“And so this is Christmas…”

The following homily was preached by Rev. Dan Harper as part of the annual Christmas Eve candlelight service at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Here we are again. It’s Christmas eve. If you are someone who loves Christmas, like my friend Cindie, this is a moment of great excitement — just a few more hours and it will be the best day of the year, it will be Christmas, with all the presents and the Christmas tree and the special food and the lights and decorations and candy canes, all the things you have been waiting for over these past few months. If, on the other hand, you are not someone who particularly cares for Christmas, like my friend Lindsay who goes around at this time of year wishing people “Happy Horrordays,” if you are not a big fan of Christmas, by now you might be holding on for dear life, counting the hours until it is over.

But whoever you are, tomorrow morning will inevitably come. We will all get up in the morning, all the lovers of Christmas, all the Christmas elves and assistant Santas, all the Scrooges, all those who are just trying to survive these crazy holidays. We will get up, and go through whatever holiday rituals our family and friends and loved ones agree to. And at some point on Christmas day I seem to have this moment where I pause and look around me — look around at the remains of Christmas dinner on the table, look around at the bits of wrapping paper left on the floor, and the people I’m spending Christmas with — I have this moment where I pause and say to myself, And so this is Christmas.

That is why I happen to like the song that the Folk Choir sang for us just before the offering. It’s not one of the best Christmas songs, but it’s the song that comes closest to my own personal experience of Christmas. I have never played a drum for the baby Jesus, pa-rup-a-pum-pum. I have never actually heard silver bells playing. I have never seen a red-nosed reindeer, nor Santa kissing mommy, nor have ever I seen Santa coming down Santa Claus Lane, wherever that is.

But I have sat there on Christmas day and asked myself: So this is Christmas, and Dan, what have you done with your life this year? Or more generally, I have asked myself: Here’s another year over, a new one almost begun, and where are we now? These are the questions that John Lennon and Yoko Ono ask in their song: So this is Christmas, and what have we done?

This was a rough year for many of us. The meltdown of global financial markets has left most of us feeling a little uncertain, has left most of us feeling a little more vulnerable. Some of us are out of work, or we are under-employed. Some of us are barely getting by, as the cost of food and health care keeps going up, while salaries and pensions are either staying the same or going down.

There’s the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has now dragged on for more than five years. This war is particularly discouraging now, because we all know how expensive it is. Here we are, barely getting by financially, and at the same time we are spending all this money to fund a war I don’t understand.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono provided a harmony part for their song with words that go: “War is over, if you want it, war is over now.” Wouldn’t it be great if the war would end just because we wanted it to end? I’m tempted to be very cynical and say: How typical of a song written by two products of the hippy culture of the 1960s; how typical of a song written in 1970, to think it would be that easy to end a war; or for that matter to think it would be that easy to end a global financial meltdown.

I’m tempted to be cynical, but that is the basic message of Christmas. We celebrate Christmas to commemorate the birth of one of the greatest religious teachers the world has ever known. And that religious teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, taught that it really is that easy. You only have to do two things: love the God of the Israelites with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Some of us may no longer feel the need to love the God of the Israelites, but we still love that which is greater than ourselves, something bigger than our own individuality. The second point needs no modification; we still love our neighbors as we ourselves would be loved. These two simple teachings are why we still remember Jesus today.

It really is that simple. If you truly love your neighbor as yourself, if you truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind, you will not do what Bernard Madoff did, and steal millions and millions of dollars from other people. If you truly love your neighbor as yourself, if you truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind, you will not start an unnecessary war.

So how do we get Bernard Madoff and the President and Congress to love their neighbors and themselves, and to love something greater than themselves with all their hearts and all their minds? What Jesus taught us was that we start by actually living out these principles in our own lives. That’s the hard part, because it’s hard to actually live your life so that you love your neighbor as you would like to be loved yourself; it’s hard to truly love something greater than yourself with all your heart and mind. But, Jesus taught, if you and I can live our lives like this, these principles will spread, and pretty soon more and more people will be living their lives this way, and eventually we will be living the Kingdom of God right here on earth, right now.

