After years of ending the Christmas season and recognizing that I hadn’t listened to any carols, watched any classic Christmas movies, or otherwise engaged the holiday spirit at all (aside from ministry-related matters, obviously), I have approached Christmas a bit more intentionally this year. My go-to thus far has been perhaps the most Christmassy of all Christmas cultural traditions – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There are a million adaptations and permutations of the story, and unlike many of our beloved classic stories, many of the adaptations are pretty good! While the story is not overtly religious, Dickens is a master at subtly capturing the profound theological lessons of the Nativity. One of the most striking details is who Dickens chooses to deliver the novella’s final words, the famous “Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, everyone!”—Tiny Tim. Now, Tiny Tim is a morally outstanding character, to be sure—he loves going to church, he sees his suffering as a witness to the love of Christ for others, and he acknowledges the humanity of Ebeneezer Scrooge. But he has also been handed a highly unenviable set of circumstances in his life. He comes from a poor family, he lives with a physical disability that appears to be life-threatening, and he is chronically malnourished. It is into his mouth, the mouth of a poor, disabled, lowly child, that Dickens places the most important message of the story. This detail in A Christmas Carol demonstrates how well Charles Dickens understood what the birth of Christ was all about because it is precisely what occurs in the story of the Nativity as recounted in the Gospel of Luke.
You remember the scene — Emperor Caesar Augustus calls for a census, so Joseph and the pregnant Mary are forced to make the long journey to Bethlehem to be counted. With no room at the inn, the new parents must place the newborn Son of God in a manger to sleep. We are then transported to the countryside nearby, where a group of local shepherds is tending their sheep. At that moment, the glory of God shines before the shepherds, and they are visited by the terrifying and awe-inspiring Angel of the Lord, who proclaims to them the news that the Messiah has been born in the City of David. These men then carry the message of the angel to Bethlehem and beyond.
The presence of shepherds is not an extraneous detail, no more than Tiny Tim is unnecessary to Dickens’ story; it is essential to the re-telling of the birth of Christ. When the Messiah finally comes, the Son of God is born, and the Eternal Word takes on human flesh, the news is not announced to kings, governors, or emperors. The news is told to outcasts. It is proclaimed to the dirty and poor shepherds who sleep outside and spend more time with sheep than people. It doesn’t stop there, though. Those same shepherds are also the first ones entrusted with sharing that message. The shepherds were told of the birth of Christ by angels; everyone else was told by shepherds!
The birth of the newborn king is shared with the poor first because the poor bore the brunt of all the terrible earthly kings who came before this one – the outcasts were cast out, the poor were trampled, and the hungry were devoured by those who thirsted for power, control, and legacy. This king will be nothing of the sort. This different kind of recipient of God’s message becomes a different kind of messenger announcing a different kind of message. No longer will the king rule over his people through strength, manipulation, or political maneuvering. This king will himself be an outcast born in a feeding trough; this king will himself bear the wounds inflicted by the powerful; this king will offer himself as living bread rather than take our bread for himself. This message is announced to the world by shepherds, by Tiny Tim, by the poor.
At its heart, Christmas is about reversal. The more we try to control and manicure the method of our salvation or the world’s salvation, the more likely we are to miss the message of the Nativity entirely. The people to whom the birth of Christ is announced or, better yet, the moments in our lives during which the birth of Christ is announced are not what we initially expect. The messengers called to carry the message into the world, and the ways in which we are called to carry it into the world are often unexpected. Most importantly, the means of salvation presented to us can be counterintuitive. This Christmas, be prepared to meet Christ precisely in the parts of your life that are weak and vulnerable. Be open to hearing the message of Christ’s redemption in unexpected places. Recognize that the salvation introduced to us on this holy night will not be brought about by any earthly power but by the humble service and sacrifice of the child king lying in a manger.
Merry Christmas to us all; and God bless us, every one.
Image: Adobe stock. Dickens – Christmas Carol. Date: 1843-44. By Archivist.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.