Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in the context of the reform of the English Poor Laws. The New Law concerned orphanages, workhouses and debtors' prisons. While on the surface The Poor Law Act appeared to provide for the poor, Dickens challenges the poor stewardship of the ecclesiastical boards who governed with harshness rather than kindness, compassion and mercy.His Carol is undergirded by his critique of society and a form of Christianity that lacks mercy and an ardent advocacy concerning the oppression of the weak. So, it's a carol with a bite. It speaks to the heart. As his readers see the change in Scrooge, so may they find a shift in their own hearts.
Dickens is considered to be one of the most persuasive advocates for the poor of his time. His novels vividly describe the world as he knew it. He shone a light on dark realities such as the destitution and exploitation of children. Capturing the imagination across social classes, his books raised awareness and struck a vein of sentiment,not merely entertaining Victorian society but giving it a progressive impulse for change. For, as the upwelling of empathy shapes individuals, so also is it a significant force in wider societal reform. Over time, various Acts would, among other things, reduce the working hours of children, improve their education and ultimately lead to the end of child labour.
Centuries earlier, Mary's 'carol' celebrates that God remembers kindness, lifts the humble and extends mercy. In Jesus a new force would arrive, who would address societal powers as well as the human heart and change the world as she knew it.
"God took the path of descent, that first Christmas, on a journey into the hidden depths of humanity. And we are now invited to follow," reflects Brian Draper. In the Christmas edition of the Radio Times, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams imagines Jesus to spend Christmas with the Occupy crowd at St Paul's. "He'd first of all be there: sharing the risks, not just taking sides but steadily changing the entire atmosphere by the questions he asks of everybody involved, rich and poor, capitalist and protester and cleric."
While this world is bent towards power and money, God's universe is bent towards kindness, compassion and justice. While greed rules, his generosity abounds. Jesus is the gift heaven couldn't wait to give. In fact, this son born to us reflects "the incomparable riches of God's grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:7).
Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and kings recognised the all-defining moment in history - the incomparable order of generosity, God's ultimate expression of kindness. Not only for us to receive him but also for us to be shaped by him, living a life of compassion, kindness, humility, and gentleness (Colossians 3:12).
Whether this season our carols have a 'bite' or are mere entertainment depends on the shape of our heart and the character of our life. Whether we spend Christmas at home, at the homeless shelter, at Occupy or at work, our glorification of him is ultimately lived out in a narrow path that leads to life. But, hey, it could change our world as we know it.
Marijke Hoek, coordinator Forum for Change