Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On the Way to Bethlehem

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent. It marks the beginning of a time of spiritual preparation for a proper celebration of Christmas Day. Bible reading, prayer, performing acts of charity, and attendance at worship are some of the means of preparation. In a time in which this holy day tends to become little more than just another holiday, special attention to the real meaning of the season is in order.

This is a season for people to remember their responsibility in the economy of God's world. Most of us are blessed beyond words with far more than we need. Sometimes we forget that we are stewards of the things we have and not permanent owners. All that we have will eventually pass into the hands of others. And, if there is any truth in what Jesus taught about material possessions, we will be held accountable for how we use what we have.

A universally favorite Christmas story is Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. It is a graphic reminder of our individual social responsibility. One of the principal characters in the story is Ebenezer Scrooge, a stingy, mean-spirited businessman, who is shocked into seeing the error of his ways by a nocturnal visit by the ghost of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley. This is what happened:

The ghost of Jacob Marley comes floating into the room, wearing a chain. The chain is clasped about his middle. It is long, and wound about him like a tail. It is made of the tools of his trade whilst he was alive: cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. Scrooge asks his former business partner why he is in chains. His answer chills the heart of the stingy old man.

Marley said: "I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is it a pattern strange to YOU? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and and as long as this, seven Christmas-eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain." Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

"Jacob" he said imploringly. "Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob." "I have none to give," the Ghost replied......"

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing his hands. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through the crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raised them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?" Then the ghost of Jacob Marley floated out the window, leaving Scrooge to reflect on what he had heard.

A few years ago, Bono, lead singer for the popular group, U2, spoke at a prayer breakfast in Washington. He wasn't a ghost like Marley or a clergyman, such as myself, but he made a statement which might well have been said by Marley, and which should be on the lips of us all in this season. This is what he said: "God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives. And God is with us, IF WE ARE WITH THEM."

Let those who have ears to hear, hear, and think on these things as we begin the journey to Bethlehem.