A Christmas Carol – for a New Ebenezer Scrooge

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On the 19th of December, 1843 when much of our frontier was still unsettled and where Christmas was not even a recognized holiday in much of the United states, Charles Dickens’ publisher, Chapman and Hall released a novella about the power of the human spirit to embrace new and revive old ways of celebrating the nativity of Our Lord.  A Christmas Carol told the story of bitter and hardened Ebenezer Scrooge, a type of many joyless lives of the period, and his nocturnal encounters with the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley.  Three spirits representing Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come then visit Scrooge.  From these three encounters, Scrooge has a revelation about himself and the world in which he lives.

But to understand why this story had so much power, we must look at why it was written.  In Great Britain, festivals such as Christmas had been banned during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (commonly called the Interregnum by Anglo-Catholics), an 11-year change of constitutional government that eliminated the monarchy in favor of parliamentary control.  During this time, the Puritans in control banned the Book of Common Prayer, replacing it with the Westminster Directory, assumed a Presbyterian form of government, and stripped the calendar of most of its celebrations – including Christmas.  So the original Grinch, or Scrooge, that stole Christmas was Cromwell’s protectorate.

That brief point in time, and the Puritan influence that remained thereafter, was a joyless time liturgically. Many of the customs that our families observe were eliminated.  There were no Christmas trees (a Germanic custom), no Christmas cards, and no carolers.  These three things began to make a renaissance at the same time that Great Britain was dealing with some of its social ills.

Slavery in England and her colonies was abolished in , But they were only beginning to deal with the social ills of their day.  Tiny Tim in the story becomes the archetype of struggling families, borne out of Dickens’ own struggles with poverty.  Now on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, English families had a decision to make, and so do we.

While we have trapping abounding in nearly every store since August, the spirit of Christmas that Dickens sought the standard Englishman to embrace was not a thing of externals.  Sure, the tree and cards are nice – they point to a joyful cause to celebrate.  But I think Dickens was inviting us into something deeper – a turning around of the coldness of heart to see the image of God in others amidst a holy season.

Consider the Tiny Tims of your life.  Perhaps the forgotten person fed at Messiah’s Saturday suppers.  Or consider the hungry man who has exactly $17 left from his disability check to feed him for the month – a man who is a regular visitor at our church office.  Maybe it is an aunt or uncle that is lonely, but the whole family has written off as odd or eccentric.  We all know that one person.   

So as we prepare for the 12 days of Christmastide, as we have our office parties and our Christmas get togethers, let us not forget those to whom Dickens’ addressed the Christmas Carol.  Soften your hearts toward those who would know no real Christmas.  And hopefully, it will not take three Christmas phantoms to remind us of the true purpose of the Incarnation. God so loves us that he took human form and in his life, ministry, atoning death and resurrection, he shows us what real life is all about.

A most blessed Nativity to all,

Robert+

A Triduum of Sorts

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All across the face of the earth, the days of October 31st, November 1 and November 2nd will be celebrated in different ways. Some will border on the fiendish or the macabre. Still others will speak the joys of heaven and the need we have for a savior. Each year, the church invites her members to contemplate what it means to be human and live into the promises of life everlasting. It is a Triduum of sorts. It is not sacred in the same way that the Easter Triduum is, but important nonetheless.

First, let’s explore Halloween. It depends who you ask, but in Christian circles this day is either celebrated as a joyful celebration with children in costumes, bobbling for apples, and scaring neighbors for treats, or a sinister side, dark, and demonic. To some, Halloween finds its place in churches as a cause to get together children and celebrate a night of fantasy. Others find this very close to Satanism. Today, in all but the most reformed or fundamentalist traditions, the former is true. Episcopalians have embraced the celebrations of Halloween when they were revived in the 1800s. It is important to note that Christmas was not observed in America until the 1800s except among Roman Catholics. The Calvinists in New England even made its celebration illegal. When the Church of England was reformed in the years following Henry VIII, many celebrations we find common and popular today were effectively outlawed.Today there is even an official liturgy for an “All Hollow’s Eve Vigil” found in the Book of Occasional Services. In our American culture, we have come to understand that Halloween can be a fun time byall. We need not dwell on the superstition that once plagued these events and concentrate on the community fellowship that these celebrations provide.

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Secondly, let’s consider the origins of All Saints’ Day. The Church celebrates each saint on his or her own “saints day”. Usually this is the anniversary of their death. But with innumerable official saints, only a small percentage can be formally recognized. To that end, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed a celebration called All Saints’ Day. Originally May 13th, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. Beginning with the ministries of leaders like Patrick, the church sought to“baptize”pagan festivals and give them new meaning. Easter (originally a pagan celebration of spring fertility) and Christmas (the fall celebration of the Winter Solstice) share this feature. In establishing this feast, there were some problems that needed to be overcome. The ancient Celts celebrated a pagan festival called Samhaim (pronouncedsaw-in). They believed that it was around the first of November when the dead had ability to come back to the world of the living. The Church had a choice; baptize the festivities with new meanings, or risk not evangelizing the peoples they sought to reach. The Church chose to create a three-day festivity with new meanings. It is from this festival that lighting bonfires (quite literally bone-fire), bobbing for apples (in celebration of the Roman God Pomona who controlled the trees and their produce), and trick-or-treating (the Celts left out dishes of sweets for the familiar spirits that they believed roamed the streets in order to avoid a trick). In England, soul cakes were baked in expectation ofd oor-to-door beggars who would promise prayers for the deceased in exchange for these baked goods.

Recognizing saints, who by the Church’s own definition are deceased, tied in quite nicely with the needs of the people, and the aims of the church. I doubt that really convinced the native Celts of the new meaning, but the “All Saints’ Triduum” certainly has been catechized over the generations to include these odd elements of superstition,while teaching that although life is changed by death, it is most certainly not ended. At the end of the 10th century, the Church added another celebration, All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recognize all the faithful departed, even those to whom the Church would not ascribe a capital “S” to their title of saint.

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Thirdly, All Souls’ Day, observed on November 2, is celebrated with Requiem Masses. The living pray on behalf of those who are on their soul’s journey. Historically, this was understood to be the souls in purgatory, a concept alien to Anglicans, and rather misunderstood even among Roman Catholics. While the Scriptures do not speak of Purgatory as a place, they speak of the merits of “purgation”, that is, that we will be changed (1 Cor 15:51) in God’s presence as we see him as he is. Because of the association with Purgatory, a concept the Protestant reformers wished to remove from the theology of the Protestant Churches, All Souls’ Day was suppressed. It was brought back into use inthe Episcopal Church during the time of the Oxford (alsocalled Tractarian) Movement in the 1840s. Much of the Catholic elements of the Church of England before the break with Rome were restored in varying degrees in the years after. All Souls’ Day lives on today in Latin America.  All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” (The Days of the Dead). This is when when families pray for, remember, and hold vigil for the deceased–particularly the recently deceased. At St. Stephen’s these elements of our faith speak to our hope in the life everlasting.While elements surrounding Halloween are cute and novel, we need make sure they are also observed for their Christian connotations. It has been said that that is the one day of the year that the Dominical Cycle (feasts of our Lord including Sundays) and the Sanctoral Cycle (feasts of the saints) meet.