What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!” (― Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol)
Obviously, Christmas means different things to different people. For Ebenezer Scrooge, material wealth was the measure of man’s life and success. Since Christmas seemed to Scrooge to remove money from a man’s pocket, through gift-buying and charitable giving, rather than adding to his wealth, it was all a humbug, a costly waste of time. But Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who prioritized people over material gain, took a different view:
“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 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 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!” (Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew Fred in Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
Here, the nephew asserts that Christmas – even aside from its sacred origin – is a good, kind, forgiving, charitable, and generally pleasant time, which makes its celebration worthwhile.
In Fred’s response, Dickens gives the nod to the essential sacred origin of the celebration, “…apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin….” But while Dickens does acknowledge the Christ in the Christmas Story, Dicken’s tale is far more concerned with human good works and interaction than with any thought to the real GIFT of Christmas – God’s gift to humanity of forgiveness, based not on our good works, but on God’s grace.
Unlike Joy, I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. This celebration was about “stuff” – material gifts for my family and me. Sure, we watched “Miracle on 34th Street,” the fight for Santa Claus, and other secular stories about Christmas, Santa, Rudolph, et al., but the child in the manger was pretty much absent. We enjoyed the lessons in the life of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the angel, Clarence, who was an angel trying to earn his wings. It is a delightful “Christmas tale,” but it is not a Christian tale. The Christian faith is not about human goodness but God’s overwhelming goodness to man. Like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and “Miracle on 34th Street,” the lesson of caring for others came through, but the actual reason for Christmas, the true GIFT of Christmas, is absent. They are good and entertaining morality tales, but we are all as doomed without the babe in the manger as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Yes, the babe in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, and the angels are still displayed in people’s yards and on their mantelpieces. Even in our largely secularized culture, it is still a story most people know, though they may only have a vague understanding of what the birth of the Christ child means to mankind and what it means for them. So, that gives Christians a chance to share the true meaning of Christmas with the people they know. No, Christmas is not about “stuff” – not about new Toys, TVs, and all the rest. It’s not about Black Friday and the “bottom line.” It’s not even about doing good to others, though we certainly encourage that!
The babe in swaddling cloth, born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough, is just the beginning of the story – a teaser that can be used to introduce someone to the rest of the story. And a profound story it is indeed – of the incarnation – the time in human history when God took on human flesh and nature to dwell with us. He became one of us, so He could communicate His love to us, warn us of judgment to come, and draw us to Him for salvation.
The baby grew to be a man – a perfect man. He fulfilled the law through His perfection because none of us could do that. We are sinners from birth. But He did it all on our behalf. He submitted Himself to a horrible death on the cross, which we deserved, and thus He paid our sin debt for us. He raised Himself from the dead three days later and still lives today. Through His sacrificial life and death, we can have our sins forgiven forever through faith alone in Jesus Christ and receive resurrection and eternal life. And all of this is offered to us as a free gift of God’s grace because there is nothing we can do to deserve it. All of the good works we could do in this life can do nothing to erase our debt of sin. In Dicken’s tale, when Bob Marley’s spirit appeared to Scrooge, he was wrapped up in thick chains and shackles. He Informed Scrooge that the chains he (Scrooge) had forged in his life were far heavier than Marley’s, though Scrooge could not see them. It’s actually a fairly colorful illustration of the condition that all of lost mankind is in.
Mankind walks around, dragging chains they cannot see, which spells their doom if the chains are not removed. Unfortunately, good intentions, good works, or a new resolve to live a better life cannot remove them. We can provide turkeys to the poor, we can help Tiny Tim, and we can give copiously to charity, but the ponderous chains of our sin and rebellion still shackle us and threaten sure doom. But Jesus laid our chains of sin and guilt upon Himself and paid our debt in full. He frees us from them! On top of that, our faith in Jesus transfers His righteousness to us. THIS is why we celebrate the birth of our savior. Such a gift!
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