Christmas Eve 2010

A sermon from Christmas Eve

In 1834, Charles Dickens was spending most of his time giving lectures
on the importance of education to fight poverty and using his writer’s
influence to raise money for schools for poor children. As Christmas
approached, he had an idea for a story with a colourful protagonist that
could deliver Dickens’s message of other-centredness and social justice.
Mr. Dickens had little money, but he chose to pay for the publication
himself to maintain control over it. No expense was spared: the pictures
were hand-coloured etchings, the cover gold-embossed. And he kept the
price low so that everyone, rich and poor, might be able to buy it and
hear its message. That story, of course, was A Christmas Carol. And
that colourful character was Scrooge, who has been teaching us about
Christmas spirit in his reluctant, grumpy way for more than 150 years.

Few us here don’t know the story – the cranky disbeliever, cruel to his
underlings, who gets three visits to teach him how to see beyond his own
nose. Thanks to our youth and young adults last week, we got a version of
it at the nativity. And we saw how well it works in any scene. We all know
a Scrooge or two. We’ve all been Scrooge at one time or another. And we
all hope that we, like Scrooge, might feel that joyful epiphany, that moment
when life and all its meaning becomes clear to us.

That last moment, that’s the one that touches us. It happens with the Grinch
who stole Christmas, when he hears the Whos singing even though he’s
stolen all their presents. It happens to Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful
Life – a personal favourite of mine – when the town folk share what little
they have to keep the savings and loan company afloat for everyone.
What is that magical moment? It is the moment when someone chooses to
become good – to see with fresh eyes – because of the goodness of others.
Both are choices. Both, on this and every night, are our own choices.

For what is the Christmas story but a tale of that action and reaction – the
choosing to do good, the choosing to become good? All of them – Mary,

Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi – aren’t pushed and dragged into doing the
work of God: presented with the risky possibility of peace and hope, they
grab on.

We have only to look at the last scene – the manger itself – for the full
story. We may all see it differently, and that is at it should be, but I
imagine Mary and Joseph alone in a dark, smelly manger, warmed by the
livestock. They have a baby, challenging in itself, but this one comes with a
burden of responsibility that no parents should bear, especially very young
ones. They were probably scared and not sure what would happen next.

But we know what happens: the shepherds show up to see this baby and
remain to help, keeping Mary and Joseph company. The wise men come
— later it’s true, but eventually — and the most important gift they bring
is that of solidarity. I think we can assume that word might have spread
quickly about a young couple with a baby in a stable, and I like to think
that there would be a few kind souls in Bethlehem with some help to give.
It was a contagion of good – from Mary down the line – with each act, each
stranger’s deed building up to that final scene. It was a story about someone
choosing to be good because of the goodness of others.

Of course, our story begins with the mystery of God, who, our faith teaches
us, brings Jesus and the gospel to dwell among us. Jesus becomes part
of us: he is the definition of a good that is contagious. And we are to
understand that God does not rule from above or afar – barking out orders
and judgment. However we name God, however we see God, the lesson of
Christmas is that God – and all the goodness and kindness and worthiness
that this implies – is inside us and around us.

Every year during Christmas – and year round really — I watch people –
strangers and friends – lose sight of what truly brings them joy. It happens
to me too, with all the appointments and obligations piling up. We put
on blinders just to get things done. Or we become so inward looking – a
little Scrooge-like if we are honest – that we lose sight of the needs of the
people around us. That was Scrooge’s problem: he’d cut himself off from
the community to the point where he was no longer touched by the good
will of humanity. And when his eyes were opened, he could not help but be
infected by the positive spirit around him.

Christmas, whatever you believe, is that gift to us. A chance to have our
eyes opened – to see what we truly need and what we truly need to be
doing. That might mean seeing what can be fixed in a troubled marriage,
or healed in an estranged relationship with family. It might mean asking
ourselves what we have done lately for someone who could do nothing
for us in return. It might mean just looking inside for the goodness that we
have stopped believing in and bringing it forward for others to see. We
all have a little bit of Scrooge inside, and if we are lucky, those times are
followed by moments of clarity that knock out a few kinks and reboot us
in a better direction. Christmas, done right, may sound as pretty as Silent
Night, but ultimately, what I’d wish for all of us here, is that it might be –
as it was for Scrooge – a kick in the pants.

Charles Dickens is known for many great works –his “best illustrations”
he once wrote, were drawn from the New Testament – but it is the story
of Scrooge that endures. Is that a coincidence – that an act of goodness
inspired the good of others, both in fiction and in life? Because in the end,
the ultimate realization for Scrooge was bigger than Christmas – it was
about kindness, selflessness, and the best parts of humanity. It was the story
of a manger in Bethlehem.

That is the Christmas message: a trio of gifts given and received, hope.
peace, and love. As Scrooge said himself, we are at our best when we see
one another as “fellow passengers” on the same journey And what better
place to stop and rest than at the last scene, at our manger, with a young
baby born to be good and true, who has already inspired others to be great.
That is the message of Christmas, as God wrote it, and we all have a place
in that story. Be at peace. Feel loved. And do good. Merry Christmas.