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December 24, 2017: “Christmas Eve Candle Service”

Invocation Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

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 winter: Foggy withal: and he could hear people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement-stones to warm them. 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 neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. …

The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, [Bob Cratchit] who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters.

Scrooge had a very small fire, but the 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; and so surely as the clerk came in with a shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle.

A Christmas Carol was published 174 years ago this week, just in time for Christmas, by Charles Dickens, an English Unitarian who at the time was perhaps the most famous and most celebrated author alive.

The book came at a time when Christmas was still a minor holiday in most of the world. It was just a hundred years after England’s Puritan-dominated parliament had banned celebration of the holiday, claiming it elevated the status of Jesus’ mother, and intermingled to liberally with Pagan traditions for the Solstice.

By 1843, workers were allowed one paid holiday per year, Christmas day, which they used to rest and east and make toasts for the health and well-being of their friends and family.

The book begins with Scrooge being visited by the ghost of his long-dead business partner, Jacob Marley, informing him that he would be visited by three spirits, who would turn his world upside down.

So tonight, on the eve of the day celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, the child who would grow up to change the world, we call on the spirit of Jacob Marley. Not the ghost of the fictional character, but spirit that calls on each of us to be changed by the lives of others, and the innocence of a little child.

Reading “The First of the Three Spirits,” Dickens Kristine Burkwood

The Ghost [of Christmas Past] stopped at a certain warehouse door, and asked Scrooge if he knew [the man inside]. …

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it’s Fezziwig, alive again!”

Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:

“Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!”

Scrooge’s former self, now grown a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-‘prentice…Dick Wilkins. …

“Yo ho, my boys!” said Fezziwig. “No more work tonight. Christmas Eve, Dick! Christmas Eve, Ebenezer! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say, Jack Robinson!”

You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the streets with the shutters … and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

In came a fiddler with a music book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned it like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook and the milkman, … and the boy from over the way who was suspected of not having enough board from his master.

In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came anyhow and everyhow. …

There were dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there were mince pies and plenty of beer. …

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two ‘prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.

Reading “The Second of the Three Spirits,” Dickens Bob Ross

“Somehow [little Tim] 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, he who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Bob’s voice grew tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.

His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool before the fire; and while Bob, turning up his cuffs … compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer; Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits, went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession. …

There was never such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eeked out by the applesause and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! …

[And] oh, what a wonderful pudding!

Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour, … but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. …

[After dinner] Bob proposed:

“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!”

Which the family re-echoed.

“God bless us, every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

He sat very close to his father’s side, upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

Reading The Last of the Spirits, Bree Byrd

“I wish you could have gone [today,” Bob said to his wife.] “It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you’ll see it often. I promised him that we would walk there on Sunday. My little, little child!” Cried Bob. “My little child!”

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

He left the room, and went upstairs to the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child’s body, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled again to what had happened, and went down again quite happy. …

“Spectre,” said Scrooge, “something informs me that our parting moment is at hand.” …

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come conveyed him, as before … [to] A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegitation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy Place! …

Scrooge crept toward the neglected grave, trembling as he went; and followed the finger [of the ghost], read upon the stone his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge. …

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh, no, no!”

The finger was still there.

“Spirit!” he cried, clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time, the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Sprit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The lessons of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away at the writing on this stone!”

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Homily (Rev Denis)

We all know – or at least I hope we all know – how A Christmas Carol ends. Scrooge is safe in his own rooms, and so happy he enthusiastically greets the saucepan he cooks his gruel in, the fireplace he warms his feet by, the knocker on the door through which the ghost of Jacob Marley arrived, and the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared. He sends the biggest turkey in the shops to the Cratchit family, before dressing in his finest. He dances off to church before dining with the nephew he turned away so gruffly just the day before.

Most significantly, he gives Bob Cratchit a raise, and promises to help the family, especially Tiny Tim, who grows up to treasure Scrooge as a second father.

Even if you’ve never read A Christmas Carol, even if you’ve never seen one of the many movies made of the story, you’ve seen one of the countless variations on it. It’s one of the most influential stories of the last couple hundred years, copied and written about almost as much as Shakespeare.

Even the 1946 classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart, which isn’t exactly a retelling of Dickens’ tale, borrows heavily from its themes and narrative modalities, and ends with the protagonist returning home to greet all of the things in his drafty old house that have always bothered him: the leaky roof, the drafty windows, and the annoying broken down newel post.

Both Stories, A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, were criticized in their time for being overly simplistic and cloyingly sentimental. Yet both are still loved.

Because sometimes, especially this time of year, simple stories are the most effective to draw us together and give us the inspiration we need to live through trying times.

They remind us of the universality of a young, scared woman finding her power in giving birth and starting a family.

The simple stories remind us of how people with the least to spare are often the ones who give the most, and arrive the earliest to help. 
The simple stories are illustrations of how strangers – foreigners – can share their wealth and wisdom and lend importance to a situation and make them more global.

Sometimes we need stories of tyrants, so threatened by the needs of regular folks that they will do anything to stop the rise of regular folk.

These are the universal themes of the story of Christmas, and like so many other Unitarians who came before him and after him, 
Dickens was a master at bringing these themes forward, so that the lessons of Christmas are not about the incarnation of God here on earth, but rather about our responsibility to care for one another, symbolized by the innocence of a baby who would grow up to be a man with the radical and mission of caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and journeying with the dispossessed.

Early in Scrooge’s story, before Bob Cratchit leaves for the night, a man knocks on the door and asks for a donation to, as he says, 
“make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessities; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”

Scrooge’s response, of course, is harsh. He asks about the state of government institutions like debtors prisons and workhouses, saying that he supports their existence through taxes, which are high enough.

Later on, after the Ghost of Christmas Present has taken him to see the suffering of the Cratchits and others, they come upon two children the Spirit calls “The Children of Man.” They are stale and shriveled as if by age, pinched and twisted in their raggedness, clinging to the Spirit in desperation. The boy is Ignorance. The Girl is Want.

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cries Scrooge.

“Are their no prisons?” asks the Spirit, repeating Scrooge’s own words. “Are their no workhouses?”

Scrooge is humbled. Horrified by his own crassness.

Nobody wants to be in Scrooge’s position, being reminded of the insensitive things we’ve said about others, based on our assumptions of their ethics or beliefs. Nobody wants to have to face those whose humanity we’ve denied by distancing ourselves from those in need: the sick, the hungry, the dispossessed. The refugee. The foreigner. All those we label “Other.”

But thanks to A Christmas Carol and other tales of Christmas Past, Present and Future, we can live through Scrooge and generations of Scrooge-like characters, learning from their mistakes, and practicing the ways of charity, here, now, and in the years to come.

Scrooge challenges us to be our best selves, our most charitable and joyous selves. To love mercy. To do justly. And to walk humbly with the teacher whose birth is celebrated tonight.