One of my favorite stories is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. If you are not familiar with the story, you can either read it or watch one of several movies based upon the book. I have enjoyed several of them over the years. I watched the version starring Patrick Stewart this evening. Other versions have starred Vincent Price, Henry Winkler, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Barbie (the doll), The Muppets, Kelsey Grammer, Jim Carrey, Mickey Mouse, Thomas The Train, Albert Finney, Mr. Magoo, Tori Spelling, The Flintstones, The Smurfs, and others. Television shows have included episodes based upon the story and stage productions have been produced.
Other stories have been derived from this Dickens tale. It’s A Wonderful Life first starred James Stewart in 1946 and was remade with Marlo Thomas in 1977. A stage version has been produced and various television shows have included episodes based upon It’s A Wonderful Life.
Each year during the Christmas or Advent season, the movie and television versions of A Christmas Carol are broadcast. Every year it seems at least one television show will produce a new version of the story. Every few years, there seems to be a new movie produced.
Many beautiful Christmas carols have been written in many languages over the centuries. We hear them usually during the months of November and December each year. O, Holy Night and Go Tell It On The Mountain are two of my favorites. I heard both of them at church tonight. Since I attended multiple services, I heard O, Holy Night by two different singers.
The various religious carols tend to praise the arrival of Jesus in our world. Up until this year, I thought of Easter as being more important than Christmas. There have been times that I thought of Christmas as being an almost frivolous and unnecessary celebration.
This year, I decided to study it in greater detail and learn the history and the original meaning of Christmas. The sermon at our services tonight contained the question, “Where are you?” For me, the questions were, “Where did Christmas come from?” and “Why do we celebrate it?”
I found there was much more to Christmas than just the birth story of Jesus. I will try to briefly explain the answers I found for the two latter questions.
First, it is necessary to recognize that Jesus was born a Hebrew and was born into a part of what could have been called “Israel” or the Hebrew nation at the time of the Roman emperor Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Israel had been conquered repeatedly for hundreds of years by the various powers that built empires in and around what is now called the Middle East. Augustus reigned from 27 BC through 14 AD. Augustus was credited with ending many years of wars and civil war that caused great hardship for the Roman world. His reign brought an end to the civil war and established relative peace for many years. As a result, Augustus was said to have brought peace to the world or “peace on earth”.
There are other similarities to be found in the stories of Augustus and Jesus. Augustus and subsequent Roman emperors took on titles such as son of a god, Divine Augustus, Messiah, and Savior. The Roman senate named Augustus as an official god. A comet appeared in the sky as Augustus was taking power and was believed to be the soul of Julius Caesar, father of Augustus, taking his place among the gods. A prominent Roman swore a public oath that he saw Augustus rise into the sky when he died. A story was told of an attempt to kill Augustus as a young child as a massacre of the innocents. Gospel or “good news” was also applied to the rule of Augustus.
The most famous and popular orators and writers of the time in the empire were enlisted to write and speak about the emperors, particularly Augustus in the terms described above. Stories were told of Augustus being the son of the god Apollo (the god of light) and a virgin mother. Augustus was said to have been born in a poor, rural setting. The stories were spread everywhere as part of an attempt to popularize the emperors and to unify the empire.
Much of this information can be found in The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Crossan. Being skeptical of most things, I consulted other sources to verify the information and found it to be accurate.
In the end, I found that the birth stories were written to counter or even top the stories about Augustus. The early Christians and the writers of the New Testament were telling the world that Jesus was greater and more important than even Caesar. And, the most imporant difference between Jesus and the caesars was that while Caesar would bring peace by conquering the world by force, Jesus would do it with love and compassion.
It is not important whether or not you believe the birth stories to be factual. The stories were written with a lesson and that lesson is what is true. Caesar did not point the way to God. Jesus pointed the way. Violence and politics are not the way. It is the love given by God and portrayed by Jesus that saves the world. Jesus points the way to the justice of God.
Returning to Christmas carols and in particular, A Christmas Carol, we can find Jesus’s message in that book.
Charles Dickens wrote the original book in 1843. The Industrial Revolution was well underway. Millions of people in Europe and the United States had moved from living on farms to living in cities. Machines were multiplying the amount of work an individual worker could do. Mass production of many goods became commonplace and food production was becoming more efficient. This meant fewer people were necessary for work in virtually all aspects of society. The result was an oversupply of labor so wages were low. Although wages were low, Dickens noted that there was a great concentration of wealth. The hope was that the story would encourage those with the great wealth to find more ways to share the wealth and improve the lives of many more in the population.
Scrooge says to the ghost of his dead former business partner, Jacob Marley, “But why do spirits roam the earth, and why do they come to me?” The ghost answers, “It is required of every man that the spirit within him walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forward in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is condemned to wander through the world…and witness what it cannot share, but what it might have shared, and turned to happiness!”
Marley then reminds Scrooge that when he was alive, he never allowed his spirit to wander far from the business of making money and that Scrooge has continued on that path. When Scrooge tells the ghost that he was always a good man of business, the ghost replies, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Near the end of the story, two children appear. They are named Ignorance and Want. Dickens warns that they represent danger to the world. The most dangerous is Ignorance since it represents the ignorance of those who have plenty. It is the ignorance of the plight of those around them who do not have enough resources and thus, Want, for a healthy life.
When someone suggests to Scrooge that he could do more to help the poor live better, Scrooge asks if there are no prisons and workhouses for the poor and goes so far as to suggest that if the sick and poor would die, it would eliminate the surplus population.
Think of A Christmas Carol. Think of the story of Jesus. Then, think of where we are today with a large part of the world’s wealth concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of people and a very large and growing number of people working at extremely low wages just to live. Do we share enough? Does there come a point when a person is not entitled to everything that they are able to accumulate?
As Tiny Tim says in A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, every one!”