Silas Marner & Christmas

Isaiah 9:6

150 years ago George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Evans) wrote some of the world’s best novels. In 1861 she wrote the story of Silas Marner.  Let me retell her story, because it comes to focus during the Christmas season.

Silas is a gracious young man of upright character and deep integrity.  He is devout believer, and a member in a small conservative church in Northern England.  He is one of the lay leaders of that small congregation.  By vocation he is a weaver.  He also happens to be in love with a young woman of that congregation, who has agreed to marry him.

But Silas has a strange ailment.  Without warning he suddenly becomes catatonic.  He freezes as he is, with eyes wide open, sometimes still standing, but impervious to anything around him.  These seizures may last an hour at a time, and though they do not happen often, they are to have a strange influence upon his life.

On one occasion one of these seizures proves to be catastrophic.  He is sitting by the bed of a dying church member, (the treasurer of the little church,) when he becomes catatonic.  While in this state his so-called-best-friend and roommate enters the room, he sees Silas under the paralysis of one of his seizures, he steals the church’s money, and leaves the room without being noticed.  When the theft is discovered, Silas Marner is accused and brought before the church for trial.  Silas knows himself to be innocent and so declares with confidence “God will clear me.”

But no such thing happens.  The church is a superstitious kind of congregation. They believe that God reveals his will in the casting of lots as they did in Acts chapter 1.  Silas Marner believes in the casting of lots too.  But when the lots are cast – they all come up negative.  Silas Marner is immediately convicted by his congregation and excommunicated.  His fiancé breaks off her engagement and within the month she marries his former friend.  Life has collapsed around Silas Marner.  He is absolutely devastated.

As he leaves the meeting house for the last time, he utters his final words to that congregation.  They are awful words.

There is,” he says “no just God
that governs the earth righteously,
but a God of lies
that bears witness against the innocent

And Silas goes out into the night, without faith, or hope, or love.  He packs up his belongings and heads to the town of Raveloe in the south of England.  There he rents a small one-room cottage, sets up his weaver’s loom and for the next 15 years becomes an increasingly withdrawn and morose man.

He abandons God, whom he can no longer trust,
he abandons the church that has abandoned him,
and he abandons all relationships because people have betrayed him.

And living alone,
he weaves his cloth,
speaks to no one, except in monosyllables,
and the children find him frightening.

But he has not surrendered all loves.  There is one love that now comes to dominate his life.  He weaves at his loom, taking time for nothing else.  He works as long as there is light, and his cloth is of the finest weave.  When he has enough material he goes to the women of the town who gladly buy his wares for the price he asks.  And each week he takes home money.  But the love for God, and the love for the church, and the love for a young woman are transmuted into the love of gold and silver.

He creates a secret place under the stones of the floor beneath his loom.  And there he keeps two leather bags that hold his treasure – one for the gold coins, and one for the silver ones.  And in the evening at the close of the day, by fire and candle light, he takes the bags out of their hiding place, and he comes alive with excitement as he fingers those coins and counts them.  He spends only enough to sustain a frugal life; the rest is saved in the secret place.  Silas Marner has become a miser.

For 15 years coins are put away, for 15 years they are the only joy in his sullen and ugly life.  After 15 years his treasure amounts to 272 gold sovereigns, 12 silver shillings and 6 copper pence. Now this amount may not seem great to you and I, but they are the equivalent of ten years of wages saved.  (About a quarter of a million dollars in the money of today.)  These coins are his children, his lovers, his friends, his master and his God.

But one day a tragedy happens.  He is absent from his cottage for a mere 20 minutes.  He has to run a brief errand. But while he is gone, someone enters his home, figures out the location of the treasured hoard, grabs the bags of gold and silver and runs off into the fog shrouded night.

A few minutes later, Silas returns, only to find that his world, once more, has collapsed around him.  He has lost the only thing he loves.  He enters into rage, frantic search and into dark despair.  All to no avail.  His wealth is lost.  His life has lost its center.  In the days that followed he sits at his weaver’s loom and works and moans with blank stare.  He sits with his knees up by his chest, his elbows resting on his knees, with his head in his hands, and rocks back and forth as he mourns.

And all this happens as the world around him is approaching the Christmas season.  The church bells are ringing their carols.  Children are singing their parts.  The manor house is preparing for a festive celebration. Family feeling is running high.  But on Christmas day, Silas is all alone.

