Advent 4 2018
After our wonderful Nine Lessons and Carols last Sunday, when I eventually got home I sat down to watch a programme introduced by Griff Rhys Jones called ‘Dickens and the invention of Christmas’. I wonder if you saw it? I won’t say much about it, not leastly because it gladdened my heart to see on TV what I have been saying here and elsewhere for years, about how the various Christmas Traditions we have inherited have come to us largely thanks to Charles Dickens and the publication of A Christmas Carol 175 years ago on December 19th 1843. December 19th is always a good day to do anything, I always feel… The programme also covered the sending of the first Christmas Card in 1843, and a piece with Howard Goodall in which he explains the difference between a Christmas Hymn and Christmas Carol. Again, I won’t go on about that, because if you’ve been paying attention to my sermons over the last fifteen years or so, you’ll know all about it. And of course, you have been paying attention… If you haven’t, then, well, I can sell you a couple of my books…!
The programme was followed by a wonderful one-man presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, by Simon Callow. True to the text, it was a tour de force of acting, as he presented every part, including, Macbeth-style, the encounters with Marley’s Ghost and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who were played by nobody at all. It’s worth catching up with it if you have the time or the interest.
The documentary about Dickens had emphasised a key dimension of Dickens’ moralising tendencies, which come to the fore in A Christmas Carol as a real concern for the poor. And Simon Callow’s interpretation brought this out well.
It is often overlooked, for example, that in the famous tale, there appear the semblances of a little boy and a girl, representing Want – that is poverty - and Ignorance. Dickens is warning society that to overlook these two deprived children is to prevent any future improvement in society. Ignorance and Want must be addressed. Scrooge learns and becomes generous as a result.
And it’s no surprise to us today to think that one of the ways to alleviate poverty is through education. Certainly various governments since the Victorian period have taken that view and tried to implement it.
It’s also no surprise to us to hear that Dickens often wrote with an agenda, and that, just as Nicholas Nickleby exposed the bad treatment meted out in Northern Boarding Schools and Oliver Twist was a commentary on the Poor Laws recently enacted, A Christmas Carol was not simply an attempt by Dickens to create the kind of Christmas that we still hanker after. It was of course exactly that – Dickens loved Christmas and wanted to encourage everyone to do so as well.
A chapter in The Pickwick Papers gave an advance warning of what was coming, as Christmas is celebrated, somewhat unusually for the period. And it is worth noting, there is far more food in A Christmas Carol, than there is Jesus Christ.
Preachers should not be so easily lured into preaching sermons about Dickens, and I’m sure it would annoy him a great deal. Dickens wanted us to take a day off, dance, be with our families, give then presents and stuff our faces. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?! Although even Dickens would have been surprised to learn that nowadays the total weight gain from Christmas indulgence in the UK is 20 million stone, which is the equivalent of 10.000 double decker buses.
But, a key dimension, often overlooked as I said is that in the story, the Cratchit family get a goose – a cheap bird to eat, far more working class than turkey – but it is a rare square meal. So, whether Dickens can be described as a Christian story teller or not – there is nevertheless, good news for the poor in A Christmas Carol.
And this was good news that took off. Ten years later in 1853 John Mason Neale wrote ‘Good King Wenceslas’, an almost nonsensical ballad, but which has its sole purpose and message, kindness to the poor.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Between them, Dickens and Neale turned Christmas from a working day which happened to be an obscure and neglected religious observance into a day on which people ate and drank too much, but in doing so were reminded to feed the poor and remember those worse off than themselves, if only, as Neale put it, so that they themselves might find blessing. For one day perhaps, the poor were raised up and fed, and those who fed them felt good about it.
Sadly, nowadays, Christmas isn’t necessarily good news for the poor – indeed it can make people poor. 1 in 6 people today say that it takes them all year to pay for Christmas. The Dickensian goodwill for the poor created a tradition that itself has become a bit of a Victorian time bomb as those who cannot afford Christmas, struggle to pay for it. And even today, as Universal Credit lurks in the background, we find our nation enacting new versions of poor laws. As Jesus himself said – the poor are always with us – in one form or another.
I’m not being cynical – but rather thinking of another Christmas text – a Christmas text so often overlooked: The Magnificat. It’s said or sung every day at Evensong: an exaltation that is an exhortation – an exultation to God for his magnificence, which exhorts us to remember every day, that it is God who raises up and puts down. It is God who cares for the poor and expects us to do the same, it is God who calls us, sends us, and while permitting us to say ‘no’, welcomes our ‘yes’, just as he welcomed Mary’s ‘yes’ to the Angel Gabriel. It is a rich text – you have it in front of you – it is a rich text about poverty. It is about poverty of spirit, poverty of strength and poverty of wealth. And it reminds us that whichever of these apply to you - whatever you are poor in – God is on your side. And if you think you are not poor in any of these, then beware – because, God is not on your side. Or rather, he is on the side of the others. His mercy is for those who fear him, he looks with favour on the lowly, and he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, and – and this would gladden the heart of even Charles Dickens - he fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
So Mary’s Magnificat is a Christmas text after all – and it has become so thanks to Dickens et al, who both encourage us to overindulge at Christmas, but also to be generous to the poor, whether those poor be poor in body, spirit, wealth or mind. Charity is part of Christmas, and long may it continue. For it is in the spirit of Magnificat that we give at Christmas, and so in the Spirit of Christmas we can read the Magnificat. And we read it against ourselves as much as for ourselves.
And we read it, not as a text for what some call the ‘run up to Christmas’ – which itself is not automatically to be confused with Advent – but it is a Christmas Text – and Christmas hasn’t yet begun. Christmas begins tomorrow night: It begins when we light the last, white candle. And then Christmas begins and the work of Christmas begins. Christmas Day is not the destination of Advent. We don’t ‘arrive’ at Christmas Day, and slump into our armchairs, having made our attempt at doing our unfair share of amassing some of that twenty million stone of weight. No - at Midnight Mass, we begin a journey – the journey of Christmas, and the work begins.
And that work is for the poor, the lowly, it is work of mercy, peacekeeping and hope-giving. There is a little poem by Howard Thurman, an American Civil rights campaigner and sometime Dean of Chapel at Harvard University. He reminds us that Christmas is not the end of the journey, but the beginning:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
So, ever mindful of the poor and lowly and humble, let us prepare for that journey, on which we embark tomorrow.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 23/12/18