Balancing Acts

by Tom Beutel

Tidings of great joy

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  Luke 2:10-11 (NIV)

December 2 is the first Sunday of Advent this year. This is a special time of year for Christians and marks the beginning of the liturgical year for Western Christians. According to the Christian Resource Institute “The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent.” http://www.cresourcei.org/cyadvent.html.

Advent is a rich season with a long history dating to the 4th century when it was seen as a season of preparation prior to baptism on Epiphany. In these early days the season was similar to that of Lent  with the emphasis on prayer and fasting. More recently Advent is seen as a time of anticipation and joy as well as of penitance and reflection leading up to the observance of the birth of Christ.

For me it is the aspect of anticipation and joy that stands out during this season. I don’t mean to take away from the serious aspects of Advent. But it is the perhaps Dickensian view of Christmas as an irrepressible, overflowing spirit of love, good will, and joy so foundational to the birth of Jesus that stands out for me.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge, the main character, is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.”

Early in the story Scrooge is confronted by his cheerful nephew, Fred, full of the holiday spirit. Fred’s reply to his uncle’s, “Bah, humbug!” is “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—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.”

Fred recognizes first of all that Christmas is rooted in and inseparable from its origin in the birth of Jesus, but he extolls the Christmas season as one of good will, kindness, and generosity – a time of great joy!

As the story progresses, Scrooge is visited by three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Dickens’ depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present captures once again the overflowing joy and richness of Christmas, symbolic of God’s overflowing love in Jesus’ birth. As Scrooge enters the room in which the Ghost of Christmas Present has appeared, the scene that meets his eyes is remarkable for its overflowing abundance:

The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every    part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mightyblaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat,sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot  chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

Scrooge’s transformation by his encounters with the three spirits is complete. He “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” For Dickens, Christmas is a time of joy, abundance, and generosity. These things are inherent in God’s action on the first Christmas – the birth of His Son, the announcement by the angels, the gifts of the wise men.

As you celebrate Advent this year be sure to incorporate the aspect of the joy announced by the angels and inherent in our expectant anticipation. That Christ is born, Immanual, God with us, and will return to bring peace and justice to all people is a matter of great joy!

Author’s Note: In the October Balancing Acts there was an error in the first sentence. It stated that “there are 146 million Americans living in poverty.” The correct figure is 46 rather than 146, approximately 15%.

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