Some two thousand years after Jesus was born, we haven’t quite gotten there yet. We are still trying to nurture peace on earth and good will towards all beings. This is the hard part, and this is why we celebrate Christmas every year: to remind ourselves that we can have a good will towards all that wouldn’t allow hedge fund managers and bank presidents to rip us off — we can have peace on earth, here and now.

We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but we will. Someday, we will. Until then, until we have peace on earth here and now, may you enjoy Christmas in your own way — whether you get your joy in saying “Bah, humbug,” as I do; or get your joy from the wonder and beauty and love that Christmas can have.

Christmas Envy

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from the ancient story of Joseph, as it is told in the Torah. The Hebrew Joseph has been sold into slavery down in Egypt by his brothers, and though he had a kind master, after a time he was thrown into jail on unjust charges. Meanwhile, the rule of Egypt, Pharaoh, had a very unpleasant dream one night, and that’s where this reading picks up the story:

“In the morning, Pharaoh’s spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.

“Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.’

“Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘In my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke. I fell asleep a second time and I saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.’

“Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine. It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. The plenty will no longer be known in the land because of the famine that will follow, for it will be very grievous. And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.’

“The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants….”

The second reading is also from the Torah, from Exodus 20.17:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”


I have to tell you, Christmas is not one of my favorite holidays. You can probably guess why: it’s the commercialization of Christmas that I dislike. Here’s a holiday that started out as a celebration of the a celebration of the return of longer days after the winter solstice; then Christians turned the solstice celebration into a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; then in 17th C. Massachusetts, the Puritans banned Christmas and even made it illegal to celebrate the holiday; in the 19th C., Christmas got Victorianized into a sentimental holiday for families to celebrate together; and finally in the 20th C. Christmas got transmogrified yet again, this time into a holiday of excessive consumption.

If you recall the old medieval Christian list of the “seven deadly sins” — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride — it will be immediately apparent to you that Christmas today, in the 21st C., is a blatant glorification of envy. Christmas envy is the natural outcome of the ongoing evolution of the commercialization of Christmas. These days, we expect to give and to receive lavish gifts at Christmas. Even those who don’t celebrate Christmas find themselves getting sucked into the Frenzy of gift-giving and money-spending — atheists buy generic holiday gifts, Jews give Hanukkah presents, and pagans have solstice gifts. And if we don’t have the money to afford expensive gifts for all our near relations and close friends, we feel that we have somehow failed. Worse yet, if we don’t receive lots of fancy gifts — the latest laptop of video game, expensive clothing, exclusive perfume, whatever it is you long for — if we don’t receive expensive gifts, we feel somehow cheated.

I define this Christmas excess as a species of envy. It is covetousness. We covet what we don’t have. We covet what our neighbors do have — whether those neighbors are our actual flesh-and-blood neighbors, or the virtual neighbors that we see on television or in photographs in magazines or on the World Wide Web. Rather than coveting our neighbor’s spouse or ox or donkey, we covet our neighbor’s toys and gadgetry and lifestyle.

But you already know all this. We all know about Christmas envy. Every year, pundits and preachers rail against the commercialization of Christmas, and every year we ignore them. Envy it may be, but it’s also good fun. It’s fun to find just exactly the perfect gift for someone you love. It’s even more fun to watch that person as he or she opens that gift, to see his or her face light up with pleasure. And it’s fun to receive gifts; it’s fun to get cool things, of course, but it’s also fun to see what someone thinks is just the perfect gift for you, because it reveals something of their character, and it reveals something of how they understand their relationship to you.

So I will not join the preachers and pundits who tell us that we should stop giving gifts at this time of year. If you want to give Christmas gifts or Hanukkah gifts or solstice presents at this time of year, I say: Go for it! Moderation in all things, of course, so don’t go into debt, but if you find gift-giving to be fun, then why not have some fun.

And having said that, I want to turn to the old story of Joseph that is found in the book of Genesis, beginning at chapter 37, and really extending right through the end of the book of Genesis into the beginning of the book of Exodus. Te weekly Torah portion for the sabbath which comes during Hanukkah comes from the middle of the story about Joseph, and we heard part of that weekly Torah portion in the first reading this morning. But before I get to the first reading, let me remind you of the story of Joseph.

