The final scene from Charles Dickens’ classic novela, A Christmas Carol, gives us a lasting testament to the changed life of the central character, Ebenezer Scrooge. The contrast could not be more pronounced from the opening scene where, you may recall, Scrooge literally and figuratively “Bah Humbuged” everything that hinted of Christmas specifically, and by extension all things that resembled human compassion and decency in general. The harsh, rude rejection of his nephew Fred’s invitation to Christmas dinner, the insensitive and inhumane attitude toward the men collecting funds for the poor, and the cold, willfully unaware mistreatment of his underpaid struggling family-man employee, Bob Cratchit all painted a picture of a man who was interested entirely and solely in himself. No hint of charity appeared to exist in the lonely old man.
A visit from the ghost of his seven-years-dead business partner, Jacob Marley, warned him of three spirits who would be visiting him soon: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, all with the goal of waking Scrooge up to himself, everyone else, and what makes life worth living. With each visit Scrooge’s assumptions and biases are highlighted and challenged by the ghosts, and with each encounter, Ebenezer’s heart slowly softens as his vision gets corrected. By the end of the last spirit’s exchange, our hard-nosed curmudgeon declared himself to be a changed man who would not be the same. His lips communicated that he was a changed man. Would the new dawn serve to give testimony to a truly changed heart, mind, and life? How would we know if he was really a changed man?
The final chapter begins with Scrooge realizing that he is not dead, but alive – really, really alive – and for the first time in forever, even giddy with joy. He soon discovers that he has been reborn in time for Christmas morning. His first order of business? He spends money on an excessively large gift for Bob Cratchit and his family – a large prize turkey for the poor family’s dinner. Ebenezer even provided a financial incentive for the boy who arranged it, and cab fare for the poulterer to cover delivery. His first act of the day gives us an allusion to what would follow.
As Scrooge enters the world as a new man, we stroll the streets of London with him, noting his entirely changed mood. He sings with the carolers he earlier no doubt scorned and wished a “Merry Christmas” to all he passed. He happened upon the same men who had asked him the day before for a charitable contribution. They were not particularly delighted to see him given their first encounter. Ebenezer did more than announce his intention to provide a generous gift: he also acknowledged that he was aware that his name was likely not music to their ears, and that his gift included many-a back contribution from Christmases long passed. A gift with a confession.
We continue following our born again companion and witness him working his way into his nephew’s home to give Fred a gift – the gift of himself at Christmas dinner, which is the only thing he ever wanted from his uncle. Dickens included a subtle, additional gift in his written work. He didn’t assume that he would be welcome. He asked, “Will you let me in, Fred?” This simple question communicates volumes about the attitude which was born from a changed heart. The question itself is a confession – he knew he had been a pig (film adaptations include Ebenezer apologizing to Fred’s wife for his cold-heartedness). Fred and the rest were more than delighted to let him in. The festivities commenced, and Scrooge’s participation gave further evidence that his words that morning still rang true.
A final, beautiful scene follows the very next morning where we find Scrooge at his office – early – to make sure he is in his seat before Bob Cratchit arrives. Bob arrives late due to too much merriment the night before, we learn, and Ebenezer lets him know of his tardiness. But instead of a reprimand, Scrooge informs Bob that he is to be given a raise, that he will find support for Tiny Tim in him, and is ordered to immediately go buy more coal so as to appropriately heat the office. Cratchit is dumbfounded. Once again, we hear from the employer’s mouth a confession that he was making up for many years of humbug. Two gifts dovetailing into an unmistakable testimony of his changed heart, mind, and life. A narrator’s voice concludes the story sharing that Scrooge made good on his word in every way and more, that he became as good a man as was ever known in London, and became like a second father to Tiny Tim. Ebenezer Scrooge stayed reborn. He truly kept Christmas in his heart the whole year through. He lived with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come as constant companions which produced fruit of a continually changed heart that changed his mind and behavior. Or was it his changed behavior that altered his mind and heart? Or was it his changed mind that transformed his behavior and heart? Yes, yes, and yes.
While the story of the Wise Men is often depicted as part of the Christmas scene in the nativity scenes we place in our homes, they actually would have showed up much later – sometime within a couple of years of Jesus’ birth. Anachronistic for sure, they still offer some insight for our story today.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod. – Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)
These star-gazing scholars from the East looked to the heavens for signs of God’s activity. They received their own heavenly visitation announcing Christmas – a new star – which in their way of thinking meant that a new king had been born. Their thinking led to action: at great expense and with effort from an entourage, they made their journey toward Israel, one which would take many weeks or months to complete. Along the way countless discussions would have ensued about who they were going to visit, and as they learned more and more about the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel, their hearts most surely began to stretch as they considered what a newborn king might mean about the movement of God. Upon discovering where the baby was to be born and finding him living in deep poverty, perhaps what happened to them was similar to Scrooge – their eyes, mind, heart, and hands opening further and further? The gifts themselves were confessions. All gifts that were appropriate to give to royalty – of great value – they each carried special meaning. Gold fit for a king. Frankincense used in priestly ways to connect God and people in prayerful worship. Myrrh saved for proper burial – a prophetic gift needed in due time. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a man who would be seen as a prophet, priest, and king. Thoughtful gifts that confessed an intentional mind at work. Heartfelt gifts that evoked passion in the preparing and giving. Expensive gifts that required extra care in handling to insure they arrived safe and sound. More than simply tangible gifts, the confessions imbued in them added great depth and nuance that could not have been missed by Mary and Joseph, by us, or especially by them!
There is much present within these two dovetailing stories for us to chew on. On a very practical level, as you give gifts this Christmas, I wonder if it might be wise for us to take a moment and reflect on what we would like to confess with the giving of the gift. While the tangible expression is itself sometimes important, I wonder if we, as givers, would benefit much more from the giving if we dialed into the deeper “why” behind the what we give. My hunch is it might enhance everything about the giving experience for us and the recipient.
Ebenezer Scrooge pledged to keep Christmas the whole year through. The Magi kept Christmas their entire journey back to Baghdad and likely the rest of their lives. At times I believe this keeping of Christmas is effortless. When we are reminded of the most important things in life, we often find ourselves at our best, deepest, and most thoughtful. At other times, however, I think we need to be more intentional, setting reminders, carving out time, placing triggers to make sure we stay centered when life’s busyness seems to distract and derail us. James Finley, on speaking about meditation in an every day mindfulness sort of way, offers this:
Perhaps by trial and error, with no one to guide us, we find our own way to respond to the unconsummated longings of our awakened heart. We, in effect, discover our own personal ways to meditate. By meditation I mean, in this context, any act habitually entered into with our whole heart as a way of awakening and sustaining a more interior meditative awareness of the present moment. The meditation practice we might find ourselves gravitating toward could be baking bread, tending the roses, or taking long, slow walks to no place in particular. Or we might find ourselves being interiorly drawn to painting or to reading or writing poetry or listening to certain kinds of music. Our meditation practice may be that of being alone, truly alone, without any addictive props or escapes. Or our practice may be that of being with the person in whose presence we awakened to what is most real and vital in our life. . . . We cannot explain it, but when we give ourselves over to these simple acts, we are taken to a deeper place. We become once again more grounded and settled in a meditative awareness of the depth of the life we are living.
For Ebenezer Scrooge and everyone everywhere for all time, Christmas is more than a day. Christmas is a mindset, an opportunity to live fully conscious and as present as possible to the life we are living in cooperation with all other people and the entirety of creation itself – all in a never-ending dance with God who created it all, who showed up in the most peculiar place so long ago, reminding us to pay attention, because you just never know where God might show up next.