A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Present

It’s easy to get frustrated.  And incapacitated.  One study suggests coffee is bad for us.  Another says it will ward off dementia and Alzheimers.  What’s a sleep-deprived man to do?  Coffee is just the beginning, of course.  There are even more pressing issues (if you can believe it).  Like global warming.  Or border control.  Or Black Lives Matter. Or affordable housing.  Or Income disparity. Or gender inequality. Or discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or…  Lots of issues, all of which are incredibly complex.  It is easy to get frustrated, which can easily lead to doing absolutely nothing (with a grumpy expression on our face).  A Christmas Carol is a story about a very frustrated older man.  In this week’s episode, we encounter the second of three spirits who visited the crusty curmudgeon.

The second spirit to visit Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present, which brought us from the past directly into Ebenezer’s daily reality.  From the first look, we got a clue about what kind of ride our primary character was in for.  The Ghost was wearing a massive green robe with white fur fringe, bare-chested to boot.  This dude is clearly ready to party!  He’s got great hair, too, and charisma that will bring joy to any room.  He carried a torch that imbued a special, sweet smoke wherever he directed that immediately lightened the mood.  Hmmm.  Apparently a giant doobie…  More than simply being the Life of the party, there is one detail that is so intentionally included that we must notice it: “Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.”  What a peculiar addition.

I think Dickens gave us this detail as a reminder of whose birth we are celebrating on Christmas Day:  the Prince of Peace.  Before he was even born, a Jewish priest uttered a prophecy about the one to come: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (Zechariah, in Luke 1:78-79 | NLT).    The angels referred to this quality when they gave the birth announcement from heaven:

     That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

     Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” – Luke 2:8-14 (NLT)

Eight days after Jesus was born his parents took him to the Temple to be circumcised – a Jewish ritual that extends nearly to the beginning of the faith.  An elderly, devout Jewish man named Simeon happened to be hanging around when they were there.  He experienced God telling him that he would not die until he laid eyes on the Messiah, the anointed one who was going to bring redemption to Israel.  When he saw them, he said, “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32 |NLT).

Peace was perhaps the greatest gift that this child came to bring.  A moment of rest – a day off – but more than that.  Peace with God translating into peace with each other.  A day off of violence to choose love and joy instead.  The Apostle Paul spoke to his audiences about this peace that passes understanding.  A peace that enters during our lifetimes during the worst of times, giving us hope of Peace to come.  The scabbard didn’t hold a sword, and it hadn’t from the beginning.

The test of this peace came at Bob Cratchit’s home on Christmas Day.  His whole family would eventually be present, which gave him great joy.  Everyone tried to look their best, even though they were very, very poor.  Mrs. Cratchit did the best she could, as most Victorian women in England would: only being able to afford one dress, they would wear them inside out when the wear and tear exacted its toll.  On this day, she adorned her dress with bows to hide the stains and sections that were threadbare. 

Bob attended a mass before coming home for Christmas dinner, taking his youngest son, Tiny Tim, with him.  Asked how the lad did in the service, Bob shared with welled-up eyes:

     “As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he 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.”

After a great dinner together the Cratchit family gathered around the hearth to tell stories, sing songs, and raise a glass.  Bob Cratchit even chose to toast his stingy, mean boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, as the founder of their feast.  His wife vehemently protested.  Bob’s response?  It’s Christmas. A day when we walk around with rusty, sword-less scabbards.

Dickens paints the scene as the evening wore on: “There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirits torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.”  The love and warmth in that scene began to affect Scrooge’s icy heart.  He wondered about Tiny Tim’s fate:

     “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

     Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit and was overcome with penitence and grief.

     “Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked can’t until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

The message sunk in for Ebenezer.  After the Cratchit home the spirit took them to his nephew’s home where dinner was commencing – the same dinner Scrooge refused to attend.  Speaking of his uncle, Fred remarked, “He’s a comical old fellow, that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him… I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence?”