It all begins in the land of Canaan. This is the beginning of the story as it is told in the Torah:

“Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan…. At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers… And Joseph brought bad reports of them to his father. Now [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” [Genesis 37.1-4, the New Jewish Publication Society translation]

As you can see, envy lies at the beginning of this story. Joseph’s brothers are envious of his coat of many colors, a coat given to him by their father. Actually, his brothers are envious of the fact that their father loved Joseph better than any of them, but the coat serves as the symbol for the greater love their father bestowed on Joseph. And they are really annoyed when Joseph tells them about a dream he had one night, in which all his brothers and even his father and mother would wind up bowing down to him.

So what do Joseph’s brothers do? They attack him, tie him up, rip off his distinctive coat of many colors, and then they sell him to a passing caravan as a slave. Off went the caravan, taking Joseph with them. Joseph’s brothers smeared his coat with some blood, then off they went to tell their family that Joseph must have been devoured by wild animals. They may have been envious of Joseph, but I feel that was taking things a little too far: selling your brother into slavery just because you’re envious of him!

Fast forward a little bit, and we find Joseph, now a slave, taken to Egypt and sold to one Potiphar, who is the chief steward of Pharaoh, the king and ruler of all Egypt. Joseph prospers for a while, but then winds up getting thrown into prison on the basis of false testimony — of course, as a slave, we can be sure that Joseph was not allowed to testify in his own defense. So now Joseph is not only a slave, he is in prison: this is what his brother’s envy has done!

While Joseph is in prison, he gets something of a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. He manages to correctly interpret the dream of a fellow prisoner, and that prisoner is later pardoned by the Pharaoh, and returned to his old job as Pharaoh’s cupbearer. Well, one night, Pharaoh has a dream: In the dream, he sees seven beautiful cows come up out of the Nile River, the greatest river in Egypt, and the cows grazed contently in the grass along the river. Then seven scrawny, emaciated, sickly cows come up out of the Nile River, and they ate up all the beautiful cows. At that point, Pharaoh awakened. But he fell asleep and dreamed a second time: this time, he dreamed of seven plump ripe ears of grain that sprout, only to be swallowed up by seven thin, scrawny, misshapen ears of grain.

And this brings us to the second reading this morning. In the second reading, Pharaoh called all his magicians and other wise people, and asked them the meaning of these dreams. No one was able to figure out what these dreams meant. But Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered that Joseph could interpret dreams accurately, so Pharaoh brought Joseph up out of prison. Sure enough, with the help of the God of the Israelites, Joseph was able to correctly interpret Pharaoh’s dreams: there will be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Therefore, said Joseph to Pharaoh, during the seven years of plenty you must put aside enough grain that when the seven years of famine come you can feed all the people.

Pharaoh liked this idea — and that’s where the second reading left off. Pharaoh gave Joseph oversight over all food production, with the power to take surplus grain and store it in the Pharaoh’s granaries. By this point, some six or seven years had passed since Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers and sold into slavery. The seven years of prosperity came, just as in Joseph’s interpretation of the dream, and Joseph went out and bought up something more than a fifth of all the grain produced throughout Egypt. And then the seven years of famine came. The farmers produced very little grain. The Egyptians came to the Pharaoh’s granaries and bought grain from Joseph, the Pharaoh’s representative. The famine continued over the next few years, and when the people ran out of money, Joseph took their cattle in exchange for grain, and when they ran out of cattle, he accepted title to their land in exchange for grain. So it was that by the end of the seven years of famine, Pharaoh owned all the land and all the cattle in all of Egypt — thanks to Joseph’s good management.

The famine extended even as far as Canaan, where Josephs’ father Jacob and all his brothers still lived. Starving, Joseph’s brothers came to buy grain from Pharaoh. They didn’t recognize Joseph when they came before him to buy grain; and they did indeed bow down before Pharaoh’s representative, just as Joseph’s dream had predicted all those years ago.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that twenty-two years elapsed from Joseph’s first dream, the dream that predicted that his brothers would all bow down to him, to the moment when Joesph’s brothers actually did bow down to him in reality. Twenty-two years to wait for a dream to come true! Twenty-two years of kidnapping, enslavement, and imprisonment! Twenty-two years is a significant portion of a human lifespan. And based on this, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi tells us that that we ourselves can expect to wait as much as twenty-two years to fulfill our own dreams. [“Miketz,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Miketz&oldid=175158548 (accessed December 7, 2007).]

