Christmas Greetings from Charles Dickens

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's been a busy Christmas season, so I decided to let someone else do the writing this time. Charles Dickens volunteered, but I agreed to introduce his passages.

Near the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's nephew visits Scrooge's office to invite him over for Christmas. The conversation ends this way.
"Nephew!" returned the uncle, sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!"
"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew. "But you don't keep it."
"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrooge. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew: "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round--apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that--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 creature 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!"
In this scene, Marley's ghost has come to visit Scrooge, and Marley is grieving over his lost opportunities.
"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?"
After returning from church on Christmas Day, Bob Cratchit reports on Tiny Tim's behavior during the service.
"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
And the book ends with Dickens' (and my) wish for you.
[Scrooge] knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!
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The drawing at the head of this post is "Mr. Fezziwig's Ball" by John Leech. It was one of the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol.

No Room in the Inn

Monday, December 20, 2010

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she
gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed
him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:6-7 (NIV)

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken several days, and Mary must have been exhausted by the time she reached Bethlehem. Surely she longed to rest and to give birth in private. But there was no room in the inn.

On December 24, 1957, I traveled to Bethlehem from Amman, Jordan with my parents and my two brothers. We did not have reservations for the night, and the hostel we usually stayed at in Jerusalem had been booked up for months. But my father must have been confident that he could find something after we got to Bethlehem.

It was raining when we arrived in Bethlehem, and we were wet and cold by the time we reached the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth. (That's the Church of the Nativity at the head of this post.) Although we were out of the rain inside the unheated church, the cold and damp penetrated its walls, and we could not get warm.

Then we went down into the crypt--the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. And down in that small cave, with lamps burning brightly and a continuous stream of people walking through, the warmth was all around us.

No one knows what the weather was like when Mary and Joseph arrived at the stable, but any woman who has carried a baby into the third trimester can tell you that Mary would have been very tired. The stable may not have seemed like much, but she was probably grateful for it. The stable would have given Mary a place to rest and to give birth in private, and the animals would have provided warmth with their body heat.

Jesus came to that humble stable to give us salvation through his death on the cross. But he also came to give us rest from our burdens and to surround us with the warmth of his love.

On December 24, 1957, there were so many people wanting to see the crypt that the caretakers had to tell them to keep moving. Yet they let us stay in the crypt, sitting on a ledge out of the way of the crowd, while my father went to find a room for the night. The caretakers had compassion for a mother with three children between the ages of four and eight.

The innkeeper did not have an empty room, but he allowed Mary and Joseph to stay in his stable. The innkeeper had compassion for an obviously pregnant Mary.

Jesus had compassion on us all when he came to earth as a baby so he could suffer and die a cruel death on the cross. He gave up a heavenly throne to be born in the humblest circumstances imaginable. And he did it all for us.

To my tired six-year-old mind, it seemed like we stayed in the crypt all night waiting for my father. According to my parents, however, it was only one or two hours before my father returned with news that he had found a hotel room in Beit Jala, several miles away.

The hotel room in Beit Jala gave us a place to stay for the rest of the night, but we were not comfortable there. The room was damp and cold, with no heat, and we slept with our clothes on.

This world gives us a temporary place to stay, but we should not get too comfortable here. One day God will give us an eternal home if we believe in him through faith. In our Father's house we will never be tired or damp or cold, and we will find a room already waiting for us.

Have a blessed Christmas.

* * * * *

I previously published this article in The Lutheran Witness, Vol. 123 (December 2004).

Santa Worships Him

Monday, December 13, 2010

When my children were young, I bought a book about the kneeling Santa. I no longer have the book and don't remember the entire story, but it ends with Santa on his knees at the manger, worshiping Jesus.

Even though it's just a story, it isn't far from the truth. That's because Santa Claus is modeled after St. Nicholas of Bari, who was a dedicated follower of Christ.

St. Nicholas was the Mother Theresa of his day. Born in the third century, he had wealthy parents who were devout Christians and raised their son to be one, too. Nicholas inherited their wealth after they died in an epidemic, and he used his inheritance to help the needy. Apparently he gave most of his money away anonymously, showing that he wasn't motivated by a desire for fame or adulation. No, he simply wanted to follow Christ's admonition to take care of the poor.

There is a great story about him that may even be true. It goes something like this.
A poor man had three daughters of marriageable age. Since he had no money for dowries to buy husbands with, the girls' future looked bleak--either sold as slaves or turned out to walk the streets in a different kind of slavery.
Hearing of their plight, Nicholas snuck up to the house one night and tossed a bag of gold through the open window. Legend says the gold landed in a stocking drying by the fire or in a shoe. Now that the man had enough money for one dowry, the first daughter married.
Nicholas appeared under cover of darkness a second time, found the window open again, and threw in another bag of gold. And a second daughter wed.
By now, the father had a clue that it might happen again, so he waited up to find out who was helping them. When Nicholas threw the third bag of gold into the house, the father chased after him and caught him. Nicholas asked the father to keep his identity a secret, but somebody told, or how would we know the story?
St. Nicholas was more than just a generous man, however. He was a great Christian as well.

Nicholas was one of the few people who became a bishop without first being a priest. Living in a time of persecution, he was imprisoned for standing up for his faith. And Bishop Nicholas must have been well-respected within the Christian community, because he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. (For those of you who aren't up on church history, that was where they adopted the Nicene Creed. That creed is still widely accepted and used by Christians all over the world.)

So if Santa Claus visits your house this year, remember that he worshiped Jesus, too.

* * * * *

The painting at the beginning of this post is "Saint Nicholas of Bari" by Gherardo Stamina, circa 1422. The physical painting is in the El Paso Museum of Art in El Paso, Texas.

Oh Tannenbaum

Monday, December 6, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court treats the Christmas tree as a secular symbol,* and that's what it is to many people. I'm certainly not going to take the opposite legal position: better to retain the "secular" Christmas tree than to have no Christmas symbols at all.

But we know better.

Although the Christmas tree has pagen roots, it has been a symbol of Christianity since at least the 1500s. The tradition appears to have gotten its start in or around Germany and was brought to the United States by German immigrants in the 1800s. (Some sources place its U.S. debut even earlier, crediting Hessian soldiers with introducing the Christmas tree during the American Revolution.)

So what is the religious symbolism?
  • Using a tree to celebrate Jesus' birth reminds us of this death on another tree.
  • Choosing a plant that is ever green reminds us that Christ lives eternally, and so will we if we believe in Him.
  • The top of the evergreen tree points toward heaven.
The lights on the tree also have Christian implications.
  • They shine like the star that shown over Bethlehem on the first Christmas.
  • And they honor Christ, who is the light of the world.
Is the Christmas tree a secular symbol? For some. But as you decorate your tree this year, I pray you will celebrate the One who is the reason for the season.

* County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).