A sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor, on the First Sunday of Christmas
While relaxing after Christmas services, one of the things I’ve been enjoying- along with good food and wine- over the past few days is the new BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Everyone likes a ghost story, and- although quite nasty, sweary and violent- this latest version has been praised for being dark and unsentimental, a contemporary take on human need and suffering, rather than the more usual sugar-coated Christmas scenes we might normally associate with this popular and enduring tale.
Opinions have differed as to how Christian the original book A Christmas Carol is. Dickens has been blamed for creating the modern, domesticated version of Christmas, in which a general sense of merry-making and togetherness have watered down the faith aspect, or message about Jesus. C S Lewis, for example, wrote that in it there is a definite absence “of any interest in the Incarnation. Mary, the Magi, and the Angels are replaced by “spirits” of his own invention, and the animals present are not the ox and ass in the stable but the goose and the turkey in the poulterer’s shop.” And while there are passing references to biblical passages, it’s true that “A Christmas Carol” isn’t really interested in the coming of God into the world. For that, we would need to look rather to the nativity installation behind us in the Spire Crossing, or our second reading from Philippians that talked about Christ Jesus humbling himself to take on flesh and “being born in human likeness”.
Other critics, though, are more positive and hopeful about the Christian inspiration behind A Christmas Carol. Dickens was not a fan of organised religion, but he did write versions of biblical stories for his children, one of which was a version of the parable of Dives and Lazarus. For some, the allegory of A Christmas Carol echoes Jesus’ parable, in which the rich man, who has died and is now in hell, begs for relief from the poor man Lazarus, also dead but now in heaven, who served and waited on him while alive. Tiny Tim is a version of the innocent Lazarus, and the rich man in the torments of hell is Scrooge, who, uncaring and ungenerous with his wealth in life, is now made to face the consequences of his brutal and exploitative actions and policies. A Christmas Carol is a reimagining of the parable, in which Scrooge, the rich man, despite his ruthless mistreatment of the poor for the sake of profit, gets a second chance. The rich man’s request in the parable, that someone to be sent from the dead to warn his fellow rich men, his brothers, that they will be similarly judged, is granted. And rather than being condemned to hell, Scrooge is redeemed, and repents of his ways. His description to those who turn up at his door, collecting money for charity at Christmas, of the poor as “the surplus population” who had rather die than take up space in the workhouse has literally come back to haunt him, in a tale that combines Gothic horror with a powerfully simple moral message, typical of parables, about the need for repentance and compassion.
Whether motivated by Christian faith, or a human desire for justice, or both, Dickens’ message of empathy and compassion- especially on the part of those with power and means- resonates strongly with our reading from Isaiah this afternoon. To a people in captivity, Isaiah proclaims freedom and plenty. To people who are oppressed, he promises that much will be given: “they shall not hunger nor thirst,” we read. God will “guide them” “by springs of water,” and will have pity. There will be singing and rejoicing and merriment because “the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones”. Isaiah holds out a vision to his suffering people of a time when human flourishing will be restored- and in which, in a reversal of the apparent natural order of things, Kings shall see and stand up, and princes prostrate themselves.
The portrayal of Scrooge in the BBC version I mentioned at the start is of someone almost completely devoid of warmth or humanity. There isn’t much sense, as there is in Dickens’ original, of him as a relatable character, human in his fallibility, an old miser whose selfishness is temporary, before we get the happy ending of Christmas generosity, cheer and charity.
Scrooge, in this latest version, is cold and inhumane, his redemption at the end questionable- his brutal treatment of the poor and vulnerable a comment, perhaps, on the relevance of the story to today, and the suffering and darkness endured by many, a bleak reflection of our own times and the still-widening gap between rich and poor. It reminds us of the seriousness of Dickens’ message about sharing the lavishness we see particularly at Christmas. In a week when we’ve heard of a homeless woman giving birth outside one of the richest Oxbridge colleges, and the lack of regulation in our care system has been reported and exposed, it’s a spur to act, and to hold our leaders to account.
Today, as well as being the Sunday after Christmas, is the day when the church remembers St Thomas A Becket. T. S. Eliot, another writer we sometimes associate with Christmas, with his poem about the journey of the Magi, the three kings, also wrote the play, “Murder in the Cathedral.” In this play, Thomas a Becket says in his Christmas sermon, “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of Stephen the first martyr follows the day of the birth of Christ? By no means. At Christmas we rejoice and mourn at once. We rejoice at the coming of Christ into the world; but we mourn the cost of his coming:- his suffering and that of all who witness to him”. The week after Christmas is a week full of martyrs: St Stephen, the Holy Innocents and Becket himself, as if to remind us that there has always been a cost to witnessing to Christ and imitating him.
At Christmas we rightly rejoice. The original Christmas Carol, with its feasting and festive cheer, is a welcome reminder of this. But we should also take seriously its message about the cost of wealth, its radical vision of Christian equality, of rich and poor, child and adult. Just as the prophet Isaiah yearns for a time when things can be better, when kings and princes stand alongside those who are most vulnerable, so amidst our Christmas celebrations we are challenged to hold on to our powerful sense of the injustices we see, in our society and in our world, and to resolve to do our best to help change them, despite the darkness that persists around us.