This is a good story to remember at this time of year; it is a good antidote to Christmas envy. Envy arises in part because we want something now; we see our neighbor’s ox or donkey or video game, and we want it now. Even if it’s completely impossible! Envy arises in part when we are hard on ourselves, when we set ridiculously high expectations for ourselves. It is easy to think that we must have perfect lives. And too often, “perfect” is defined for us by someone else; someone else defines perfect for us as we should all be living in a house in the suburbs with 2.5 children, 3 cars, a dog, and a lucrative career in business that allows us to buy fun electronic gadgets. Nor should we have to wait for this dream of perfection to be accomplished.

Or maybe perfect is defined like this: if you’re a man, “perfect” means you look like Matt Damon, and if you’re a woman “perfect” means you look like Lindsay Lohan, and if you’re transgender, or don’t have white skin, or are over 35, well you’re just out of luck and you can never be perfect. In other words, our society makes it impossible to be perfect, and too often we wind up striving for a kind of perfection that just doesn’t exist.

The story of Joseph reminds us that mostly life is not perfect at all. Our lives, just like Joseph’s life, our lives are full of setbacks and disasters and impediments, and our lives most certainly lack perfection. Yet like Joseph we have dreams, and our dreams might not be unreasonable. But Rabbi Joshua ben Levi reminds us that dreams can take decades to come true. And the story of Joseph reminds us that even if our dreams do come true, they may come true in ways that we could not have imagined. When Joseph first dreamt that his brothers would bow down to him, do you think could possibly have imagined how that would come true? — with Joseph working for Pharaoh, so that really his brothers weren’t bowing down to him at all, they were bowing down to this representative of the all-powerful Pharaoh.

If you want to go out and have the perfect Christmas, and spend thousands of dollars and get the perfect lavish gift for everyone on your list and host the perfect Christmas party in your suburban house with 2.5 children, I for one won’t stand in your way (especially if I’m one of the people for whom you will purchase the perfect lavish gift, and by the way I could use a new computer).

But I’m also here to tell you that it’s OK to lower your standards for Christmas, or Hanukkah or solstice or whatever you celebrate. You do not have to give the perfect gift to everyone — and if your children complain that they didn’t get very good gifts this year, feel free to do what a mom of my acquaintance did; when her son complained that he “didn’t get anything good this year,” she told him that if he didn’t want his gifts she would be happy to send them to someone who would appreciate them. You do not have to give the perfect gift to anyone, and you do not have to receive the perfect gift yourself. You do not have to send out Christmas cards (or the Hanukkah cards which I see in the stores these days) — it is perfectly fine to delay and send out Valentine’s Day cards instead. You do not have to decorate your house unless you feel like it. You do not have to attend parties unless you want to do so.

In fact, as your minister I will tell you that there are only two things you have to do to meet your complete religious obligations as a Unitarian Universalist at this time of year. You must give a gift to, or otherwise help, someone less fortunate than yourself; and you must take the time to light a candle and sit in silence watching it burn. If you want, you can meet both those religious obligations by coming to the Christmas eve candlelight service here on December 24, lighting a candle, and giving some money when we pass the collection plate for a charity. Or you can simply go home tonight and light a candle after sunset, and after the candle burns down write a check to the charity of your choice. Or whatever.

Everything else about this season is optional. If you want to go all out and celebrate madly, that’s fine. But this can be a stressful time of year, and you don’t need to be hard on yourself. Which means that you don’t need to envy anyone else’s gifts, or anyone else’s celebration.

So take it easy. And I really mean it about lighting that candle: it really is a religious obligation to sit quietly on a regular basis, even for a minute or two, and do nothing. Sitting quietly gives you a chance to put things in perspective, to reflect on dreams deferred, to understand that you and your soul are more important than whatever gadget your neighbor owns. It’s the sure cure of Christmas envy.

