By Jerry Harris
Besides the actual Christmas story from the Bible, one could argue that the most significant written expression of Christmas is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
It’s actually an unlikely story about Christmas. The nightmarish tale features ghosts who haunt a cold-hearted moneylender, making it wholly different from the circumstances of a conventional Christmas. It’s a story about a miserly man who is the master of his own destiny—a curmudgeon with money, position, and reputation. It’s also a story of that same man alone, isolated, dried up, and hateful . . . a man dismissive of his past, blind to his present circumstances, and unconcerned with his future.
Only a nightmare of epic proportions, it seems, has the potential of breaking this man loose from his personal chains and into the freedom of repentance. It’s actually a nearly perfect Christmas story, especially if we apply it to ourselves.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a reflection of all of us. Although we might think of him as a caricature, he’s actually a very believable person. While it might be easier to point the finger, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would, it would do us well to take that introspective journey ourselves, allowing it to produce the fruit of repentance we desperately need. So let’s review the events of this well-known story and see if it might cause us to reassess our lives (as it did Scrooge).
The First Visitor
The first visitor was personal . . . he had a proper name: Jacob Marley. Marley was a forgotten man. He was forgotten by everyone when he was alive, and remembered only by Scrooge when prompted. Scrooge was the only one who attended his former business partner’s funeral seven years before, and Marley’s death made Scrooge all the richer.
The two had made a fortune together in banking, money changing, and trading at the stock exchange, but in death, Marley found that his greedy and selfish earthly pursuits had enchained and cursed him to roam the earth and witness the missed opportunities of his life. Marley haunts his only friend to spare him this pitiful eternity.
We too have personal apparitions with names. What might they say if given the opportunity to haunt us? Would they remind us of the truth about ourselves, the things we don’t want to remember, the incidents that might indict us? Marley is actually the twisted hero of the story, the one who arranges the process that leads to Scrooge’s repentance. Think about the people from your past and imagine what counsel they could provide to you.
The apostle Paul no doubt was haunted by the images of the people he had persecuted, jailed, or even killed. The faces of people he separated from their families, the memory of Stephen and the words he spoke as he was martyred may have robbed him of his sleep were it not for the Holy Spirit’s transforming work.
We too might have “ghosts” from our past. And there might even be people whose words haunt our thoughts right now—voices of reason and perspective that we’ve heard but not heeded. We need only to listen.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Marley sends the first of the three ghosts—the Ghost of Christmas Past—to his old friend. The spirit showed Scrooge the unvarnished truth of the decisions he’d made that shaped his past. Eventually, Scrooge had seen enough and pulled a hat down over the ghost’s head to extinguish the memories it was revealing.
We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is come to terms with it, redeem it with the things we do today or tomorrow, and place ourselves under the lordship of Christ.
Rather than learning from the past and making changes to better shape our future, many of us would do the same as Scrooge—do our best to leave it behind or attempt to forget it. But when we leave the past unattended, we miss the opportunity to grow from it. By contrast, when our past failures inform our present, we can change. And if we can change, there is hope that others can change, as well.
As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:16, 17, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” While Paul definitely had a past, he put it in perspective with the choices he made after choosing to follow Christ.
What are you doing with your past right now?
The Ghost of Christmas Present
The second of three ghosts to visit Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present. This ghost was portrayed much like Santa Claus, only his robe was green, not red. This ghost was a jolly giant with a wreath on his head and bare feet.
This spirit showed Scrooge what was happening around him at that very moment. Scrooge heard how people felt about him, the realities of his uncaring heart for the people closest to him . . . in particular a child named Tiny Tim.
Through the interactions with the second ghost, we begin to discover what motivated Dickens to write A Christmas Carol. The 1843 novella was an allegory commenting on the cultural state of England at that time, particularly the starvation, sickness, and poverty brought on by the ignorance of child labor laws. Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family were representative of that reality. (As a child, Dickens was subjected to the harsh child labor practices of the time, which the culture accepted.)
Scrooge’s response to the two men who appealed for money to help these children was to ask if the workhouses, prisons, and orphanages were still operating. When the men shared that the situation was dire, Scrooge responded that the poor should get to dying and “decrease the surplus population.” That was actually a direct quote from a preacher of that time, Thomas Malthus.
Beneath the robes of the spirit were two gaunt children, a boy and a girl. The boy was called Ignorance and the girl, Want. Scrooge was told to beware both of them, but especially the boy. Dickens was referring to potential revolution were the conditions to persist. In the mind of Dickens, Scrooge was the collective conscience of his culture to these realities. It’s when Scrooge saw Tiny Tim as a human being that his heart began to soften.
How might we be like Scrooge today? How do we see the world around us? Marley stated that mankind was his business, but he had turned a blind eye to it. It’s one thing to hear about a refugee crisis as we watch our flat-screen TV and eat our dinner, but it’s quite another to personally witness such a crisis. It could move us from standing on a political plank to taking passionate action.
The apostle refers to this in 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” In order to see things with our own eyes, we must first open them. This is Scrooge’s first hope . . . he can’t change the past but he could join the present.
So can we!
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was Scrooge’s final visitor. This particularly frightening phantom was hooded and completely shrouded in black except for a single outstretched hand. The apparition was tall and stately, exuding a solemn dread. He did not speak.
This spirit delivered the bitterest part of Marley’s message. The ghost showed Scrooge where the road of his past and the circumstances of his present would shortly lead. It led Scrooge to a realization that for all his wealth, he was still a pitiful, lonely, frightened man. He saw that even the poorest around him were far happier than him.
In viewing those who were stealing bed curtains and disrespecting a dead body, he realized he had mistaken his good fortune for his worth, and that even with all his wealth, he was living in poverty. He saw the future of Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family in mourning, and ultimately he saw a neglected gravestone in a weed-ridden cemetery with his name on it.
In the end, he realized his life had been all about choices. There were choices of the past that he couldn’t change. There were choices he was making presently to keep his heart as tightly shut as his eyes. And he was seeing the inevitable future that those choices had produced for him.
In this crisis of belief, he begged the silent spirit to know if there could be one more choice. “Are these things that will be or that might be?” Scrooge pleaded. In his begging, he clutched at the spirit’s shroud, only to find himself in his own bed holding on to his bed curtains.
It’s here we see the undeniable beauty and splendor of repentance and how the future changes based on new choices that honor Christmas . . . and God!
Dickens’ work struck a chord in the collective English heart. The story first was published as a pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child. It then evolved into one of the greatest stories of all time, A Christmas Carol. It was responsible for changing the customary English greeting of “Happy Christmas” to “Merry Christmas.”
I think there is a bit of Scrooge in each of us. Our past informs our present and the decisions we make, and we fail to see that the choices of today can lead us into a future that we definitely should avoid. Maybe we need to let these ghosts haunt us a bit until we reach the place that Paul described in Philippians 3:7-9:
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
Merry Christmas and, as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one!”