A favorite Christmas story of mine—and of pretty much everybody else’s—is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Since I was a boy, I have enjoyed different dramatizations of Dickens’ tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge, but a few years ago I actually read the book for the first time.
While reading the story, I was struck by a conversation Ebenezer Scrooge witnesses during his visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. The conversation takes place between Scrooge’s younger self and a young lady who at the time was his fiancée. During the course of their conversation, it becomes clear that Scrooge once loved this young woman, but that he has changed during the time of their courtship. It is also clear that he is on his way to becoming the cruel and miserly old man we see at the beginning of the story.
What I found especially interesting is that Scrooge’s fiancée reveals to us the reason Scrooge turns so bad. It’s not that he is simply greedy and mean-spirited. Instead, she tells him that he has come to idolize money because of his great fear. She says to him:
“You fear the world too much…All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”
This insight into Scrooge’s character makes it a little bit harder to throw stones at him for being such a miserable human being. I would be shocked if there is a person among us who has never known fear, or who has never acted badly out of fear. I am certainly not that person.
We may fear different things, but we all know what it is like to be afraid. Some of us fear people who are more powerful than us. Many of us fear violence in a world that confronts us with acts of terrible violence on a daily basis. Almost all of us fear sickness and disease. We fear job loss and poverty. We fear the deaths of loved ones, and we fear our own deaths. And some of us are just extra-fearful by nature and face all kinds of daily anxieties that are very real even if other people do not understand them.
It has become a bit of a thing in recent years to say, “It’s all good” or “No worries.” People mean well when they say these things, but the truth about life in this world is that it is not all good, and it is natural to worry.
I say “natural” very deliberately, because what we celebrate at Christmas is the definitive joining of the natural with the supernatural. When we look at the Christ Child in the manger, we are looking at the Son of God, Who has become human precisely in order to offer us the gifts of supernatural hope, life, grace, power, and peace.
One of my favorite lines in any Christmas carol comes from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Our hopes and fears are “met” at the manger that holds the Baby Jesus. They are “met” wherever we celebrate Christmas Mass, where Jesus becomes present in the Holy Eucharist.
One essential effect of Christmas is that we become able to lay our fears down at the feet of Christ and say a wholehearted “yes” to the hope He offers us.
It is striking that one of the phrases repeated throughout the Christmas story in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid.” We heard the angel tell Joseph not to be afraid in Matthew 1:20. Remember that the Archangel Gabriel had also told Mary not to be afraid when he told her she would become the Mother of God. In the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we read that when the angels appeared to the shepherds, they were “struck with great fear,” and the angels told them not to be afraid.
There is a message for us here. It is not easy to let go of our fears, but with Jesus we can do what would be impossible for us to do on our own. He comes to give us hope, especially hope for eternal life with God in heaven. And He comes to give us peace. He is the Prince of Peace.
It sounds like a cliché to say that we should treasure these gifts more than anything we are going to unwrap this Christmas. But it is the absolute truth. And if we do not treasure them, we risk losing them.
Hope and peace are the gifts of God, but they require a response from us. And that response has at least these four parts to it:
First, we need to draw near to Christ, in the manger and in Holy Communion. In neither case does He force Himself on us. He is always there for us, but He wants us to choose to come close to Him. To choose separation from Jesus is to choose death, even eternal death. Every Christmas is an opportunity to choose life in and with Him.
Second, we need to obey the commandment to love God and neighbor. To the extent that our hearts are filled with fear, it becomes impossible to love. True love is extremely challenging, and it is not about perfectly controlling our feelings all the time. It is about choosing to love God and other people, even when we’re not “feeling it.”
Third, we need to share Christ with others. That is the most important way we love them. There is no better gift parents can give their children, friends or family members or even strangers can give each other, than to share Christ with them by word and example. We live in a world that is becoming more and more paralyzed by fear, and there is no other cure than Jesus Christ and the Gift of His Holy Spirit.
Finally, we need to do at all times what the angels told the shepherds to do, to give glory to God in the highest. We need to praise Him, worship Him, pray to Him, and thank Him for His gifts to us. We can be so rotten to God when we ignore Him, when we spend our lives doing everything but praying to Him, and when we forget to be grateful. But there is still time to change. Now is the time to change!
Notice that the end of the first line of the Gloria tells us that there will be “peace on earth to people of good will.” Peace is a gift, but it requires a choice to be people of good will.
May all of us in the community of Sacred Heart Major Seminary make that choice and do so wholeheartedly. May we keep on choosing Christ every day. And in so doing, may our hearts be filled with the hope and peace of Christmas throughout the year to come.