The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: Christmas as Ebenezer

By Timothy King 12-23-2011
An illustration from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Image by Tim King.

An illustration from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Image by Tim King.

“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.

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

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