Merry Christmas from Reel World Theology! We hope you’re enjoying today’s poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December, without a single “bah” or “humbug.” Perhaps by watching a film adaptation of a classic Christmas tale.
Much hay has been made of A Christmas Carol. On this very site, we’ve talked about various adaptations of it several times; and it’s always held a particular nostalgia for me (particularly the Muppet version). But a lot of explorations of Dickens’ centuries-old tale mischaracterize Ebenezer Scrooge’s real problem.
His last name has become a shorthand for the stingy, and so it is no surprise that most people would identify Scrooge’s sin as greed; and to be sure, that is one of his flaws. He also holds a disregard for people made in the image of God, and in most adaptations a short-fused impatience.
But a clue to his most besetting sin is in his first name: Ebenezer is a Hebrew word meaning “stone of help,” but a Biblical ebenezer was really a monument set up to immortalize the memory of some divine aid. “Ebenezer Scrooge,” then, is an ironic name: for Scrooge does not remember. This is his great sin: forgetting.
The Ghost of Christmas Past: Remembering Who We Are
Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back in time, it could’ve taken him to the birth of Christ, or to a moment of particular generosity in history; but it takes him into his own past, to see the past who made him the man he is. It shows Scrooge the good people who poured into and helped him; his headmaster, his employer Fezziwig. It shows Scrooge the person he was, the delight in his heart as his sister Fan takes him home from his boarding school, the real love he feels for Belle. It shows him what he could have had, when it takes him to see Belle and her family.
Human memory is deeply flawed. Scrooge forged his miser’s chains slowly, over time; the fear of poverty edged out all other pursuits until it became a hatred of poverty, and the poor, because he could not remember what it was like to be poor and happy. He couldn’t remember who he had been. We need a reminder of who we are, and for Scrooge, that reminder came in the form of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
This ghost could be seen merely as the nostalgic spirit of Christmas, but remembering who we are is not evil. It becomes clear that Scrooge has not always been the tight-fisted hand at the grindstone that he is when we meet him. He was not always covetous, which means that he could become that kind and joyful man again.
But he has forgotten. And the remembering is painful; so painful that Scrooge tries to extinguish the memory completely by killing the ghost.
The Ghost of Christmas Present: Remembering Who We’re Made To Be
Come in! and know me better, man! The frivolity and temporality of the now casts everything else aside, and Scrooge meets the incarnation of the fête of Christmas day himself. But you may note that he doesn’t see rich people celebrating and making merry; he’s not taken to the court of Queen Victoria to watch her revelry.
No, Scrooge is shown the poor, even the destitute being happy on Christmas. Scrooge surely gets the message: you are made to rejoice, and not in your wealth! We see him live this out after his conversion makes him “merry as a schoolboy” despite giving money away.
It’s easy to forget, amid the insistence and impatience of life, that our chief end (as the Westminster divines put it) is to glorify and enjoy God. We’re made for it, and we’re wired for it. The everyday pleasures we partake of are to point us toward that enjoyment; to be a foretaste and even a palate cleanser for the turbocharged, high-octane joy that awaits us in Jesus.
The Ghost of Christmas Present might be seen as a wasteful, frivolous spirit; but he reminds Scrooge (and us) that the bare acquisition of stuff is a short-circuit on what people are made to experience.
But he has forgotten. Remembering to be joyful is not as painful as remembering who we are, yet with the joy comes a realization that on Earth it cannot last forever; just as Tiny Tim is likely to die. There is, there must be, a deeper and more powerful object for our joy.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: Remembering Mortality
I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. What a cruel irony that Scrooge would live longer than Tiny Tim! Yet for every frivolity of the Ghost of Christmas Present comes a cold, unspeaking, outstretched arm with a pointed finger from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
And cold that reality is; death comes, trading our joys for sorrows, obviating our identity and status, ending us completely. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come renders moot the other two spirits entirely, and even the miser himself; Scrooge would have gone on forever seeking profit and gold, with not a thought for those around him, because he forgot that he was mortal. Though the phrase “you can’t take it with you” hadn’t yet entered the common parlance, Scrooge realizes that he, in fact, cannot.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would be seen as crushing, cruel, nihilistic, and terrifying but for one reality: Jesus is already there.
He has seen the future, He has seen and planned your life and death. And when He went there, it wasn’t as another dead person to join the throng; he entered death as a conqueror.
Remembering our mortality can be fearful, but with the certainty that Jesus awaits us on the other side, we can contemplate our God’s division for our life soberly and even excitedly.
The End of It
So which of the spirits saved Scrooge? This is a question I think we should discuss more, honestly. Very philosophical in a good way. It would be easy to say “all three together,” but in the story, while the first two ghosts make some headway, it’s the final ghost that really seems to kick him over the edge.
Scrooge was certainly afraid by the time the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come approached him in the churchyard, but he wasn’t saved by his fear. He was saved by remembering who he was and who he was made to be; by remembering his mortality and weakness. And then he went and lived in light of it.
So my contention is, none of the sprits saved Scrooge; it was the collective memory they brought with them that made him a generous, joyous man.
Christmas is a reminder, and a call; not just to remember, but to enter in. May it not take three specters for us.
Merry Christmas; and God bless us, every one.