Dusk was falling. The lights were on in the Christmas streets, thick snowflakes were dancing between the lamps. The streets were crowded with people.
Among all these busy people were Papa and Joachim, who had gone into town to buy an advent calendar. It was their last chance, because tomorrow would be the first of December. They were sold out at the newsstand and in the big bookstore at the market.
Joachim tugged at his father’s hand and pointed at a tiny shop window where a brightly coloured Advent calendar was leaning against a pile of books.
“There!” he said.
Jostein Gaarder’s The Christmas Mystery is a very special Advent book. It tells the story of Joachim who finds a ‘magic’ advent calendar. When Joachim opens his calendar a tiny piece of paper tumbles out, the first chapter of a story about Elisabet. Elisabet is on miraculous and amazing journey, running across Europe and backwards in time from 1948 to 0AD, to witness the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem with a growing crowd of pilgrims. As Advent progresses Joachim and his family are drawn into Elisabet’s journey chapter by chapter, learning more and more about the Christmas story and all the ways Jesus has impacted the world over 2000 years.
Those who have read Gaarder’s more famous works, like Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, will know that he is a big fan of the story-within-a-story thing; just like his other books Gaarder works wonders through this format! As Joachim’s family read through their calendar they are increasingly captivated by Elisabet’s journey, and as readers of Joachim’s story we are increasingly captivated too. The story contains beautiful stories from the history of the church, very insightful theological reflections and wonderful recounts of biblical events and parables; within the story these are communicated to two child protagonists and are therefore made powerfully accessible to readers of all ages.
“Behind door number 24 the name Jesus is written in very beautiful and artistic lettering. One letter is red, the second is orange, the third is yellow, the fourth blue and the fifth violet. Altogether that makes all the colours of the rainbow. Jesus was like a whole rainbow.”
“When it’s been raining heavily, and the sun breaks through the dark clouds, the rainbow appears in the sky. It’s as if a little bit of Jesus is in the air, for Jesus was a rainbow between heaven and earth.”
Gaarder’s theological musings are very interesting, although (as is consistent with philosophical reflections embedded in his other stories) his teleology is decidedly different from orthodox Christianity. Advent and Christmas are seasons for pointing us forward to the second coming of Christ, the destruction of evil and the salvation, and renewal of God’s people and world. These elements of the Christmas story are obviously absent in Gaarder’s story. While The Christmas Mystery has plenty of helpful things to say about wonder of creation, it has very little to say about the mystery of the incarnation, or the relationship between Christ’s second coming and his first. As a result, a lot his thoughts about Jesus’ teachings and the call of the church are beautiful but just a little lopsided.
Papa got to his feet and went into the sitting room to fetch the Bible. When he came back he leafed through the pages, then read aloud:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be brought low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
and all flesh shall she the salvation of God”
“That was poetic,” said Mama.
“In a way this is what the whole of the magic Advent calendar is trying to tell us,” said Papa. “The pilgrims have been travelling towards Bethlehem, but as well as that they have seen how the stories about Jesus have spread over the whole world.”
The Christmas Mystery has been a long-time Advent tradition of mine; every couple of years I read it as an Advent calendar. There is something very special about reading a chapter each day. It really does pull you into the story in a whole new way when your advent calendar is a book, and each day of your calendar means reading a chapter about Joachim reading a chapter from his calendar about Elisabet moving one day closer on her journey to see the Christ-child. What an adventure!
Jostein Gaarder, 1992
H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo
The Christmas Mystery
trans. Elizabeth Rokkan, 1996
Orion Publishing Group, London