Texts: Luke 2:1-20;
…it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!1
The “him” of which this was said, of course, is Ebenezer Scrooge, the famed hero of Charles Dickens’ timeless classic A Christmas Carol. “He knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of us!” So what about us? Do we possess that precious knowledge? What does it mean to “keep Christmas well”?
Dickens leaves more than just a few clues to answering that question. He doesn’t just show us someone who keeps Christmas well. Rather, he shows us someone who doesn’t keep it at all — who ‘leaves it alone’ in Scrooge’s own words.2 Dickens shows how to keep Christmas well by first showing us someone who doesn’t keep it, and who then undergoes a dramatic transformation into someone who does. I’d like to give us a glimpse of that dramatic transformation from the marvelous performance of Scrooge by George C. Scott in a 1984 rendition of the classic:
[show video clip from 1:23:12 / 17:42 – 1:27:48 / 13:14; 4 minutes, 26 seconds]
‘Our courses,’ as human beings, ‘will foreshadow certain ends,’ as Scrooge puts it, ‘to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.’3 This describes the tradition of Hebrew prophecy that we have talked about a couple times during the Advent season. Jesus brought to fulfillment a tradition not of predicting certain ends, but of foreshadowing them that we might repent, that we might depart from our current courses and thus change the end.
I’d like to suggest that we see Scrooge’s transformation as one of healing, by looking at it more in terms of modern therapy or Twelve Step group healing. In therapy or group, it usually takes years, whereas in Scrooge’s case, as he puts it, “The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can.”4 Dickens’ three specters do in one night what therapists and Twelve Step groups endeavor to do over time: show us our past, present, and future in ways such that we gain new insight and healing. This is necessary because in order to choose a new course, one needs to see where the old course went off-track. This most often involves a time or situation in our childhoods where we were faced with a trauma, and we didn’t yet have the means to survive through healthy means. There was an experience or series of experiences that threatened to overwhelm our yet-to-develop personal resources. So we survived with the resources at hand, often some form of avoidance, or shutting down emotions. Or we found forms of self-comfort that lead to problems later in life. In short, we developed unhealthy patterns of dealing with life’s challenges.
In therapy later in life, then, we revisit the past, the experiences where the unhealthy habits came into being; we examine our present, for where those same unhealthy habits tend to cause us misery; and we dare to foreshadow our future, where we might be headed if we can’t alter our course. The goal, of course, is to change course — to find those more developed, healthy personal resources that heal our past and move us more confidently into the future.
In Scrooge’s case, his ghostly, one-night therapy session showed him the loneliness and hurt as a youth that led him to choose a lonely path as an adult. He was able to see again the choices he made in the past and get a sense of how he could make different ones in the future. It may be wonderful story-telling in Scrooge’s case. But I submit to you what happened to Scrooge on a Christmas night is what can happen to any one of us here tonight who are willing to take journeys with therapists, or Spiritual Advisors, or Twelve Step groups, or small groups here at church that seek spiritual healing and growth. Keeping Christmas is about opening ourselves to healing transformation. God comes to us in the three-fold spirit that came on Christmas with an unconditional forgiveness which enables us to see our pasts, presents, and futures together in healing ways. In the real world, it takes some hard work over time. In Dickens’ story world, with the help of the supernatural, much of the work was done for Scrooge so that it happened in a night.
“I will not be the man I must have been but for this visitation,” says Scrooge. Visitation. The Christmas story is the story of a visitation. But it is not about ghosts, or even angels, visiting us. It is about God visiting through the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem. It is about God’s love and way of peace becoming flesh in a human being, such that all of us have the chance to say, “I will not be the person I must have been but for this visitation.” It is Good News of Great joy to all people! Because of how Jesus came to live in solidarity with the least of God’s family; how he died in confrontation with the world’s powers; and how God raised him as vindication and New Life. Because of all that, the tri-fold spirit of God has been unleashed in this world as the power of healing transformation behind all true healing. Like Scrooge, the power of all three spirits may strive in us and through us to being healing to ourselves and others.
Not only that but God’s Holy Spirit in the Messiah is also the reigning power in the world. Yes, the other powers haven’t gone away yet. But they are being slowly transformed. Think of it this way, along the lines of modern therapy that we talked about a moment ago. We said that our lives most often get off-course involving a time or situation in our childhoods where we were faced with a trauma for which we didn’t yet have the means to survive through healthy means. So we developed unhealthy patterns of dealing with life’s challenges.
Now, think about all of humankind in terms of an individual person. As we evolved a species over many millennia, we faced the traumas and challenges of survival, and so we also developed unhealthy patterns of dealing with them. (In the Christian tradition, we call this “original sin,” the patterns of brokenness that has plagued us since our origins as a species.) And those are passed on from generation to generation through our cultures, our politics, our economics, our religion. Yes, religion, too. In fact, Jesus came to show us that religion is at the center of all those unhealthy patterns precisely because we have the sinful habit of justifying them with gods we think to be true gods but are actually false ones. Quick example: most cultures have held men to be superior to women and justified the sexism religiously. Our myths tell us that God made us that way. How many others way have we propped up injustice by citing our gods?
In short, Jesus came to reign so that our cultures, politics, economics, and religions are undergoing healing, too. It’s a species makeover! Human Being 2.0! That’s why this is Good News of Great Joy for all the people! Because God visited this world beginning that first Christmas, we can keep Christmas because Christmas is keeping all humankind. The tri-fold Spirit of God is striving in this world to slowly but surely heal who we are. We are able to become the creatures made in God’s image. We are able to love and care for this world, for each other, as God created us to do. We are able to finally grow up into adulthood as a species!
There is one further consolation in seeing Christmas in the light of our whole human family. It addresses why this world is still such a mess 2000 years after the first Christmas. But think about it: if the healing process happens gradually for each individual person, it really takes a long time on the level of all of humankind. Two thousand years and counting. But that’s minuscule compared to 100,000 years of previous evolution. I’d say we are in our late teen years as a species, a crucial moment for turning the corner into adulthood.
And so keeping to the coming of the Christ at Christmas means finally turning the corner on growing up. It means putting away the false gods that continue to justify our injustices, the false gods that keep us dependent on violent ways of keeping the peace. It even means a healing transformation of the sinful elements that still exist in our Christian communities, so that we put our full faith once and for all in the power of Love-in-the-flesh that came on Christmas. In God’s healing forgiveness, may it be said of all of us, ‘they knew how to keep Christmas well, if anyone alive possessed the knowledge.’
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 24, 2014
1. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Originally published in 1843; all quotes in this sermon are taken from an edition, with an introduction by John Shea, Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications, 2010. This quote, page 142.
2. Ibid., 6-7.
3. Ibid., 128.
4. Ibid., 133.