The Meaning of Christmas: Comparing Dickens and Handel

The past week has been full of memories for me and my family. On Sunday afternoon we traveled to the Navy Academy chapel in Annapolis to hear Handel’s Messiah performed. The chapel is stunning and the performance was beautiful. On Wednesday night we traveled to D.C. to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ford’s is very small and intimate and the play was incredibly well acted. The empty president’s box elevated above the stage is a reminder that lends further eeriness to Dickens’ haunted intentions.

Both experiences will live long in my memory.

But while I was sitting in Ford’s theater I was struck by the contrasting Christmas messages between Dickens and Handel.

I’ll begin with Dickens.

Dickens

For Dickens, Christmas is about getting unshackled from materialism to appreciate all the blessed relationships we’ve been given. That’s a very good message. And in my attempt to further discover Dickens’ understanding of the meaning of Christmas, I was led to his short book, The Life of Our Lord. He wrote it not primarily to be published but to be read by his children each Christmas, thus giving us a glimpse into the urgency of its annual, seasonal message. The book is Dickens’ retelling of Christ’s birth, life, death on the cross, and resurrection. And quite frankly, most of it is very good.

Yet here is the final paragraph of the book, the punch line, the meaning of Christmas – the meaning of the cross and all of Christianity – in summary:

Remember! — It is Christianity To Do Good always — even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.

For Dickens, the value of Christmas, and the Savior’s life and work it appears to me, is its ability to produce in us moral reform, enabling us to becoming better, do better, and ultimately to appease God, pleasing him with our moral reforms and effecting his forgiveness for our sins so that we can die in peace. You can hear all these theological assumptions echoing in A Christmas Carol, even into the final paragraph where we are assured that Scrooge “lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards.” Personal reform was the main point.

Handel

Then there is Handel’s Messiah. Here are some selected lyrics, which are passages drawn directly from the KJV Bible. Hardly any commentary is needed:

Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. [John 1:29]

He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. [Isaiah 53:3, 50:6]

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. And with His stripes we are healed. [Isaiah 53:4-5]

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:6]

He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken. [Isaiah 53:8]

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body yet, in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep. [Job 19:25 and 1 Corinthians 15:20]

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. [1 Corinthians 15:21]

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. [1 Corinthians 15:22]

O death, where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]

If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us. [Romans 8:31-34]

And then it all closes with this magnificent scene of eternal, angelic worship:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen. [Revelation 5:12-14]

So beautiful!

I’m grateful Handel closed with yet another reference to the finished work of Christ. His entire message is soaked with the substitutionary blood of Christ. Jesus was born to die in our place, and died to be raised from the dead, and was raised to guarantee our bodily resurrection. In Handel’s work our eternal hope gets firmly placed on the shoulders of the Christ-child born in Bethlehem. Messiah is a magnificent work.

Contrast

I don’t know much about the life of Dickens, but clearly he was no mere deist. He pressed his children to see the importance of Christ’s incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and even the persecution of the early church. He seems to have a high regard for Scripture, and for this I am thankful. But it also seems that he boils down the meaning of Christmas to say little more than that Christ is our moral pattern to help us live Christianly.

By contrast, for Handel, the birth of the Savior marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. As that eternal plan begins to unfold on earth, Christ must be born, he must die a bloody death, and he must defeat the grave because we are desperate and helpless sinners. The entire salvific purposes of God begin to unfold in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.

For Dickens, Christmas is a reminder that we are all Scrooges, self-centered ungrateful nobs who yet have some hope of appeasing God through our personal reform.

For Handel, Christmas reminds us that we are all sinners, we are “in Adam,” and for that we are helpless to stop God’s righteous judgment towards our sin. Yet there is One who has paid the price to quench God’s wrath on our behalf.

In both A Christmas Carol and Messiah, all our warm and tranquil Hallmark Christmas sentimentality gets blasted by cold reality. Death is coming for us all, and the grave is approaching quickly.

Dickens wants people to die in peace.

Handel wants people raised from the dead.

Dickens’ hope is rooted in the future — in the finished work of moral reform necessary in our lives.

Handel’s hope is rooted in the past — the full and complete work of Christ on our behalf.

