December 25, 2016

That They May Know (For Christmas)

After Matthew and Luke, it’s possible that Charles Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas story ever told.

In 1843, Charles Dickens wanted to draw attention to the reality of poverty and the incredible suffering it created among England’s people. Rather than write a political pamphlet about the subject, as was the custom in his day, Dickens chose instead to write a ghost story.

And what a ghost story it was!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of the most influential books of the last two hundred years.

Since it was first published, the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from nasty miser to generous friend has never been out of print.

Scrooge’s late night visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come have been filmed, staged, and parodied innumerable times and continue to inspire would-be Scrooges to give more freely of themselves and their treasures.

A Christmas Carol’s impact on the holiday season—especially for English speaking Protestants—is without peer among stories not written by a canonized saint.

Dickens set out to shine a light on the poor, and that light did indeed shine brightly. In doing so, however, he also saved Christmas, too.

An article written by Laura Grande for History Magazine elaborates on this point and gives us a sense of the cultural tide A Christmas Carol ultimately turned. Grande writes,

During [the era in which Dickens lived and wrote], old medieval traditions, which were once used to celebrate the birth of Christ, were in a state of rapid decline. However, the disappearance of Christmas traditions was a long time coming, as England had long since stopped celebrating the holiday season on a yearly basis.
“The disappearance of Christmas traditions,” according to the author, was the legacy of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence on culture—an influence that discouraged great feasts and traditional decorations among other festivities that were judged to be excessive, wasteful, or, Heaven forbid, too Catholic.

It’s worth noting, too, that Cromwell’s ideas exerted their sobering influence in this country, too. For example, there was a time when celebrating Christmas was illegal in Boston and Christmas Eve was a school night for kids in that city until 1870.

We know that similar ideas were present in our city as well, as on this night in 1806, in this very neighborhood, a group of New Yorkers tried to storm St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street during the Christmas Eve Mass because of their suspicions about the holiday and their neighbors.

Grande concludes,

The outcome of Cromwell’s intense scrutiny of England’s holiday traditions resulted in an almost complete lack of observance of Christmas.
A Christmas Carol played a big part in altering this cultural trend.

The story’s simple moral message and sentimental images stirred something deep within the hearts of its readers.

It established “Merry Christmas!” as a common seasonal greeting.

It made charitable giving a fixture of Christmas celebrations.

And it gave Dickens’ audience permission to make this a time for frivolity and laughter and grand parties in addition to religious reflection and observance.

As one London newspaper put it with knowing hyperbole, Charles Dickens was “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

Whether you know the story well or not, A Christmas Carol has more than likely shaped your expectations and experience of the holiday this year. It’s definitely shaped mine.

After seeing so many adaptations of the story through the years—and, thanks to my son, recently becoming familiar with the version starring the Smurfs—I actually read the book for the first time earlier this month as a part of a small group here at the church. Not surprisingly, I found several scenes and images among the pages that I don’t remember ever seeing on television or film. I thought one of those scenes, in particular, made a powerful statement about the Good News we share on this Holy Night, and I made a mark in my book as soon as I read it to share it with you now.

The scene occurs during Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Present. There the spirit takes Scrooge to the home of his long-suffering employee, Bob Cratchit.

Now, by this point in the story it’s already established that Scrooge is a cruel man and an abusive boss.

Knowing that Cratchit works for Scrooge also lets us know that Cratchit must be very poor and have no prospects for improving his family’s situation.

Nevertheless, we find Bob to be a good man, a loving husband, and a doting father to all his kids, but especially to his son Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim, one of the story’s most memorable characters, was terribly ill. His bones were weak and he walked with a crutch. One modern theory proposes that Dickens imagined the young character had rickets and tuberculosis as these were common ailments in London’s slums and were exacerbated by the conditions found there.

Although he leaves out a specific diagnosis, Dickens tells us that the boy is sick, but not beyond help.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a scene in the Cratchit house as Bob and Tim enter the front door. They’re returning from a church service.

As the other Cratchit kids hurry Tim away to wash up before dinner, Mrs. Cratchit asks Bob the question that parents always ask when their children have been out without them.

“How did he behave?”

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church because he was a cripple, and it might pleasant them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
This is the scene that captured my attention line no other, because here, Tiny Tim expresses a desire to be nothing less than an icon and to draw others into the mystery and beauty of the Incarnation.

Tim hopes that his humble presence will bring others into the holy presence of Jesus—the One who makes the lame to walk and blind eyes to see.

He doesn’t want pity, but to point others to the One whose “grace is sufficient” and whose “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Tiny Tim is the foil to Scrooge’s greed—the child who leads us in the ways of selfless hope and genuine faith.

In this way, Tim give shapes to our worship this night.

Tiny Tim’s example asks of us an essential question.

Whose path will be more pleasant because of our presence and participation in what happens here this evening?

Whose spirits will be lifted because you stood up to sing of him who presence brings joy to the world?

Whose burden will become lighter because you possess the strength of a community that shares peace and practices reconciliation?

Who will receive a greater measure of life’s good things because you claimed your place at the Table where all are fed to overflowing with God’s goodness and mercy?

Who will find the courage to come out of the dark because of your testimony about the Light that you have seen and felt here tonight?

One hundred seventy three years ago, Charles Dickens wrote a ghost story that changed the way a culture celebrates Christmas. Tonight his story presents us with a timeless invitation—to point the way to Jesus Christ so that strangers and outcasts, the lonely and hurting, the forgotten and the vulnerable one among us may know that they are loved and valued by God, may know the Good News that the angels sang.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Thanks be to God for this Good News and may God bless us, everyone. Amen.

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