"The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables." [John Dominic Crossan, In Parables - The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973,82]

A Christmas Carol: Secular Redemption?

Tom Ryan SM

JA Christmas Carol

Those amongst us of a ‘certain age’ will remember Alistair Cooke’s weekly Letter from America. On March 2004, aged 95, a month before his death, Cooke announced his retirement from the Letter on the advice of his doctors. After 58 years, his weekly reflections had been the longest-running speech radio show in the world. In his twelve- minute talk, he brought not only insight and whimsy but also an effortless spontaneity that concealed his craft. In many ways, he was a model for anyone preparing a talk or a homily.

JAlistair CookeAlistair Cooke

In his BBC broadcast prior to Christmas Day of 2003, Cooke described the circumstances that led Charles Dickens to write his most famous story ‘A Christmas Carol’ (See ‘Birth of a Christmas Tale’, Letter from America website BBC 2003).

It was 1843. Dickens was 31 and, by then, the most famous novelist in England. During that year, he intended to start writing a novel on the new factory slums created by the Industrial Revolution especially in the north of England. In preparation, Dickens made a personal tour of these cities. He found himself depressed by the squalor, wretchedness, dirt but also by the moral degradation of the inhabitants.

One evening in November from a hotel in Manchester, Dickens wrote to his closest friend: "God forgive us for the prosperity that is the fruit of our new machines and factories." Dickens added to his lament to his friend: "I am going to throw myself on the feeling of the people with a short story. It will attempt to exploit the notion that Christmas is a merry time but entails duties and obligations, especially to the poor."

In a ‘flash of genius’ (as described by another novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) Dickens, through the device of a ‘resurrected, decent Scrooge’ within a setting of social and family poverty, offered a tale not specifically Christian nor religious. As Cooke pointed out, Dickens presented Christmas ‘as a special festival of redemption, a secular version available to believers and non-believers, a time for everybody to take stock and lead a better life.’

For Cooke, this Christmas tale is much more than a ‘lightweight, jolly, sentimental thriller.’ The book was an instant and immense success. In the light of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Thackeray considered that "literary criticism is a secondary thing" and that ‘the Carol is "a sublime thing beyond criticism".

While the universal appeal of Dickens’ tale persists, we can still reflect on its significance. Today, we live in a context of cultural and religious pluralism. Where can we situate A Christmas Carol?

Often, we get media reports about taking ‘Christ’ out of Christmas; of offense taken at school nativity plays or at the public display of Christian symbols; of ‘seasons greetings’ and its neutral language as more acceptable. For fear of offence, the ‘festive season’ is bleached of any Christian reference. For instance, would the title A Christmas Carol be ‘politically correct’ if the story was written in 2016? Let’s consider all this.

Christians, while respecting others, should not need to feel silenced or paralysed by hyper-sensitivity. For believers who find, in Christmas, a special religious significance, its central focus, realised in Jesus Christ, is anticipated much earlier.

    When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of its swift course, down from the heavens, from the mighty throne, leapt your all powerful Word. (Wisdom 18: 14-15).

But let’s look further and consider Cooke’s observation that the Carol offers a ‘secular version’ of redemption. We may need to be careful in viewing the ‘secular’ (and its various expressions) as necessarily irreligious or anti-religious’. In this, Dickens gives a lead.

First, while ‘secular’, the setting of his story is consonant with the Gospels. The Word ‘leapt’ – could not wait - to come among his people, not in Jerusalem but in Bethlehem. If the Word made Flesh were to make his home anywhere in the 19th century, it would not be at Buckingham Palace. It would more likely be in the open-hearted welcome received at the house of Bob Cratchit and his family in the slums of 19th. century London.

