Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.
A homily for Christmas Eve
Christmas is an interesting holiday for Unitarian Universalists. Those of us who relate to the Unitarian side of our heritage don’t believe in the trinity, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus is God. And those of us who relate to the Universalist side of our heritage don’t believe in original sin and eternal damnation, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus came to save us from our sin. We honor Jesus of Nazareth, and we take seriously all of his teachings. As a result of our religious outlook, we don’t expect Jesus to solve all of humanity’s problems; instead, we feel it’s up to us to get ourselves out of the messes that we’ve created.
With this in mind, I’d like to talk with you about Ebeneezer Scrooge, whom we met in a reading earlier today. The character of Scrooge comes from the book “A Christmas Carol,” written by the novelist Charles Dickens in 1843. This has been a hugely influential book, one of the most important contributions to our contemporary Christmas mythos. Indeed, Scrooge is one of the reasons why we now think of Christmas as a time to help those who are less fortunate than we are.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens was a Unitarian. Although on paper he remained a member of the Church of England all his life, his moral and religious convictions brought him to Unitarianism as an adult, and that’s where he found his religious home. I suspect he was drawn to the Unitarian commitment to get heaven into Earth while we’re still alive, rather than waiting until we die to get into heaven. Dickens was always concerned with making the world better in the here and now, especially for the poor and the downtrodden.
In the book “A Christmas Carol,” Ebeneezer Scrooge starts out as someone who doesn’t worry much about getting into heaven after he dies, nor does he worry much about getting heaven into Earth while he’s alive. He’s only concerned with making lots and lots of money. In that concern, he was a product of his times. Just as with our world today, making money was the highest value in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s world.
Yet I find myself sympathizing with Scrooge. There have been times when someone has wished me a “Merry Christmas” when they really didn’t mean it, and I have wished that person boiled in their own pudding. I also sympathize with Scrooge’s condemnation of Christmas as “humbug.” I think that condemnation is especially poignant this year, when, instead of a Christmas of peace on earth and good will to all, we are faced with war in Ukraine backed by the Russian Orthodox church, who claim to be followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And I have a hard time with the commercialization of Christmas — it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that American consumers spend something like a trillion dollars during the Christmas holiday season. “Bah, humbug,” indeed. This year I was sorely tempted to get one of those red Santa hats with “Bah, humbug” embroidered in the fuzzy white part.
No wonder, then, that we might feel some sympathy for Ebeneezer Scrooge. Yet by the end of the story, Scrooge comes to the realization that Christmas does not have to be a humbug. Christmas can become a humbug, if we let it; sadly, it often is a humbug. Christmas can also be, in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, “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 so it is that in the end, Scrooge understand that he has the power to make Christmas something more than a humbug. He has the power to reach out to other people; to help other people; and ultimately to love and to be loved in return.
On Christmas morning, Scrooge begins his transformation by reaching out to the people to whom he feels the closest. He has no family of his own any more; that’s part of Scrooge’s tragedy, and part of the reason he had become so crabbed and loveless. But he can go to eat Christmas dinner with his nephew Fred, and when he does that, he finds that love has begun to enter his life again. The day after Christmas, he raises the salary of his employee Bob Cratchit, and again he finds that this does as much good for his soul as it does for Bob Cratchitt’s pocketbook. Scrooge then goes on to become a second father to Bob Cratchitt’s son Tiny Tim, which does even more good for his soul.
This is how the Unitarian Charles Dickens understood Christmas. For Dickens, as for most Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, Christmas doesn’t have much to do with sin and salvation. Instead, it has to do with trying to create a heaven here on earth, preferably in our own lifetimes. We start by finding a source of love in our own hearts. We next try to extend that love to family and friends and chosen family, spending time with them, and doing the best we can to get along as peaceably as possible with those whom we love. After that, if we can, we might spread love out to our neighborhood, or even the wider world.
But it’s enough at Christmastime to start as Scrooge did, by finding love within your own heart, and then by doing your best to live out that love with those closest to you. If your heart feels shut up, open it. When you see other people, think of them, not as an alien race, but as fellow-passengers on the journey of life. And if we can make Christmastime a kind, forgiving, charitable time of year — perhaps we can make the rest of the year kind and forgiving and charitable as well. Perhaps, as Jesus of Nazareth claimed, we really can create heaven here on earth.