The Common Good

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Exegeting Ebenezer Scrooge

Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Image by Tim King
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Image by Tim King

Christmas as Ebenezer

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

So begins the classic tale of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is a story that has been told and re-told through various mediums since the novella was published December 19, 1843.

I sat down recently to watch the new Disney version of the tale. It features a CGI rendition of Scrooge with the voice of Jim Carrey.

After 15 minutes I shut it off.

It wasn’t that it was particularly bad. I didn’t give the movie enough of a chance even to figure whether it was worth watching. What I realized is that I wasn’t much interested in hearing the same story again from a secular perspective.

A Christmas Carol, I would argue, is not ultimately about Christmas, but conversion.

Christmas is the stage and the catalyst through which transformation occurs. It is a leading character to be sure. But, it is the radical change that occurs in Ebenezer Scrooge that most compels me.

December 25 is arbitrary. The decorations, the food, the carols and the celebrations are non-essentials.

Christmas is an ebenezer.

The word “ebenezer” comes from 1 Samuel 7. The Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant. The country was in disarray. It was then, the passage tells us, that the people turned their hearts back to the LORD. The Israelites made a sacrifice and when the Philistines attacked the Israelites won.

In commemoration of the victory, Samuel set up a stone and named it “Ebenezer” saying, “thus for the LORD has helped us”.

An ebenezer is a reminder. It tells the story of God’s faithfulness and our repentance. It is a marker for transformation and conversion.

Dickens, I would assume, did not give Scrooge the first name “Ebenezer” without reason. While the word has fallen out of common use (the hymn “Come Thou Fount” is often sung now with the word “altar” in replace of “ebenezer”) it is still powerful with meaning.

“Ebenezer” is the marker that commemorates the moment that everything changed. In difficult times it is the reminder that what was true at the time of the original change, namely God’s faithfulness, is still true today. 

All of the trappings of this holiday season, including A Christmas Carol, are only significant insofar as they are “ebenezers.” They are important because the mark a change and remind us of the change is that is happening now and that is still yet to come.

My hope, in the next few blog posts, is to explore some of the religious and theological significance of this classic Christmas story. When I turned off the Disney version, I sat down and read the text again for myself. It held more meaning than I had remembered.

I’m not a Dickens scholar. I have no qualifications to study the work other than my enjoyment of it. But I think the story is more significant than it’s popular retellings demonstrate.

Secular renditions have tended to focus too much on the holiday itself. The real story, I believe, is found in Ebenezer.

 

Lifting Up the Lowly

Scrooge calls Christmas a “humbug.”

When his nephew tries to convince him otherwise, Scrooge responds:

“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The nephew retorts:

“What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

The nephew concludes with this famous line about the holiday:

“Therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say God bless it!”

One theme throughout Dickens' "Christmas Carol," is the contrast of the rich and poor. Wealth, in this story, doesn’t make it impossible to celebrate Christmas, but it does make it more difficult. Just like for Jesus, wealth doesn’t make it impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven, but it doesn’t help.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, set the tone for the “first” Christmas. In her Magnifcat she sang, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The reversal wasn’t limited to class. It was bigger and broader than that. The magi coming from the East brought expensive gifts. They were, with little doubt, wealthy. Their arrival as gentiles and outsiders signaled a reversal that was to come.

The Christ child born in Bethlehem would make sure that the first were last and the last were first. Jesus did not come for the healthy but for the sick. Those who thought they were insiders would be left out in the cold if they did not embrace this new reality.

The fact that the manger was “lowly,” was no mistake. Swaddling clothes were not meant for new born king’s, and yet they were the perfect garment for the situation. An unwed virgin carrying God incarnate is nonsensical and yet somehow exactly as it should be.

It is this radical and unexpected nature of the Christmas story that makes the dialogue after Scrooge’s nephew leaves grate against my ears.

Two gentlemen come to Scrooge’s office to take up a collection for the poor so that they may have some “meat and drink, and means of warmth” on Christmas. Scrooge asks them why the needy don’t go to the poorhouses and prisons. One of the men responds that there are some who would rather die than go there.

