Saturday, 24 December 2011

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.

"And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light arise in darkness and thine obscurity be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide thee continually and satisfy thy soul." Isaiah 58:10-11

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens is a personal favourite of mine, and of many other people too. I enjoy reading it each year, and watching the many versions of it on television or dvd, including it has to be said, the wonderful 'Muppet Christmas Carol'. To me the story encapsulates the very essence of Christian faith, especially as understood by Unitarians. So profound are the teachings of this great faith that we, even now after two millennia, pause once a year to remember and celebrate the birth of its originator, Jesus of Nazareth.

To me the fundamentals of the Nazarene's teachings are:

Love of God,
Love of Humankind

Most of Charles Dickens' writings are rich with themes that explore these fundamentals, and 'A Christmas Carol' is perhaps the richest.

During one very beautiful exchange in the book, Scrooge's nephew while seeking to persuade his uncle of the merits of the Christmas season, and the values it embodies so eloquently deliverers a most moving of speeches:

"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 around - 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 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!"

It took the visit of three spirits, four if you include the ghost of Marley to make Scrooge agree with the above passage, turn his life around, and for him always to keep at the forefront of his mind the advice, given by Marley, advice that is a relevant now as when it was written:

"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, where, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."

We may not be as miserly and bitter as Ebenezer Scrooge was before his apparitional visitations. However, many of us can perhaps identify areas of our lives or relationships where we may profoundly lack either the love of God, or the love of our neighbour that a true love of God should engender. Do we put our needs and desires ahead of all else, or do we recognise that we share this world with countless others and an existence with the Ultimate Existence? Are we like the biblical Joseph before his descent to Egyptian slavery and imprisonment saying to others "Hear I pray you this dream which I have dreamed" or do we, also like Joseph, shortly before his assent to greatness say to others about their dreams "tell it me, I pray you".

Whatever our failings we can have hope in the Good News that Jesus' brought, that change is possible, that goodness is within our grasp, and that like Scrooge we can turn away from the negativity in our lives and reach out and take hold of that which is our true life.

One man who honoured Christmas and the message that the babe in the manger would bring to the world was the cobbler and worshipper at the High Street Unitarian Chapel in old Portsmouth, John Pounds. I heard the following reading by R E Jayne, at our chapel's carol service this evening and it spoke deeply to me therefore I would like to share it:

"John Pounds always celebrated Christmas with a feast, humble in its dishes, but lavish beyond words in its spirit of love and goodwill, at which all his neighbours were welcome. He was a famous cook, but most famous as maker of Christmas puddings. Every year he would make one tremendous plum pudding; and then on Christmas day he kept open house; anyone who cared to look in could have a taste of the pudding until it had all gone. No jovial baron of olden times, or generous hearted lord of the manor, ever dispensed Christmas fare to the people on his estate with greater goodwill than this poor cobbler, when he cut and handed round to his visitors their slices of his only plum pudding. As Charles Dickens said of the converted miser Scrooge, so it may be recorded of John Pounds. "He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." He did not commemorate the birth of Christ in selfishness, but in a 'a more excellent way,' by feeding the hungry who were poorer even than himself, and by bringing happiness and laughter into the lives of the people, and especially the little children of the squalid streets and alleys of old Portsmouth."

At this time of year when lights of rededication to ancient faith blaze in the windows of those observing Hanukkah, and the sounds of carols telling the story of that humble stable in little Bethlehem all those years ago drift on the evening breeze, there is a palpable magic in the air that can remind us to re-commit to our true treasure, our true gifts, and that hopefully will inspire us to share it with others now and in the year to come.

May God bless you all, and may your Christmases be filled with happiness, health and holiness.