When it comes to Christmas stories, surely the master story-teller of them all was Charles Dickens. There cannot be a person here this evening who has not enjoyed the tale A Christmas Carol, either by reading the story, or else by watching one of more of the excellent, and sometimes not-so-excellent, screen versions. And from the first “Bah! Humbug!” to the final “God bless us every one!” we are carried along in a seasonal spirit that clearly meant a great deal to Dickens.
Whereas A Christmas Carol enjoys fame and popularity, we forget that Dickens wrote five novellas about Christmas, and dozens of shorter stories about the spirit of Christmas. And each one using a variety of images and scenes and characters re-presents what was so important to Dickens - the importance of qualities like gratitude, sincerity, human kindness and forgiveness. Which, in his opinion, came most strongly at Christmas, for it was, in his own words, the “most perfect day of the year.”
And is that true? Is it the case? Or to bring it down to personal expectations, how perfect will your Christmas be this year?
We have come a long way since the writings of Charles Dickens, and not necessarily in the right direction. For the concept of a “perfect Christmas” preoccupies so much of our designer society that it obscures so much of what is really happening at this time of the year.
It is a very powerful concept that we have been sold. And it becomes a goal, and objective or at least a hope that our Christmas will be perfect. And Christmas becomes less about becoming a better human being, and more about:
The breeze with snow and mistletoe,
The presents under the tree,
A Ginger Bread riding on a sled,
It’s the perfect Christmas to me.
Surely, you, also listen to the Cheetah Girls?! (You know, having a teenage daughter does give me the edge…)
Of course it’s all shallow, marketing humbug, and it needs to be set against the realities of life, and then against the Christmas story as the Gospel writers present it.
Because no amount of material perfection can dispute the fact that for many people this Christmas will be shrouded in imperfection. Those who grieve, or else have to spend Christmas away from those whom they love; those face illness and despair; those who are without gainful employment, or who are in debt; those who face danger in keeping the peace, both in foreign lands and on the streets of some of our cities. The homeless and the hungry.
How perfect will their Christmas be this year?
Yet when we read the Christmas narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke it becomes immediately apparent that the first Christmas was imperfect in so many ways. An unwanted and dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman authorities told them they had to go there; and that journey made by a woman about to give birth. A lack of accommodation in Bethlehem. The ignominy of a stable being the only shelter, and the new-born baby being laid, not in a cozy crib but in an animal feeding trough.
How perfect was that Christmas?
The stories of the birth of Christ echo the imperfections of worldly life, but the teaching that reaches out to us from those stories has the power to lift us above the cares of life, and presents us with a divine purpose.
That purpose states that Christmas is not about Christ coming to us when all is well, when life is good, when the future is clear and we live in peace. Christmas is also about Christ coming to us in our failings, our struggles, our disappointments, and in the mess that, as human beings, we are very good at creating for ourselves and other people.
He comes to us – and finds us as we are. In life! Real life, not that portrayed by a shiny advertisement.
In our joy and our sorrow.
Our laughter and our tears.
Our contentment and our frustration.
He comes to us. He is Emmanuel. God with us. How absolutely perfect!
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!