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The story of Christmas is a reversal from what we see as the natural order of things. It is an assault against a world in which too often might makes right and only the strong survive. This new set of values subverts an existing order.

It is the light entering the darkness and the promise that the darkness will not overcome it.

 

A Chain of Our Own Making

The specter of Jacob Marley entered Scrooge’s room. It had been seven years to the day since Marley died.

Before he sees them, Scrooge hears the clanking of the heavy chains his old business partner now carries with him.

Scrooge asks how it is that Marley became thus fettered.

“I wear the chain I forge in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it.”

Marley did not realize in life that he was a slave. He assumed that his wealth and the absence of external restraints meant he was free, when in fact his miserly and selfish ways were forging the means of his own bondage.

Why did Jesus come not for the healthy but for the sick? Because it is only the sick who recognize they need a doctor. It is the sinners who know they are sinners who seek salvation.

Like St. John’s message to Church in Laodecia (Revelation 3), Scrooge thought he was wealthy and in need of nothing when in fact he was wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. He, at least at this point in the story, had no concept of his own poverty.

Later, the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge the beginnings of Scrooge’s own bondage. Dickens describes the young Scrooge like this:

There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.

Scrooge is able to look on at his old self seated with his former sweetheart, Belle. But, it is a sad memory as Belle leaves him that Christmas. Her reason for leaving him explained where the chain Scrooge fashioned for himself had begun.

“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

Scrooge begs the Ghost of Christmas Past not to show him anymore. But, there is a final visitation. It show’s Belle as a grandmother years later happy and satisfied. Belle’s husband returns home and tells the story of seeing Scrooge sitting in his office alone on the holiday.

“His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe.”

Scrooge didn’t start out as the Scrooge we met in the opening scene. That Scrooge was created choice by choice, decision by decision, Christmas after Christmas and chain link by chain link.

His bondage began, as it often did with the Israelites, with idolatry. The pattern we see through the Hebrew scriptures is a cycle of idolatry, captivity, repentance and then freedom.

I get frustrated reading through the book of Judges. The cycle of idolatry is repeated over and over. But, I too find myself in the midst of that story. I am in a constant spiral of allowing idols to crop up in my life, becoming captive to them and once again repenting — in need of liberating grace and mercy.  

When we replace God with something else, we sew the seeds of our own captivity.

 

Moral Imagination

The Ghost of Christmas Past showed Scrooge a total of five visions. It is only the last two which are dark. The first three show the seeds of Scrooges own repentance.

The first vision shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas past is that of a young Scrooge reading alone, neglected by his peers, just before Christmas. Scrooge, watching his old self, begins to cry.

“What’s the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should have given him something: that’s all.”

The next scene Scrooge is shown a tender moment with his sister. We learn that not only was Scrooge a solitary child but his father was abusive and had banished him from the house. It is his sister who finally convinces their father that Scrooge should come home for Christmas.

It is then Scrooge is reminded of his harsh treatment of his sister’s son, Scrooge’s nephew.

After that, is a Christmas party where Scrooge is a young clerk and enjoying himself at the expense of his boss, Mr. Fezziwig. It is Fezziwig who demands that Scrooge stop working and begin to celebrate. Scrooge and the other clerks he worked with extol the virtues of their boss for bringing such joy to the season.

It is then Scrooge is reminded of his cruelty to his own clerk, Bob Cratchit.

At the same time that Dickens is showing the development of the chains that would eventually bind Scrooge he is also showing that those fetters are not inevitable. Every time we see Scrooge making the connection between his own life and the life of another person we see the antidote to the poison that has been destroying his soul.

Scrooge had not yet lost all his empathy. It took the visions of Christmas past in order to spark it in him but it was still there.

At the heart of Christian morality is the Greatest Commandment. To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. This means that essential to the Christian life is moral imagination. We need to have the ability to see through the eyes of another in order to know how we should live and act in the world around us.