A Christian woman of the town, accompanied by her young son, is moved by the season, and brings some food to this solitary man. In the course of her visit, trying vainly to bring comfort and joy to this young-man-turned-old before his time, she asks her young son sing a Christmas Carol he has been practicing for the children’s program. His childlike voice carries through the gloomy atmosphere, and reaches the ears and memory of Silas Marner:

God rest ye merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our saviour
was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we had gone astray.
O Tidings of Comfort and Joy,
Comfort and Joy,
Oooh Tidings of Comfort and Joy!

But Silas seems unmoved by the kindness of the mother and her son, and he eats the food she brought, in loneliness and sadness of heart.

But the town’s festivities continue between that Christmas day and the approaching New Year’s Eve.  The people of the town are looking towards the grand party that ends the old year and begins the New Year.  The manor is having a grand ball to which all are invited.

The Other Story

Now I have not told you of the other thread that runs through George Eliot’s story.  It is an equally sad story.  The Lord of the Manor has two sons – dissolute sons.

The younger son has turned gambler, and then thief, because his mean-spirited father will not increase his allowance.  He is the young man that stole the treasure from Silas Marner.

The older son is also disreputable.  In secret he has wed a woman who has borne his child.  The young wife has become dissolute in her own way and also quite ill.  She is deranged from her addictions and on the night of the great ball has decided to reveal to the Lord of the manor her secret marriage to his older son, and show him his grandchild.

But on that New Year’s Eve, the weather is bitter and cold.  Snow hampers her as she walks, carrying her small child.  She gets lost in the darkness. As she wanders she sees a light nearby. But, she can go no further, and on the road just outside the cottage of Silas Marner she collapses in the snow. As she holds her child, the freezing cold on her ill clad body takes it deadly toll on the life of that young mother.

The light she had seen was due to Silas Marner opening his door and stepping outside to look into the night, as was now his custom, since there was no gold to gaze upon.  As he re-enters his cottage, in the process of closing his door, he has another of his seizures.  He stands there in silence and stillness, and as he does, the little child toddles past his motionless figure towards the brilliant light & warmth of the fire, then snuggles down by the hearth and falls asleep.

Sometime later, Silas becomes alert once more.  He continues the interrupted action of closing the door as though no time had elapsed.  It is then that his eyes catch the glitter of gold.  In his dazed state he thinks his gold has been returned.  Excitement enters his shriveled life at the prospect.  But as he gets closer he sees the pile of gold is a pile of golden curls cascading around the head of a child.  He is stunned.  He has no memory of time during his catatonic seizure.  One moment there is no one by his fire; the next moment there sleeps a golden child.

That child was to live in his home for the next 15 years of this story.  He saw the child as a gift from a God who had not forgotten him after all.  Over those next few years the child would be the means whereby family feelings would grow again in his sterile heart.  The child gave him hope for the future.  The child was the occasion of bringing him back to God and back to the church and back to the community.  The child was the cause of the transformation of a sullen old miser into a glad and invigorated father.  His bitterness fled and a gentleness of heart took over.  Greed was exchanged for a generosity towards all.  And the former loneliness gave way to love and laughter with a widening circle of friendships.

He named the child, Hephzibah, after his own mother.  In Hebrew it means, “my delight is in her”.  And she became the new delight & the new focus of life for Silas.  Of course Hephzibah is a rather pretentious name for a child, so quickly she as called “Eppie” for short.  It too has a wonderful ring about it.   The coming of the child was an epic event for the miser.  It was the start of a new epoch in his life just as that New Year dawned.

The birth of the Christ Child

Of course all of this speaks to me of another birth.  In Bethlehem another child was born 2,000 years ago.  It was a world that also suffered from despair as did Silas Marner.

But there is a wisdom in God that is stunning. Popular wisdom says, if you want to change the world, send a knight in shining armor; send someone of heroic proportions; send someone whom the world will follow! But God, who is absolutely brilliant, sent a child into the world.

As a pastor I have noticed the power of a new born baby, as that child helps transform adolescents into adults, and transform communities, and churches at the same time. As a pastor, one of the thing I loved to do, was to take a little baby in my arms at the baptismal font, and incorporate that little one into the life of the church. For the birth of a baby brings hope to us all. It promises a future, for we are saved by hope, as well as by grace and by faith.

And so in Bethlehem, a child was sent to offer hope to all mankind. “For unto us a child is born, and unto us a son is given.”  Thanks be to God