Letter from the Vicar (December 2007/January 2008)
Every year – well, nearly every year – I have a ritual at Christmas. I re-read what is, perhaps the greatest Christmas story, apart, of course, from the Christmas story. I mean, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
It is a story which tells us something important about the meaning of Christmas. The heart of the message of A Christmas Carol is second chances. Scrooge is given a second chance. He is changed from being a stingy, mean miser into an open hearted kind person. What changes him? To begin with we must admit it’s fear. He’s frightened – who wouldn’t be – of the ghosts that haunt him. But we also see in him a new dawning, a re-awakening of compassion. And Tiny Tim gets a second chance too. Instead of death he finds healing. The same is true for his parents, the Cratchets. What’s the motivation of the haunting? Marley’s ghost and all the others? At the centre, surely, it is love. Love even for this wretched man Scrooge. The love of his old friend and partner Jacob Marley, who wants to give Scrooge a chance to avoid his fate.
The Christian message of Christmas is all about second chances as well. It’s about a second chance for us. What we celebrate at Christmas is that Jesus came into the world to offer human beings a new start. Once again fear plays a part in bring about the change. We have to know our need of God. We have to know that we all do things that are wrong, that we are all sinners. God sees into our inmost hearts. He knows our secret thoughts. And we don’t measure up. God is our judge and by his standards we fail. There is an element of condemnation in the gospel that you can’t strain out! But the other element in Dickens’ story is far more powerful in the gospel than judgement and condemnation – Compassion. Compassion literally means suffering with. And that’s exactly what Jesus did. And does. He suffered and suffers with us. He feels with us. As the old carol puts it “tears and smiles like us he knew.” And he awakens our compassion, our fellow feeling.
Just like Scrooge our faith stirs up a care for other human beings, an appreciation of those worse of than we are, a sense of righteous indignation at injustice and inequality. An ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Increasingly we come to see things as God sees them. The gospel is not just about being judged good it is also about becoming better people. Or at least it ought to be.
And the motive? Love. God loved the world so much that he gave his only son. That’s the heart of Christmas. Just as Scrooge had to be haunted to turn him around, to give him a second chance, we too need Christ to give us a second chance. We need him at Christmas, we need him all year round. We needed him in the past, we need him in the present and we’ll need him in the days yet to come.
And if we take the message of Christmas on board, if it becomes a living reality for us, then we will be able to say, as Tiny Tim says at the end of Dickens’ story, “God bless us, every one.”
Yours sincerely and a happy Christmas,