Some things were beginning to clear up for old Ebenezer.  Like Paul’s blindness falling like scales from his eyes, Scrooge was beginning to see just how poorly he had been seeing.  His attitude and perspective – his vision – was coming into greater clarity.  As has been noted, people don’t see things as they are, people see things as they are.  As Scrooge was seeing his employee and his family, and his nephew and friends with reborn eyes, he was also beginning to see himself for who he was, for who he had chosen to become.  He began to appreciate just how cold-hearted he was as the spirit swept him to places where it would be easy to be hardened – a miner’s settlement and a ship at sea.  In both truly bitter environments the inhabitants there sang their songs of Christmas, of joy, of peace.

The closing scene of this stave brought with it a tragic visual hiding within the spirit’s robe:

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread…

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

     “Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

     “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Ebenezer was truly humbled.  And that was a good thing.  Dickens was hoping that the humbling would extend beyond his fictitious character to the real-life Scrooges who hid behind their rationalizing why they needn’t lift a finger to help those who suffered.  Some would do it claiming to be Christians all the while.  To those the spirit gave comment:

      “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

The world Dickens was addressing is reminiscent of the world into which Jesus was born.  While Simeon was beyond joyful that he could die in peace having seen Jesus with his own eyes, he spoke truly prophetic words to Mary – allusions to what lay ahead for this child who would one day wear a rusty, empty scabbard as well: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:34-35 | NLT).

Both stories sting.  Dickens’ wonderful novella caricatures a part of us we all try to manage, to keep under wraps, yet sometimes emerges from our respective shadows.  Surely his original audience recoiled a bit at the suggestion that they were part of the problem.  Surely the same happens today when we think of some of the great challenges we face in our current time.  The point of the work was to help people see, to move them, to wake them from the slumber of their comfortable state. To open their eyes with the aid of an engaging tale.

In Victorian England, as in First Century Israel, information was hard to come by.  It was difficult to gain broad perspective on what was happening because so much information was inaccessible.  The lack of information created a feeling of being truly stymied. Today we have a different problem but the same feeling.  Now we have so much information, it’s hard to know what to believe.  And, with our political leaders constantly leveraging their binary rhetoric to their advantage, or even calling into question our ability to know anything for sure, we may feel overwhelmed in our sense of incapacity.  We know so much we don’t know anything.  So we don’t do much of anything. And we feel kinda guilty yet a little justified at the same time because of our overstimulation.

But to do nothing – especially at Christmas – is to ignore Christmas itself.  Except for some nods to rulers for the sake of dating the story, nearly all of the key characters in the birth narratives of Jesus are very, very poor.  The Good News of Jesus’ coming came to an elderly couple (powerless), young woman (powerless), a young man (the news of which was emasculating), and a bunch of lowest-rung-on-the-corporate-ladder smelly late-shift shepherds (POWERLESS!)!  All poor.  The only wealthy people of note?  King Herod, who was threatened to the point of calling for infanticide, and the wealthy Wise Men from the East, who were insightful enough to approach such an impoverished newborn king with great humility and deep generosity.  The shepherds ran to see the scene and tell their part of the story.  The Wise Men traveled for weeks or months to pay homage.  They didn’t sit back and do nothing because they just weren’t sure what to do.  They took the next step.

This stave was crafted to show us ourselves and call us on the carpet.  To not let us off the hook because it’s hard to understand due to a lack of information, too much information, or unreliable information.  And this chapter was offered to push us beyond feeling guilty about the status quo.  It calls us to respond with reflection.  Contemplation followed by action.