Dickens’ message is “do.”

Handel’s message is “done.”

Dickens’ work is good for what it is, a seasonal, warmhearted morality tale. For that I find it agreeable and commendable. But Handel’s work comprehends the scope of the hope-giving and guilt-freeing meaning of Christmas. For that I find eternal comfort, and hope for my ongoing battle against my inner self-centered, thankless Scrooge.

Posted on December 12, 2011, in Christmas. Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. This is wonderful! Thank you for clarifying so well the difference between these two. You’ve given me the words to now share with my children.

  2. Thanks for this contrast piece, Tony. I wonder how many have ever listened to Handel’s Messiah all the way through, let alone in a live performance? I was doing so last Thursday, in my study. Through God’s providence, the Hallelujah chorus came up while I was finishing my time in Romans 8.31–39. There’s a delightful experience if ever there was one! Try to keep a dull heart, a dry eye, an un-lifted voice when the whole comes to an end…not gonna happen!

    • Yes, very good point, Kevin. I think this is what irked John Newton in his day. People were enjoying the music of the concert but with little regard for the meaning of the lyrics. Thus he embarked on a 50-part sermon series to preach through it! It is simply magnificent, a work of true beauty and careful biblical theology. I listen to Handel year-round.

  3. What a striking contrast, Tony.

  4. Excellent perspective. We’ve been reading P.J. Lynch’s gorgeous illustrated version of A Christmas Carol with our kids and this piece gives us a great point for discussion.

  5. Fantastic! Great insight. Thanks for an extremely thought provoking article.

  6. And yet how many evangelicals know how to keep Christmas as well as Ebenezer?

    In all fairness, I’m sure that a good many people soar two hours with Handel and then walk blithely past Ignorance and Want.

    Dickens was no theologian, nor was he orthodox, yet he does something for me that Handel never does.

    Few authors are so keenly attuned to the plight of human poverty and degradation. A Christmas Carol turns my heart to those portions of Scripture I tend keep at arms length, such as Matthew 25, where entrance into heavenly rest is granted on the basis of our acts of compassion upon the poor…

    We can do all kinds of hermeneutic gymnastics to explain this passage in a way that quiets our murmuring conscience, but sometimes it takes a Dickens to awaken our hearts to the Gospel imperative of mercy.

    It saddens me deeply that Dickens is read so little by so many.

    TB

    • YES!

      Even the devil can quote scripture. On the other hand, Jesus said the calloused of heart lack the ability to understand parables. Not to mention write them. Scrooge is essentially the rich young ruler, portrayed as an old man. I also remember one literary analysis that said Dickens used Scrooge to symbolize the Church of England.

    • I’m really thankful for this reply. I don’t argue with anything in Mr. Reinke’s analysis, and appreciate it for what it is. Handel’s piece, (originally performed in April by the way, not December) by virtue of its direct setting of scripture, carries a certain from-the-horse’s-mouth authority that feels weighty for any believer. I have both sung and heard Messiah numerous times, and am nearly always moved to tears by moments: the beauty of the opening Comfort Ye My People, feeling the crushing weight of sin at the end of All We Like Sheep, the glorious worship of Worthy is the Lamb, and many other moments I could name. But all that doesn’t diminish how powerful I find Dickens’ story. I’ve always thought of A Christmas Carol as a parable, a tale designed to help me to locate myself in the story, to feel mercy extended to me as it was to Scrooge, and to mend my less than compassionate ways, which seem to perpetually need mending. Much has been given to me, and thus much will be required. It’s true, my salvation is wrought by Christ alone, and his work is finished. But God prepared good works for me to walk in as His child, and Dickens shows a pretty vivid picture of what some of those works look like and how ludicrous Christianity becomes when those who call themselves Christians fail to exercise mercy.

      It would be unfortunate to pit these two wonderful pieces of literature against each other, when they are both so rich in their own ways. I don’t know which gets less attention from the general public: Handel’s Messiah or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but I feel our world badly needs to sit under them both and take them to heart. Mr. Reinke thinks so too, of course, or he wouldn’t take his family to see them both. I hope every reader of his fine piece of analysis will do the same.

