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Dickens' Other Christmas Story : THE LIFE OF OUR LORD by Charles Dickens (Silver Burdett: $11.95; 88 pp.)

December 06, 1987|Marjorie Holmes | Holmes is the author of "The Messiah , " newly published by Harper & Row, which completes her trilogy about the life of Jesus

Dear, dear Dickens! How many years he has added to the magic of Christmas with his beautiful "A Christmas Carol."

How many of us have gathered around the fire as children, to hear parents read aloud the thrilling story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim and all the poor but merry Cratchetts. I read it aloud to my own children every year; or we would listen to the immortal voice of Lionel Barrymore bringing these characters to life on the radio.

Yet few if any of us even suspected that Charles Dickens had once gathered his own children around his knee to read to them another story he had written, about the true hero of this holiday: "The Life of Our Lord." Written especially for them because, as he said in a tender opening note:

"I am very anxious that you should know something about the history of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know something about him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people . . . . You can never think what a good place Heaven is, without knowing who he was and what he said."

Dickens believed the Gospel story, once calling the New Testament "the best book that ever will be known in the world." Yet he remembered his own religious teaching as dreary. His purpose was to share the joy and wonder of his own conviction with those he loved most, his family. It was never intended for publication. Not until 1934, 60 years after his death, did it appear in print, and then in a limited British edition. How lucky we are that it is available to the rest of us at last, for it is a treasure.

As the author of a trilogy of novels dealing with the life of Jesus, I have spent a lot of time in libraries and in the Holy Land doing research. Charles Dickens, that delightful genius, didn't need to bother. His version is the timeless story told for children in children's terms: simple, gently marveling, not only at the miracles, but at the compassion of the Lord as He went about doing good. Relating the highlights, choosing among the parables, and expressing Dickens' own convictions and explanations as he goes:

"Jesus chose those 12 poor men to be his companions. These 12 are called the Apostles or Disciples, and he chose them from among poor men, in order that the poor might know--always after that in all the years to come--that Heaven was made for them as well as for the rich, and that God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags. The most miserable, wretched creatures that live will be bright angels in Heaven if they are good here on earth. Never forget this, when you are grown up. Never be proud or unkind, my dears, to any poor man, woman or child . . . . Always try to teach them and relieve them if you can. And when people speak ill of the poor and miserable, think how Jesus Christ went among them and taught them . . . always pity them yourselves, and think as well of them as you can."

Gently, lyrically, in sad but sweet tones, he proceeds to the Crucifixion: "That you may know what the people meant when they said 'Crucify him!' I must tell you that in those times, which were very cruel times indeed (let us thank God and Jesus Christ that they are past!) it was the custom to kill people who were sentenced to death by nailing them alive on a great wooden cross, slanted upright in the ground . . . ."

After the Gospel the rest of the New Testament is condensed and the summary message of the book emphasized:

"Remember! It is Christianity to do good always--even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to do to all men as we would have them do unto us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our hearts . . . ."

Somehow this all seems fresh and new in the voice of Dickens, and his message leaves a quiet singing in our hearts.

This utterly charming book also contains "the Dickens Family Prayers" and is enhanced by the beautiful colored illustrations of Sally Holmes (no relation). Like the words of the master storyteller, they sing with their own simple authenticity--here are real people, so vibrantly alive they almost leap from the page.

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