Second, the ‘secular’ tale’s moral thrust also converges with the Gospel’s call to love of neighbour. Scrooge is almost compelled to ‘take stock’ of his life and act accordingly. Again, this is effected through the literary device of Jacob Marley’s ghost and the three warning ‘spirits’ which, even today, is a residue of belief in the supernatural realm and, in many religions, of the ongoing presence of departed ancestors. It is also allied to the Bible’s use of dreams or sleep to convey the process of growing awareness, coming to an insight or to the solution of a problem (think of the boy Samuel or Joseph’s dream about Mary). Even today, we still use the phrase ‘let’s sleep on it’.

Third, and importantly, the Carol intimates the mystery of a hidden God, (peaceful silence, night) whose preference is to work silently and unobtrusively. On that basis, the ‘secular’ can be the doorway to and from the ‘sacred.’ If attentive, we can detect the ‘luminous traces’ of the Spirit’s presence and action in the world around us, often from ordinary events and people not specifically ‘religious’. Think of the efforts at Christmas, by religious and ‘secular’ (‘spiritual but not religious’) people alike, to make it a more ‘festive’ time for those who are struggling and isolated?

This brings us to a fourth and more general observation. Hopefully, today we are better attuned to the Spirit’s action in people’s lives. Thomas Aquinas once remarked that ‘all truth and goodness, whatever its source, is from the Holy Spirit.’ Vatican 2 encouraged us to be more aware that, whenever a person is sincerely and conscientiously trying to lead a good life, with a focus on others, God’s love and grace are present, albeit in a hidden manner. Bernard Lonergan once remarked that there are people ‘who may love God in their hearts while not knowing him with their heads’ (Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, London, DLT, 1972, 278).

Again, the Church has taken hundreds of years to better understand its role in the mystery of salvation, especially, in relation to those who have ‘never had the Gospel preached to them’ or whose contact with Christians or the Church has resulted in distorted understandings of God and of the Gospel. We appreciate better that Christ’s saving presence is at work in the lives of so many people outside the boundaries of the Church, in the secular realm, especially through the ‘sacred core and sanctuary’ of conscience. Nevertheless, in some mysterious way, if Christ is identified with his Church, then, the Church is somehow (quietly, unobtrusively) also at work in that process.

We have, then, deeper insight into the phrase ‘outside the Church, no salvation.’ Many years ago, a German theologian commented on that phrase, citing the Latin: extra ecclesia, nulla salus. He pointed out that it is phrased in a negative form. What if it were expressed as an affirmative proposition - in Latin ubi salus, ibi ecclesia (wherever there is salvation, there is found the Church)? In other words, wherever you find God’s ‘saving action’ (the Reign of God, its fruits, e.g., truth, goodness, love, peace, justice), then the Church is somehow (and mysteriously) present. In practice, that means in religious Galilee but also in ‘secular’ London, namely, in Bob Crachit’s home or in Ebenezer Scrooge’s moment of ‘grace’. The secular can provide both setting and vehicle of God’s saving love.

These musings on A Christmas Carol lead us to re-assess Dickens’ insight into the true meaning of the Christmas event. Somehow, he intimated over 170 years ago, that the Christian belief in God’s entry into our world so that we could be part of God’s world is epitomised, for believer and non-believer, in love of others, in peace and good will to all. It is here that the secular and the religious intersect. ‘In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did it to me’ (Mt. 25:40).

As Thackeray suggested earlier, A Christmas Carol, as a work of art, transcends time and space. Nevertheless, its impact can also be very specific. On this, let’s return to Alistair Cooke. Of the many films made of A Christmas Carol, for Cooke, the best ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ was played by the late George C Scott in the 1984 TV version.

Before his death, Scott gave a vibrant and engaging interview that reflected the man (often prone to violence). It led Cooke to observe of Scott: ‘nature built him to play the volcanic General Patton’. Then, citing Scott in the interview:

‘But the Carol, he confessed, had done something to him. He saw in it the vision of a different man.

So, it was a surprising and happy thing to hear him say that his favourite role was Ebenezer Scrooge.’

A tale of (secular) redemption indeed.

Tom Ryan is a Marist priest who assists in the ministry at St Patrick’s Church Hill and at the Aquinas Academy.