    • Yes! I used to read/watch the Christmas Carol as simple “self-improvement” and sought to discredit it as such. Then I realized I was seeing it completely wrong. Scrooge is a brilliant reflection of what the Christian life SHOULD be, what it should look like. I don’t think you should pit Handel and Dickens against each other, I think they should go hand in hand! What is the gospel? What does a life in response to the gospel look like? How horrible is it that evangelicals know the story of Handel’s Messiah but live like the pre-converted Scrooge? May it be said of us that we “keep Christmas well.”

      My thought:
      Handel’s Messiah = “what”
      Dicken’s Carol = “now what”

  7. Our family just watched the Christmas Carol version released by Disney with Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman among others. It was striking and a good retelling of the story. I also listen to Handel’s Messiah year round … so edifying and nourishing. I think I agree with the basic argument of the post. On the other hand, when I read or watch A Christmas Carol I can’t help but look at Scrooge’s night with the ghosts as a sort of conversion experience. The ghosts help him to see who he really is, with all the darkness and sin, and to see what it leads to. They also show him others who are filled with hope and love regardless of their circumstances. It’s obviously not gospel-filled and there is definitely a moralistic bent to the whole thing. But the joyful actions of the ‘converted’ Scrooge do not strike me as someone in the chains of legalism, which would be heavier chains than Marley’s.

  8. One other comparison between these two works is that Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” as a Christmas tale and Handel composed “Messiah” as an Easter oratorio, hence all of the references to resurrection and eternal life. Although “Messiah” is predominately performed around Christmas, it was always the composer’s intention for it to be performed at Easter.

    • Yes, that is a very good point Julie! His oratorio seems to follow in the lineage of a Lutheran historiae, in that it equally covers Christmas, the passion, and resurrection. But Handel of course intended his piece to be played during Lent (which I think was typical for other pieces in the historiae genre), not as a Christmas piece, which is what it become over time, from at least the 19th century onward.

  9. Excellent! Thanks for posting this! I’ve been posting one part from The Messiah a day, as a daily devotion.

    It is worth mentioning, I think, that the libretto was assembled by Charles Jennens, a devout Anglican who sought to challenge advocates of Deism. Handel made little to no changes to it, but the arrangement of the Scriptures was not originally his.

  10. Thank you for blogging your thoughts. The timing for your post is perfect: last Sunday, I introduced Handel’s Messiah to my Sunday school class and only one person had any familiarity with it. I told them the text is worth pondering during Advent and Lent as a devotion, even if they could never develop an ear for the music. I just shared this link on our church Facebook page.

    I feel in love with Messiah at the Naval Academy, so I especially appreciate that you heard it at my alma mater. We performed Part I at Christmas and Parts II and III at Easter. Like Brandon, I listen to Messiah year round, and the music and lyrics are stored in my heart forever.

    Those who enjoy this post will love Tim Keller’s book “The Prodigal God”–very similar themes run through it.

  11. William Broughton

    Thank you, Mr. Reinke, for your interesting essay, to which I was directed by a link on the National Review web site. I am happy to become acquainted with your blog, excited to note your books of the year commentary, which I plan to use as suggestions for future reading, and as a bibliophile, I am looking forward with anticipation to reading your book Lit! It is a delightful providence to have discovered your work!

    I suggest a slightly different interpretation to Dickens’ closing paragraph for A Christmas Carol. He may be punning on different meanings for the word spirits, so that Scrooge is totally abstaining from “intercourse with Spirits” of the ghostly realm. That he does not mean Scrooge has become a teetotaler may be borne out by the fact that in the closing scene of the narrative (illustrated in the 1843 first edition), Ebenezer invites Bob Cratchit to share with him a “bowl of smoking bishop,” which is a mulled drink of port and wine.

    By the way, as someone who enjoys Dickens’ work (I’m reading A Tale of Two Cities with some 9th graders now), I was gladdened by Tabletalk magazine’s treatment of A Christmas Carol several years ago, especially R. C. Sproul’s essay “Marley and His Message to Scrooge.” To quote Dr. Sproul, may you and yours enjoy “the holiest of holy days”!

  12. Im having a teeny issue. I cant get my reader to pick-up your rss feed, Im using google reader by the way.

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