This story is about more than a stingy man learning to loosen his purse strings.  A Christmas Carol is about a boy that grew into an older man who, along the way became something much less than anyone’s dream.  He only had financial wealth – and even that he didn’t enjoy.  This story is about the hope of birth, and rebirth.  Through innumerable moments throughout his life Ebenezer chose to be more closed than open, more rigid than flexible, more fearful and angry than hopeful and loving.  His world got smaller and dimmer every year, leaving him literally cold and alone.  He needed the Ghost of Christmas Present to open his eyes to what was there all along.  Bob Cratchit wasn’t simply an employee he had to pay, but a husband and father who loved his family and managed to stay out of debtor’s prison even with the extra care a special needs child demanded.  Even though mistreated by his employer, Bob still raised a glass to Scrooge – a great sign of maturity and grace.  Ebenezer needed to see his nephew, Fred, for more than a fool who spends too much money on a Christmas Feast – funds that could have been invested.  Instead, he found a genuinely warm, mature man who intentionally took time to celebrate life with those he loved, who even committed to loving his uncle every year despite the near-certain rejection.  Ebenezer needed to see black-dust-encrusted coal miners and sailors soaked to the bone from the cold sea waves they fought – all of whom sang songs of Christmas, songs of hope, songs of love breaking into the world.  On that day love prevailed and showed itself for what it is: the very source of Life.  The Source Scrooge had been trying to live apart from the majority of his life.  It had caught up with him.  He didn’t know how much until he saw with new eyes what was always there.

I’ve had this experience along numerous lines throughout my life.  Not really understanding at all the feel of racial prejudice until my friend Adolphus Lacey and I roomed together during a choir tour in Iowa.  Simply put, I was clearly treated with great respect and trust, and he was looked upon and spoken to with fear and a hint of disdain.  He and I were both headed toward becoming pastors.  I can say the same for gender equality, having witnessed incredibly sharp women getting overlooked simply because they were women.  I’ve been given new eyes regarding poverty as I have come to see the issue as deeply complex which cannot be addressed with generalities about laziness and evil “users of the system”.  I have, with the help of a ghost in all of these and the ones to come, been given new eyes with which to see religion itself – so often diminishing its call to loving service and instead opting for rigid moral policing.  Over many years my lenses have been corrected in regards to homosexuality.  There was a brief period of my life – as a pastor – when I thought homosexuality was inherently sinful and needed to be categorized like we might do with alcoholism.  Some people are born predisposed to alcoholism and have to manage it their whole lives – I thought the same regarding sexual orientation.  It was easy to adopt such a view when surrounded by people who believed the same and interpreted biblical verses to validate their views with God’s stamp of approval.  But over time which allowed for deep study of the biblical texts, theological reflection, listening to those who struggled, discernment, and experience, my understanding changed.  My eyes saw things I simply couldn’t see before.  My understanding turned into action.  First simply sharing what I learned.  Then taking a stand.  Then living out my stated beliefs in action as I officiated a same gender wedding ceremony between two CrossWalk members who could not have been better candidates to provide me this first opportunity.  Of course, living out this belief caused serious backlash from my broader faith community which does not see things the same way.  With my action came the loss of a fairly prestigious leadership position with our denomination’s regional entity and the income that accompanied it.  Strained relationships, of course, came as well.  I have no regrets about my decision and am, in fact, proud of it and even grateful for it.  And yet I mourn and grieve even though in the long run it will all turn out for the best.  This is the more regular course for most of who do not get all three ghosts in one night.

The greater truth of Dickens’ classic is that we all are visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all the time. Some traditions refer to the Spirit of God as the Holy Ghost.  I believe this Spirit is constantly with us, urging us to see through the eyes of God, through the eyes of Love, that we might truly live full and free.  Deeper than a feeling, Love is the undercurrent of creation itself, and was manifested in the birth of a child in the most peculiar circumstance over 2,000 years ago.  Those who can see even a little still sing of it.  Perhaps the continual singing will foster new seeing as well.

What are you going to do to understand the complexities of the serious challenges we face today (and have faced with limited success since the dawn of humanity)?  Poverty.  Income disparity. Immigration. Undocumented immigrants. Racial prejudice. Gender inequality.  LGBTQ discrimination.  The list goes on.  What are you doing to gain a fuller perspective?  What are you doing in response to what you are learning?  How are you being Christmas – being and bringing Good News to our real-life characters who inhabit our world who need to know that the heart of God beats for them as it did when Jesus was born?