A (Holy) Ghost Story: Seeing Christ in A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, a week before Christmas. There are many, many versions of Dickens’s Christmas classic. IMDb lists more than 110 movies and TV shows based on the story. There’s a Flintstones adaptation, a Muppets version and Bill Murray’s take in Scrooged. My favorite is the 1984 film featuring the gruff, growling George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. There’s even a story about Dickens’s most famous story: The Man Who Invented Christmas, which is in theaters now.
Not only did Dickens change the English language with A Christmas Carol — by the late 1800s “scrooge” became a synonym for any miserly person — he wrote a story about light and darkness, giving and receiving, the here-and-now’s impact on the hereafter, salvation and second chances. For those with eyes to see, Christ is present throughout what Dickens called his “ghostly little book.”
Echoes and Shadows
“There is no doubt that Marley was dead,” Dickens begins. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”
Scrooge’s story of transformation and new life, like ours, oddly, begins with certainty about someone’s death. Christ’s death is essential to understanding His mission and our redemption — or else nothing wonderful can come of the story. After all, it is not Christ’s birth — fantastic as it was — that gave mankind a second chance at abundant life, but rather His death and what happened three days later. Only if we grasp what He accomplished between Good Friday and Easter Sunday does Christmas Morning have any real meaning.
“You will be haunted,” Marley warns, “by three spirits”: The Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
In these three Christmas ghosts, there also are allusions to the Father, Son and Spirit — to a God that transcends time, a God that is the beginning and the end, a God that holds in His hands life and death, a God that knows the appointed time of all men.
It’s worth noting that the first spirit brings “light by which all this was visible.” The second brings a “joyful air.” The third is a “mysterious presence” that fills Scrooge with “solemn dread.”
These are reflections, shadows, of some of the ways God is described in scripture: God brought light to the universe, Genesis tells us. His word is a light unto our path, the psalmist explains. And God is light, John writes. His Spirit gives us joy. Knowing Him brings us joy. Accepting Him in our hearts fills us with joy. And yet, the Living God is so far above us, so holy and perfect, that He is mysterious. Even Immanuel — “God with us,” divinity wrapped in humanity — only adds to the awesome mystery of the Great I Am. And encountering Him or His messengers can be downright dreadful, leaving some troubled and shaken, some confused or speechless or collapsed, others fearful or terrified, still others lame or mute or blind, some even dead — but always transformed by the One whose very name is “beyond understanding.”
The Heart of the Matter
Christmas is “the only time…when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely,” exults Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Indeed, Fred persistently keeps opening his heart and home to Scrooge, keeps inviting his uncle to be part of his life, keeps showing love, keeps sharing Christmas — indeed Christ — with Scrooge.
Fred is not the only one who reflects Christ and tries to share Christmas joy with Scrooge. His employee Bob Cratchit and his colleagues at the exchange raising money for charity also show goodness and kindness.
Scrooge is consumed by the worries, burdens and wealth of the world but somehow distant from the world.
Indeed, Scrooge is shown again and again that we are not islands — that our actions and inaction, our words and silence, affect our neighbors. After Scrooge remarks that Marley was an excellent businessman, Marley’s ghost howls, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business.”
Scrooge is consumed by the worries, burdens and wealth of the world but somehow distant from the world — at once worldly and yet oblivious to the needs of the world around him.
This sickness of heart is not peculiar to 19th-century England, as we know. Nor is it something that evolved in modern man. “The seed falling among the thorns,” Jesus explained, “refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
“Scrooge equates happiness with wealth,” theologian Stephen Rost observes. “Ironically, he is the most unhappy character.”
On the other hand, characters like Fezziwig (who mentored Scrooge in his youth) and Cratchit are full of the joy that comes from treasuring what matters — family and friends, life and love.
Not coincidentally, Dickens tells us Cratchit is church-going and God-fearing. He prays and thanks God for his blessings. At one point, Cratchit recounts how his crippled and dying son “hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” At another point, Cratchit’s older son reads from the Bible: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them…”
Surrounded by his family — and little else in the way of material comforts — Cratchit declares, “I am very happy.” Even amidst the loss of his child, he repeats the words, this time with an exclamation, “I am very happy!”
Only a man who holds Christ in his heart — only a man who knows Christ holds his son — could say such a thing.
Speaking of the heart, A Christmas Carol is the story of a heart transformed. The Ghost of Christmas Past tells Scrooge that his dreamtime journey is all about “your reclamation.”
Confronted with the consequences of his sinfulness, Scrooge is described as “holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed.”
“I am not the man I was,” Scrooge cries. “I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” Encountering the Eternal — being confronted with our own broken mortality — has a way of softening the heart.
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” the reborn Scrooge promises. “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me…Heaven and the Christmastime be praised for this! I say it on my knees.”
Reborn is an apt adjective for Scrooge. After his encounter with the supernatural, this man who was once mean and cheerless, laden down with the burdens of this world, is full of joy. “I am as light as a feather,” he cheers. “I am as happy as an angel…as merry as a school-boy…as giddy as a drunken man.”
Dickens reports that on Christmas morning the new Scrooge “went to church and walked about the streets.” He “patted children on the head,” talked to beggars and “found that everything could yield him pleasure.”
The new Scrooge is forgiving, shows mercy and offers grace. He is generous — helping the Cratchits, tipping the poulterer, donating to charity and showing compassion for Tiny Tim.
His transformation transforms those around him. With an echo of the prodigal son’s return, Scrooge returns to his nephew and asks, “Will you let me in, Fred?” The response is emphatic and immediate: “Let him in!” A “wonderful party” full of “wonderful happiness” ensues.
Cratchit is stunned by the new Scrooge: “He had a momentary idea of…calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.” But by word and deed, Scrooge convinces Cratchit that he is a new man. “I’ll raise your salary,” he vows, “and endeavor to assist your struggling family.”
“Scrooge was better than his word,” Dickens reports. He “became as good a friend…as good a man as the good old city knew.”
This is just a story, written by an imperfect man, with his own preconceptions and issues. Dickens’s faith was complicated, a byproduct of what Rost calls “a life of unpleasant experiences with formal religion.” Yet he notes that six years after A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote The Life of Our Lord, reflecting what his daughter called “deep devotion to Our Lord.” Dickens himself said, “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of Our Savior.”
Indeed, this story reflects deep truths about a God of second chances, a God who commands us to help one another, a God who will do anything to bring His children home. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home.”
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.