Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Window of Hope

Everyone, I suppose, has his or her favorite Christmas movie. One of my all-time favorites – second only perhaps to the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street – is the 1951 British film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Some 45 years ago, I played Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas pageant. Everything went well until the scene in the cemetery, when having been confronted by my future, I threw myself on my tombstone in repentant sobbing. The only problem was that, since the gravestone was made of cardboard, it went flying off the stage and into the unsuspecting audience.

Now the three spirits who visit Mr. Scrooge in Dickens’ story are intended as vehicles to move the story along, to force Scrooge to confront the reality of his own past (which he cannot change, but with which he must come to terms), the present (to which he must respond, one way or the other), and the future (which will inevitably be shaped by both the past and the present). And the measure of Scrooge’s transformation is not how loudly he sobs but how fully in fact he comes to terms with his past and responds differently to what he experiences in the present, so he can face the future through a window of hope instead of fear.

The story of Nathan the Prophet’s message to David, God’s favorite king, in today’s 1st reading [2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16] and the familiar story of the Annunciation in the Gospel [Luke 1:26-38], together with Dickens’ classic Christmas story all concern the drama of God’s becoming one with us in this world. The Old Testament story treats it as prophecy. The Gospel recounts the event of the incarnation itself, while Dickens deals with its meaning and consequences for us as we negotiate life in our world. For what we celebrate at Christmas concerns the involvement of God himself, not just in some faraway temple somewhere, but at the heart of human life. What we call the incarnation means that God has joined up with us and is to be found nowhere else.

Scrooge’s 3 spirits were just visions, of course. But what they showed him – about himself and about the world – was very real. There is no reason to suppose it was easy or automatic for Scrooge to make the changes in his life that Dickens tells us he did. Or that the world changed much as a result. In one sarcastic sequel done in the 1990s (and reflecting the greedy, runaway capitalist ethos of recent decades), Tiny Tim, having been cured thanks to Scrooge’s generosity, grows up to be thoroughly obnoxious. Good deeds don’t always produce the desired right results. (King David’s heirs and successors didn’t all do so well either!)

No, there is nothing automatic about the change that Christmas calls for in us. What Christmas does do, however, is make change make sense. In a world which seems so lacking in sense, Christmas becomes the window through which we can see an alternative – the mystery, as St. Paul puts it in today’s 2nd reading [Romans 16:25-27] kept secret for long ages but now manifested, in this world of which Christ has become a part.

Several years ago, a visitor from the Far East, who had had no significant prior experience of Christianity, after observing New York all lit up for Christmas and all the holiday displays, commented, “You mean all this is because Jesus was born? What a great thing for you that you have Jesus!"

Christmas season sentimentality sometimes makes it seem as if a little Christmas cheer were all the world needs to become a better place. Of course, we know better. But what we should also know, as Christians, is that Christmas is the window of hope that replaces fear and makes it sensible to imagine something more. If only we realized what a great thing we really have in Jesus!

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 18, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment