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A Dickens Christmas Pt 1: Overview

Scott on December 24, 2008 at 1:06 am

(PREFACE:  This is the first of a series of 4 messages that I wrote in 2007 for the pastor of my old church.  When he presented this series, he unfortunately chose to gut lot of the content , so I decided this Christmas to put them up in their original form.  These messages were conceptualized to be  multimedia-oriented including artwork, still images, video, etc.  That, too, was gutted by my former pastor.  I have done my best here to present the messages with at least a semblance of what I saw in my head as I was writing this series.)
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During this time of year we are bombarded by a variety of memories and images, emotions and stories, all tied to the Christmas season.  The manger scene with Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and three wise men.  Santa Claus and his sleigh.  Sparkling lights and Christmas trees.  Family meals and gathering with friends. Giving and receiving presents. Hot Chocolate (with or without marshmallows) and egg nog.  Christmas carols and ancient hymns.  Candles and mistletoe.

And then there are the movies and television shows:  “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas specials, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy.

And don’t forget Yule Logs and Figgie Pudding.  OK, forget those last two ’cause I’m not even sure what a yule log is and since I REALLY don’t like figs, anything called “Figgie Pudding” sounds just plain wrong and is definitely out of the picture!

All of these sights, smells, flavors and experiences, combined with memories of Christmases past, create a fascinating mélange that give us what we call “the Christmas season.”

In the middle of all this sits one of the most powerful and certainly most common images of Christmas, that of old England with carolers wrapped in scarves and wearing tall hats and bonnets, snow-covered streets, and brownstone houses with candles in the windows.  In fact, this has come to be known as a Dickensian Christmas named after Charles Dickens, the man who penned the story “A Christmas Carol.”

Next to the story of Mary and Joseph in Matthew 2, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most recognized Christmas story around.  It was quite literally an overnight success when it was first published.  Dickens wrote the story over a six-week period in October and early November of 1843.  He was so sure that people would like “A Christmas Carol” and so certain of its success that he took the nearly unprecedented step of refusing to sell to his publisher the rights to the story.  Instead, he paid out of his own pocket to self-publish the story. His instincts proved true and soon after its initial publication, all of the copies were sold.  The story immediately went into a second and then a third printing and has been available in print ever since.

The story of “A Christmas Carol” is so familiar to us that it has become engrained in our culture.   If someone is incredibly cheap with money or other possessions, or if they are mean and bitter towards everyone around them, we say that they are a real “Scrooge.”  If someone is dealing with issues arising from actions or choices they made in the past, we describe them as dealing with the ghosts of their past.  Disney even named Donald Duck’s rich uncle, Scrooge McDuck, after Ebeneezer Scrooge, the main character in “A Christmas Carol.”

Through the wonders of the internet and the IMDB, a short bit of research turns up the following:

There have been no less than 6 big screen adaptions of “A Christmas Carol,” from the black and white 1938 version staring Reginald Owen to the 1970 musical version called simply “Scrooge,” to Bill Murray’s more comedic “Scrooged,” to Captain Picard oops I mean Patrick Stewart’s excellent 1999 portrayal of the mean, old skinflint.

There have also been at least 17 made-for-TV versions of the story, along with at least 15 additional adaptations of the story in which the basic plot remains intact but the setting or characters are changed to give it a new twist.  Some of these adaptations include: A Diva’s Christmas Carol, An American Christmas Carol, Skinflint:  A Country Christmas Carol, and of course The Donny and Marie Christmas Carol.

(OK, I made that last one up about Donny and Marie, but it sounded believable didn’t it?)

And then there are the plethora of children’s versions of the story:  The Scooby Doo Christmas Carol, The Bugs and Daffy Christmas Carol, A Flintstones Christmas Carol, The Jetsons Christmas Carol, A Sesame Street Christmas Carol, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Mickey Mouse Christmas Carol, etc, etc, etc.

So all of this to say that “A Christmas Carol” is a very, VERY popular story.

By the way, in the area where this blog is based (Orange County, California), this is the 29th year that the South Coast Repertory Theater has performed “A Christmas Carol.”  That’s 29 years at 35-40 performances a season which totals somewhere between 1000 – 1100 shows.  That is A LOT of “Bah Humbug!”

So here’s the question – WHY?  Why does this story resonate with people so much?  Why do we enjoy watching it year after year in all its many forms?  I mean, it’s not like the story changes.  At its root it is always the same.  Scrooge begins, as the story says, as:

” a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he “

And yet by the end of the story it is said:

” He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  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 that 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 and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

What a contrast!  The ultimate dynamic character, Scrooge goes from being  “a grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” to being “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew “  And THAT is where we find the answer to my question.  Why is this story so popular?  Why does it resonate enough to be kept around for centuries?

The Answer:   TRANSFORMATION.

“A Christmas Carol” and the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge is a story of transformation, of a changed life, of a metamorphosis at the most basic and foundational level.  It is a story that gives humanity hope even in the darkest of times.  Within us all is the possibility of change, of repentance away from what we are and what we have been, and of transformation into someone different, someone better who has been saved from the past and freed to be someone better in the present and the future.

Of course, change is never easy.  It isn’t easy for us and it certainly isn’t easy for Ebeneezer Scrooge.  If it was easy there would never be any benefit in the process of change.  But the key is that in order for change to take place, we must be willing to look at ourselves for what we REALLY are and not what me might like to THINK that we are.  All pretense and illusion must be stripped away so that we can actually see the stark, blemished, unvarnished reality.  Not an easy task and one that is never pleasant.  We must face what we have done in the past and what we are in the present.  Only then can we hope to look for change in the future. We must be able to step outside ourselves and recognize ourselves for what we are – sad, pathetic excuses for humanity who, for all our good intentions, still end up being selfish and self-absorbed, more concerned about our own benefit than anyone else’s.

Scrooge must face these truths about himself by confronting three ghosts during the course of one night.  Each of these ghosts represents one of the stages of transformation that Scrooge must experience before his final metamorphosis can occur.  Scrooge must be able to recognize his own anger and bitterness, his own selfishness and depravity.  As each ghost comes to Scrooge, they present him with stark, clear and uncomfortable perspectives on life and on the world at large that serve to open his eyes to the sad, ugly, bitter existence that is his life.

Regret and the Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebeneezer on perhaps the most uncomfortable journey in the story, the journey to his past.  When he stands with this ghost, Scrooge is forced to witness some of the best moments of his life and some of the worst, most tragic events and decisions.

He relives a tender exchange between himself and his young sister during a time when he had been exiled to a boarding school, away from his family.  His sister has been sent to the school to tell her brother that their father has softened his heart towards the boy and sent Fanny to bring young Ebenezer home for Christmas. Scrooge also relives a Christmas party from his early working days before the love of money consumed his life.   His employer spends a few dollars on a Christmas party, a party that brings an immeasurable amount of joy to all of those working for him, including the young man Ebeneezer Scrooge.

During his time with Christmas Past, Scrooge is also forced to relive other, less pleasant and definitely more painful moments.  He sees himself again as an even younger boy than before after he has been left at his boarding school during the holidays, alone and rejected by his father, with no friends and no family around during the long, cold, lonely holiday.  He is also forced to re-experience one of the worst decisions of his life – the day he turns his back on his fiancée (the one true love of his life), all in the name of pursuing wealth.

It is here that Scrooge comes face to face with one of the most powerful and haunting emotions of the human experience – REGRET.  As he views the shades of his past, he wants to shout at the Ebeneezer of his youth, this shadow of decisions long past.  He wants to tell him that he is making the wrong choices, doing the wrong things.  But he can’t.  He can only view these choices, these events, through the eyes of a tired, bitter and emotionally damaged old man who is chained to his past.

Consequences and the Ghost of Christmas Present

The Ghost of Christmas Present demonstrates how Scrooge and those with whom he interacts all end up reaping what HE has sown, and how his actions in the present have CONSEQUENCES for all those with whom he lives and works.  He is forced to see how he, quite literally, makes life miserable for all those around him.  The poor families who owe him money are terrified that if they can’t pay him he will have them arrested and placed in the poor house.  Bob Cratchit, the underpaid and underappreciated clerk, is forced to raise his family in horrible conditions in which their clothes are old and frayed at the seams, their meals are barely more than a few mouthfuls for each child, and the youngest Cratchit, Tiny Tim, is forced to suffer a debilitating illness that could easily be treated if the family only had money for the necessary medications.  In the Cratchit household, the name of Scrooge is one that is spoken with grief and bitterness, like the sour taste of vinegar.

But as Scrooge travels with Christmas Present, these sorrowful images are contrasted with others as the ghost takes Scrooge to various locations around England.  Poor families who, in spite of the poverty in which they live, love and laugh and wish those around them a Merry Christmas with all the sincerity of their hearts.  Miners, the dirtiest of the working poor, sitting in a hut and gathered around a fire, singing songs of Christmas, the old tunes that hearken back to the true meaning and essence of the holiday.  Workers at a lighthouse far out from the coast, surrounded by the raging sea but still happy and joyous that it is Christmas.  And on and on and on.

Ebeneezer Scrooge begins to recognize that perhaps Christmas is not all a “humbug,” a senseless waste of time.  There is good and joy that comes from it, but the day to day consequences of his actions and spiritual brokenness have blinded him to all the good Christmas brings and the greater Love it represents.

Judgment and the Ghost of Christmas Future

The last ghost is the most frightening to be sure, because this ghost appears before Scrooge as a spectral image reminiscent of Death.  Dickens describes it this way:

In the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.  It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of its visible save one outstretched hand.  But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

This ghost is a being of shadow because it comes to show Ebeneezer the shadows of things that have not yet happened, but that may happen in the future.  Here Scrooge must face the ultimate consequences of what he has done with his life and thus, to face JUDGMENT. Scrooge is forced to see a future that has been largely shaped by him and by the choices he has made and by the events in which he has participated.

He watches former business associates standing in a corner of the business square, discussing whether or not any of them are planning on attending his funeral.  None of them have any intention of going unless lunch is served. Next he watches as a young husband shares the news with his wife that they will not end up in the poorhouse because thankfully the man to whom they owe a substantial debt (Scrooge) has recently died.  This news brings a burst of joy from the wife who finds herself rejoicing at the death of another person.  Lastly Scrooge ends up in the home of the Cratchits who are in the midst of mourning, but not over the loss of Scrooge.  They are, instead, mourning over the death of young Tiny Tim.

Judgment has come for Scrooge in the form of a sad, solitary death with nobody around to grieve his passing.  Christmas Future in the form of the Grim Reaper signals Scrooge’s own emotional and spiritual death while symbolizing the pain and grief (and death) that he has brought to those around him.

The only point of light during his time with Christmas Future comes just before the ghost leaves him.  Scrooge realizes that the events he has witnessed are only shadows of what might be in the future and as such might be prevented and/or changed entirely.  Scrooge and those around him are not fated and condemned to suffer the consequences of his past choices and actions and his negative attitudes. His future is not set in stone.  It is fluid and able to be changed.

And then at last the transformation, the epiphany, the change of heart and soul at the foundational level.  As he witnesses events from his past and experiences REGRET, and as he witnesses the sorrow of those around him in the present and experiences the CONSEQUENCES of his actions, and as he watches the dismal shadows of his future and experiences JUDGMENT, Scrooge is broken and rebuilt in a matter of moments.  He comes face to face with the darkness of his own life and the depravity of his own soul, and in doing so realizes that there is still hope.  There is still time to change.

And the tool of that transformation comes in the form of truth of Christmas itself.  Encountering the three ghosts has stripped him of all his pride and anger, clearing away the debris of his life and leaving it ready for change.  And when the transformation comes, it comes in an instant.  Like a light switched on in a dark room, the joy of the changed heart enters Scrooge and lights him up from the inside out.  He is a different man, a changed man, a transformed man.

As Christians we talk about the need for change, for TRANSFORMATION.  In fact, that is at the heart of our faith.  We say that this change takes place because of our need for repentance and because of the redemption and transformation that is experienced in Christ.

We talk about the need for REDEMPTION, to literally be purchased back from someone or something to whom we owe a great debt.  The Bible tells use:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.         Ephesians 1:7 (ESV)

We also talk about REPENTENCE from things we have done and said and from the life we have lived:

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.     2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.    2 Peter 3:9   (ESV)

And we talk about the TRANSFORMATION that is possible within a relationship with Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.     2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.    Romans 12:2   (ESV)

So the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge is an allegorization of the human condition and the state of the human soul, highlighting the horrible flaws and short-comings in one bitter old man so that we are able to recognize those same flaws (or others) within ourselves.  “A Christmas Carol” represents the power of change and salvation that is embodied in the Matthew 2 Christmas story and that is available to all of us through faith in the grace of God.

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This series includes:

Part I:  OVERVIEW

Part II:  REGRET AND CHRISTMAS PAST

Part III:  CONSEQUENCES AND CHRISTMAS PRESENT

Part IV:  JUDGEMENT AND CHRISTMAS FUTURE

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