to go about his fanatically normal day, but odd things keep intruding. A tabby cat seems to be watching his house. He keeps noticing people in brightly colored cloaks, one of whom hugs him and calls him a ‘Muggle,’ a term which bewilders him. Owls swoop down in broad daylight, though this he only finds out later on the news. A peculiar day indeed.
Out of all these events, the most worrisome fact for Mr. Dursley is an overheard conversation in the street. As he is hurriedly trying to pass by some of these oddly garbed strangers, a name drifts out from a whisper in the crowd, “The Potters,” and their son, “Harry.” Mr. Dursley is now on high alert. His sister-in-law’s last name is Potter, and he has tried to distance himself from her whole family as much as possible. The fact he could in any way be associated with these strange goings-on is a terrifying thought.
So, later that night, after a troubling newscast reporting shooting stars, he ponders the events of the day. “Shooting stars all over Britain. Owls flying by daylight. Mysterious people in cloaks all over the place. And a whisper, a whisper about the Potters…”
A whisper, a whisper about the Potters….
This is my favorite line of the series. The events of the next seven books are foreshadowed in that whisper; an epic journey is presaged in a snippet of conversation. This is where the story really begins; it is the first hint that this tale is not about the Dursleys but instead about the titular Harry Potter. There are other indicators that the life of Mr. Dursley will not remain as normal as he hoped, but the real story is birthed in a whisper, a whisper that will soon be brought to glorious life.
And what a story it is! This whisper is the beginning of a dastardly villain’s defeat, of a whole world of magic, of dragons and wizards and mystery. In the universe that the now famous Harry Potter (and the lucky reader) is about to discover, all those things that make him unique, all those quirks that he thought were peculiar anomalies in an otherwise dull world, are in fact gifts to be honed and used or curses to be overcome. So much could be said about the thrilling tale that is in store, but all of it starts in this moment, and is all wrapped up in this small whisper.
Christmas is upon us, and while we now associate it with stress and frenzy, this holiday is also a story whose true meaning was foretold in a whisper, a whisper that held something bigger than the world. The birth of Christ was accompanied by quite a few strange events. A virgin girl became pregnant. A star shone so brightly that court astrologers saw it as a sign of the coming king. Angels appeared, singing of heavenly glory to shepherds. But the real story was something much smaller and quieter, a mystery born on the whimpers of a newborn child.
So Mary, as she laid down her head in a cold cave that first Christmas morning, pondered many things. A virgin conceiving without sex. A bright star appearing in the sky. Angels singing hallelujahs. And a whisper, a whisper of salvation….
This is the beginning of the Christian story. The culmination is Easter, where the story bursts forth from cold stone in bright array. Here we have the first hint of that great hope. Easter is the bright sunrise, Christmas, the glistening stars of the silent night before. Easter is the glorious marriage; Christmas is the first soft touch of the soon-to-be lover. Christmas is the ultimate beginning.
If we marvel at how much is contained in a whisper about the Potters, a fictional story, how much more do we wonder at the whisper of God? Throughout the story of humankind, there have been intimations that the fate of humankind is not as hopeless as it appears, that the finality of death is not as dark as it seems, that joy is not as transient as experience evinces. These hints were breaths of wind at the keyhole of the vast door of heaven. At Christmas, at the Incarnation, that door eased open just a little, and the Word whispered through. Earth quietly stretched to welcome that which it hopes for but can never comprehend.
The story of Christmas can’t be reduced to a catchphrase, squeezed onto a greeting card, or recited by a friendly television Santa Claus. This day is shrouded in mystery, and we only see glimmers of the full picture through that cracked door, the door that we hope and pray to be fully opened one day. We only know that the hope we thought was as fragile as a newborn child is a cornerstone that no war can prevail against.
This is why the commercialization of Christmas doesn’t bother me much, nor does the busyness that inevitably comes with the holiday. I could care less when stores begin to stock Christmas items or people start to play Christmas music. The story always has had much ado about it. Brightly lit shopping malls have nothing on angels terrifying shepherds. The real story, the quiet one, is in no danger of being drowned out. The whisper sneaks through all the materialistic clutter and provides the silent foundation for everything. Even the things people think Christmas is really about, such as family, love, and gratitude, are mere sign-posts to the true meaning of this day. They point to something deeper; they point to redemption.
So, as we approach Christmas morning, let us take time to reflect on what we’ve seen. Gifts are bought and given frenetically. Carols are sung. Family and friends gather from afar around tables and hearths. And a whisper, a whisper of a redeemer….