A Christmas Carol

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

The first half of the worship service consisted primarily of readings from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, abridged and adapted by Dan Harper; this book is in the public domain.


The opening words come from the opening of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner; Scrooge signed it. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye!”

But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.

Words for lighting a flame in the chalice:

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day — and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.

Scrooge had a very small fire in his counting-house, but his clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

Responsive Reading

A cheerful voice cried out:

“A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” This nephew of Scrooge’s had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? You’re rich enough.”

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

“Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

“What else can I be,” said Scrooge indignantly, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time,” returned the nephew, “when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

First reading

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed. The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change — not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

Up Scrooge went to his rooms, closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel.

His glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

“It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.”
His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Marley’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now….

Second reading

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” — Marley’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then?” said Scrooge, raising his voice. “You’re particular, for a shade.”

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are! Humbug, I tell you! humbug!”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

SERMON — A Christmas Carol

“It is required of every one of us,” says the Ghost to old Scrooge, that our spirits within ourselves should walk abroad among humanity, and travel far and wide. To travel far and wide does not mean that you must immediately head off to a far continent. However, sitting in your counting house counting all your money does not count towards such travel. What the Ghost is telling Scrooge (and us) is that our spirits must rove beyond the narrow limits of making money; or for that matter, spending it.

You all know this as well as I do. We hear this all the time during the Christmas season. We are reminded over and over that the importance of Christmas lies, not in the toys and gifts, not in how much money you spend, but in human contact, human relationships. The advertisements tell us this, and tell us that the gifts we buy are what will cement those human relationships. And I believe the advertisements.

Yes, our spirits must rove beyond the narrow limits of the counting house, the office, and the mall. And if we don’t let our spirits rove during our lives, says the Ghost, why then we’re condemned to do it after death. As an ultra-Universalist, I say there is no punishment after death; but I’m willing to accept the Ghost’s admonition as a good metaphor. When Scrooge first sees the Ghost of Marley, he notices the chain Marley wears about his middle: “It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” When Scrooge asks the Ghost about this chain, the Ghost replies: “I wear the chain I forged in life…. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?” At which Scrooge trembles, for he knows full well that he, too, is wound about with chains: chains which bind him to his cold, cheerless, circumscribed world. And even though we chuckle at Scrooge’s stubbornness, we who hear this story are left with an uncomfortable feeling as if perhaps there are chains bound about our own waists — terrible thought! — no wonder the doctor tells us we need to lose weight!

The Ghost of Marley gives Scrooge hope that he might be saved from the Ghost’s fate. Three Spirits will come and haunt Scrooge: one to show him the past, one to show him the present, and one to show him the future.

Scrooge falls asleep; the bell chimes the hour, and Scrooge awakens. The first of the three spirits comes, saying: “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.” Scrooge is whisked off to see to see how he spent past Christmasses. The Ghost takes him to see his boyhood home: “They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.” Like so many of us, Scrooge had had sadness and loneliness in his life, which he had conveniently forgotten. And the Ghost of Christmas Past brings him to see him at his first job, where his boss kept the fires burning brightly and warmly for Scrooge and the other workers, and stopped all work on Christmas Eve so that all might celebrate together. In those days, Scrooge had heartily celebrated Christmas; but then his thoughts had turned increasingly to money; and because money had meant so much to him, he had ended his engagement to a young woman: and so it was that he found himself old and alone, alone except for his money, alone except for his possessions.

You know how the story goes. The Ghost of Christmas Past departs; Scrooge falls asleep again, and is awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Present, a hearty, likable sort of Ghost, who takes Scrooge off on a journey to see how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas: not grouchily sitting alone, saying “Humbug!”; but celebrating in the company of others, and relishing the human contact. The Ghost of Christmas Present takes old Scrooge to see how his clerk, Bob Cratchit, celebrates Christmas; you wouldn’t think that a man so poor as Bob Cratchit could be merry at Christmas time, but he is, with his family gathered around him. Even Tiny Tim, Bob’s son who can’t walk without crutches, is merry at Christmas. And then off to see Scrooge’s nephew celebrating Christmas, and to hear the nephew’s assessment of his miserly old uncle: ” ‘He’s a comical old fellow,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, ‘that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.'” Indeed, Scrooge’s offences do carry their own punishment, here and now, in this life: for he is miserable, even though he doesn’t quite know it himself. Although the visits of the Ghost of Christmas are beginning to show himself how miserable he truly is.