It was when Scrooge saw himself as a young boy, alone except for his books, that he was able to imagine the world through the eyes of the lone boy who came caroling. When he saw his sister he was able to imagine the mistake he had made by turning away his nephew and his invitation to Christmas dinner. And finally, when he remembered the joy brought to his life by the simple actions of his boss, he realized what a miserly boss he had been.

Those visions were what rekindled his moral imagination, his ability to see the world from another’s perspective.

 

The Horizon of Death

It is with death that Dickens begins his story and it is with death that Scrooge completes his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Scrooge hears other businessman saying that they wouldn’t attend the funeral unless there was sure to be lunch served. Men for whom he had great business esteem gave no more thought to his death than they did the weather. There were thieves who stripped the clothes off his dead body and the curtains from around his bed.

He begged the Spirit to show him a scene in which some person, any person, was moved to emotion at his death.  The Spirit brought him to the house of a debtor who rejoiced with his wife at the death of Scrooge because now they might have time enough to pay back their loan. When he was shown the Cratchit household there was no mention of Scrooge at all, only mourning for the passing of Tiny Tim.

For a story about conversion, death is a necessary character. It is in the finality of death that our eyes are able to readjust and see the horizon of our life and being. It is within that context of understanding our end is coming that we can live our lives well.

It was around this time two years ago that I was in the ICU with acute necrotizing pancreatitis caused by complications from a diagnostic procedure. I was in respiratory distress, had been catheterized and was wearing an adult diaper as I was no longer able to control my bowels. I was 25 and the doctors told my family there was a fifty-fifty shot as to whether I would live or die.

With a clear vision of my own mortality it was never more sure to me that little matters in life as much as who shows up at your hospital bed to say goodbye or hold your hand and say that there is still hope.

Dickens describes the corpse of the Scrooge of the future:

He lay, in the dark, empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child to say he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.

The woman who stole the shirt off the cold body of Scrooge was correct in her insight that it would be of little good to him now. Nothing that moth and rust can destroy or thieves can break in and steal is of lasting value.

Death of self, Paul teaches in Colossians 3, must be confronted before the gift of true life can be received. Before God, we are all stripped bare.  

It is the reflection of ourselves in the mirror of death that allows us to weigh our life.

 

Charity Worth Laughing At

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and, knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well the they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had left Scrooge and there was left an "ebenezer," or reminder.  

Scrooge repented, promised to “honor Christmas in his heart” all year long and to never forget the lessons of the three spirits.

He celebrated Christmas day with his nephew, sent the Cratchit family a prize Christmas turkey and then given Bob Cratchit a raise. He became a second father to Tiny Tim, was known as a good man in the city and was remembered for his ability to keep Christmas well.

But, as Dickens pointed out, this didn’t come without some laughter and derision.

Some people who knew Scrooge as a misanthrope before, now saw the old, mean man as a fool. The radical conversion Scrooge underwent  caused some to question whether this new Ebenezer was still of sound mind.

This is as it should be.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ family thought Jesus was out of his mind at least once (Mark 3). They were concerned that he had lost touch with reality. And in a way, they were right to be concerned.

The new reality Jesus was ushering in meant that he and his followers had started to lose touch with the old reality. Paul wrote that the message of the cross is foolishness to most but to those who are being saved it is the glory of God (1 Corinthians 1).

If you don’t find the idea of God putting on flesh and dwelling among us scandalous, then you don’t understand it.

Conversion should be a transformation so significant that people should laugh at us and think us foolish for the risk-taking charity that flows out of our lives.

Not all of us have the kind of dramatic conversion that marked the life of Ebenezer Scrooge. Many of us live lives in which our conversion occurs slowly each day.

So the important questions to ask at Christmas are these:

Am I more converted than last year?

Are my heart and life turning closer to the picture of the miserly Scrooge or the joyful Ebenezer?

What is the trajectory of my spirit?

With each decision we make we bring either more freedom or captivity into the world. Christmas is not just a time to be charitable but to assess the charity of our spirit from the entire year before.

May Christmas this year inspire us all to a kind of charity worth laughing at.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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