Free From the Chains
December 24, 2019 | Sarah Stewart
Passage: Luke 2:1-20
One of our most enduring Christmas stories is not the baby, not the family in the barn, not the shepherds terrified and amazed, not the kings conspiring against Herod, but a rich man scared out of his wits by a series of ghosts in the night. Ebenezer Scrooge has lasted through the ages to teach us the true meaning of Christmas.
In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite characters is Jacob Marley. My father-in-law’s dog is named Marley, after Bob Marley, but I like to ignore this and greet the friendly Labrador by saying “Marley! Do you wear the chains you forged in life?” To which Marley wags his tail and licks my hand and hopes I have a treat.
Dogs don’t wear the chains they forged in life. Dogs forge no chains, bear no burdens, and go to dog heaven—every single one of them. This is a human condition, to accumulate the weight of our misdeeds over the course of a lifetime, especially if, like Jacob Marley, we avoid opportunities to do the right thing or make amends until it is too late. It’s a grim world Dickens paints, one where everything we do is weighed against us at the end of our lives. All the good and all the bad form the chains, and if they’re too heavy with our wickedness we become ghosts condemned to wander and warn.
Unfortunately we feel this too keenly in our everyday lives. Not just that our misdeeds might weigh against our immortal souls, but that every action and every mistake has weighty consequences we can never escape. For some of us the chains aren’t even our own. They are weighted down by an unjust system pushing us ever lower. A missed credit card payment or an unexpected car repair and suddenly the debt gets deeper, the hope fades.
For some of us it’s our relationships. We said the wrong thing, or we failed to say what we needed to, or we can’t stop being angry at someone we love. The hurt builds the wall between us slightly higher, and we are a little more alone. For some of us it is the keeping of accounts itself that is our chain to bear. Have I made them pay for the thing they did to me? Are we even? Has my hurt been paid for? So much weight to carry around. So much despair.
Which is where the other story comes in, the one that is about the baby and the shepherds and the kings. This story we know by heart, and we marvel every year at the amazement of it: God’s spirit incarnate in an infant. And not just any infant: an infant from modest circumstances, working class, some doubt about his paternity, young mother, laid in a feeding trough, soon to be a refugee. God’s spirit incarnate there.
Not just any infant: an infant who grew up to be a healer, teacher and prophet in the traditions of his people. A teacher who had some things to say about the chains we believe we are forging in life, and God’s promise to break them. Love each other even if you’ve been hurt. Go to your brother and sister and work out your problems. Visit the imprisoned and the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked. Give what you have to those in need. If you have much, give much. If you have little, give little, and your gift will be the greater. Live as though death had no dominion. Let the divine spirit be incarnate in you.
If the divine spirit can be incarnate in an infant, we can find it in ourselves. If it can awaken in such a tightfisted miser as Scrooge, it can awaken in us, no matter what kind of year we have had. And if the divine spirit resides in us, and in the baby in Bethlehem, then we see it in everyone. We especially see it in those weighed down by the chains life is forging for them: the refugee at our borders, the civilian in the war zone, the sick person without health care, the addicted person, the mentally ill, the person in debt, the one we thought was our enemy, those we don’t trust. In all of us, the same divine spirit, shown in the birth at Christmastime.
This is how we lighten our chains. We remember that every person everywhere is a human being just like us. Everyone is created in the image of the divine, as are we. This is the promise of Christmas: that our love for one another can wipe the account books clean.
Scrooge is an old man when the spirits of Christmases past, present and future visit him. Marley has died and Scrooge will follow him soon enough. But he still has time! He wakes up Christmas morning and sets right about the work: giving turkeys, visiting family, treating his employee with respect, caring about others.
Our relationship with God is not one of Scrooge and Marley’s account ledgers, with the debits weighed against the credits. God’s love is on offer to all of us, free of charge. All of us can open up our hearts to take it. The only line that goes in our ledger book is an instruction to love one another, and to make that love manifest in the world. Take the gift that you are given, and give it away, losing nothing yourself. That is the spirit of Christmas, alive in every person on earth. Amen.