Scrooge receives one more visitor, a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the grimmest and silentest and most frightening of all the Ghosts. Most frightening, because this ghost shows Scrooge how he will die, unmourned by all, dismissed with the phrase: “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?” Scrooge will die, and his house be plundered by common thieves as he lies dead on his deathbed, for he will have no one to look after him and care about him. Scrooge will die, and the only people who feel any emotion at his death are a young couple who rejoice because they owed Scrooge money and his death will buy them a little more time to pay off that debt.

You know the rest of the story. Scrooge awakens in the morning to find that it is Christmas Day — imagine that, all those visits by all those Ghosts had occurred in one short night! — and of course Scrooge has thoroughly reformed. He sends a giant Christmas turkey to Bob Cratchit, his clerk; he gives money to charity; he dines with his nephew; and the day after Christmas, he increases Bob Cratchit’s salary. And as the years go by, he becomes like a second father to little Tiny Tim.

Yet the funny thing is that we best remember Scrooge as he is before he reforms. We remember him as the mean, penurious, cranky old man who says, “Bah!” and “Humbug!” We remember Scrooge as the man who won’t let his clerk add even one tiny piece of coal to the fire in the office, even though it is frightfully cold. We remember Scrooge as the man who won’t give money to charity to help the poor, for after all that’s what the prisons and poor houses are for. We remember Scrooge as the man whom even loveable, forgiving Tiny Tim doesn’t like.

We get a delicious sense of enjoyment watching Scrooge in action, before he’s reformed. I think we feel that enjoyment because we have a sense that he’s in each of us. Oh yes, he is indeed. I myself take pride in being a “Scrooge,” and I enjoy saying “Bah! Humbug!” in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and I like to say that there is so much humbug in Christmas these days that it is easy to be a Scrooge. It’s fun being a Scrooge.

But there’s a deeper reason why we remember Scrooge best before he reforms. The reason is quite simply this: just like Scrooge, we all do like money. We would all like a comfortable life. Perhaps the only thing we despise in the unreformed Scrooge is his unwillingness to enjoy a little bit more of his money; although when you come right down to it, he gets plenty of enjoyment: he eats out at a restaurant every night of his life and he has a big huge house. Really, the unreformed Scrooge is no different than the typical American worker today: we work long hours, we take pride in working so hard that we can’t find time to do anything but eat, sleep, and work — and we do love our money. Yes we do. We are the wealthiest society on earth, and we like it that way, even if it means we have to put aside some of our humanity.

It might not be a bad idea to face up to our own ghosts: the ghosts of our past, both our individual pasts, and our shared past as the wealthiest country in the world; to face up to the true reality of our present; and to look ahead at what the future might hold for us if we keep on going on the way we’ve been going on. As a society, we are becoming more like the unreformed Scrooge every day: unforgiving, uncharitable, unpleasant, and even unkind. Let us not forget that we are at war on this holiday that supposedly proclaims peace on earth. Let us not forget that the numbers of the poor in our country, our wealthy country, have been growing by leaps and bounds. Let us not forget that money is worshipped above all else in our society.

I think Dickens’s story is best summed up when Scrooge’s nephew tells what Christmas should be: “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

To say this is to say, more simply, that at Christmas-time we really should try to remember the golden rule:– to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. How fitting that we try to live out this great ethical teaching on the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, who presented this wisdom of the ages to humanity once again. It was Jesus who put this great moral teaching into such a memorable form that we still quote his words. Except that while we quote his words, we also seem to need to be constantly reminded of them again and again — by people like Charles Dickens — and, well, by each other.

So here I stand on this day before Christmas, reminding us all of this again. Love the people around you; love all creation; allow yourself to be loved by others. That is the essence of Christmas; that is what lies at the core of our religious faith: Love humanity; love the people around you; love all creation; allow yourself to be loved.

Do this until it becomes a habit that continues beyond Christmas-time. Keep on doing that all the year ’round.