I find myself thinking of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and how it has come to shape so much of what we in our contemporary culture all understand Christmas to be about.
Some of my friends read the original story aloud annually. That may be more than you want to do. But I hope watching one of the versions on television is a part of your holiday tradition. And if not, I hope you’ll consider it. Even the worst of them, the ones that emphasize the melodrama of it bring something lovely into the season. And the really good versions, well, they sing a deep truth into our hearts.
Charles Dickens was a child of poverty. That hard fact was something he never forgot. And, his writings, and his actions in life, show his abiding concern for those not born to privilege, those crushed by circumstance, the grasping, and the casual cruelty that marks too much of the culture then, and, truthfully, today, as well.
His thinking had a profoundly spiritual underpinning. While he was born Anglican and died within the warm embrace of that comprehensive faith, he also had a deep Unitarian connection. One of his closest friends was the Unitarian divine Edward Tagart, and during Reverend Tagart’s tenure at Little Portland Street’s Unitarian Chapel, Dickens’ regularly attended services, and even purchased a pew. It was only after Tagart’s death that he drifted slowly back to Canterbury, although always remaining, it is pretty obvious, a religious liberal.
What is most intriguing for me as, frankly, a Unitarian Universalist partisan is that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during those years while he was attending Little Portland Street’s chapel. Here this evening I suggest Dickens’ Christmas Carol is run right through with the core sentiments of our liberal faith. He supported this himself, when he wrote of those years and his joining among people who practice charity and toleration, and how important that was for him.
I know we aren’t always as successful in the doing as we wish, but that doing is at the heart of our aspiration. And just because it can be so hard sometimes we need reminding. The Christmas Carol is just such a reminder for us, as well as a shining beacon of hope for the world.
Which brings me back to Dickens’ story and particularly those visits from those ghosts. Here a light is being shined on a way. As we open our hearts to the season we might discover Dickens’ Christmas tale describes a path, and those ghostly visits are a map for us to follow on the path.
First, we are invited into the deep places of our hearts. The path into our hearts can come from many directions, but one real one can come from being open to the ghosts out of our past. So, a question, an important one: Who is Marley in your life? With whom have you conspired to sell your heart to something less than love and care for others? Who do you know who has fallen and in that fall has given you a terrible gift: that warning?
Then, within that vulnerable moment we might find how are invited to the lessons our ancestors gave us. As one friend told me, when asked how it was she could find time in her busy life to stop and work at our food pantry, she replied, simply, clearly from this place to which we are called this evening: “Because,” she said, “My mother taught me to.” What are the lessons you know are right, that you learned so long ago, but perhaps in the clouds of our lived lives have forgotten?
This evening we’re invited to recall, to recollect on those messages of hope and guidance. The messages of Christmas past. Where are they for you? Which ones call to your heart? Do they come from religion, from literature, from your life? Or, in differing measure, from all? Have you reflected on what they might be?
Then, what about today, that here and now thing, the Christmas present thing? You know the gift of this moment. The invitation within our liberal tradition is from that reflection is to come into the doing, to recall we are verbs much more than we are nouns. As Dickens reminded us, as this evening reminds us, we’re invited into the doing. There is so much to do. So much need, so much. Our task, each of us, is to find that one thing, or that small number of things, which we can do; and then to do it, to do them.
From the wisdom of your heart, to what does your heart call you to do with your hands?
And, finally, we come to Christmas future, and for that to Christmas day, like Mary birthing hope into the world. And with that story of a miraculous birthing the question for each of us, pregnant as we are with many possibilities. Which future are you going to let birth into the world?
You do get to choose, or, at least you get to choose your part. So, out of all these lessons, which one is it going to be?
There are many paths we can walk. Which is yours? Where does your heart guide you? From Christmas day, where do you wish to go?
Finally, my hope for all of us this Christmas Eve is that the ghosts of our hearts guide us to the true spirit of Christmas, that liberal religious spirit that informed the writing of a Christmas Carol – to a life of love and care and out of that, a life of doing.
This is a blessing for our own hearts, a turning from whatever we were unconsciously going, to a life of possibility and care.
To a life engaged with the great family.
Living into the Christmas spirit.
Born like a child in a manger. No one knows what will come of that small birth.
But the possibilities; oh, the possibilities.
Birthing with the real Christmas spirit.
The real dance…