December 9, 2012
In the nineteenth century after Christ, when Victoria was queen of Britain, a word of inspiration came to Charles Dickens, son of John, in the wilderness of London. He went into all the region around the Thames, proclaiming the story of a baptism of repentance for a man named Ebenezer Scrooge. While Dickens is not John the Baptist (as portrayed in this week’s Gospel reading), the story of Ebenezer Scrooge can help give us an idea of what exactly a “baptism of repentance” might look like.
By the time that Dickens penned “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, the celebration of Christmas had all but died out in Britain. The Puritans under Cromwell had gone so far as to outlaw celebrating Christmas in the 17th Century, and even though it was legal again by Dickens’ time, the dour stamp of Cromwell had left its mark on the Protestant culture of Britain. Feasts and celebrations were regarded as frivolous extravagances and, given that Britain was enduring the worst depression it had ever seen from 1837 through 1844, the mill owners and workhouse masters were in no mood to give their employees time off from their 10-hour workdays to celebrate Christmas. It was a time when over one million people were plunged into poverty and had to endure either the grim conditions of the workhouses or the humiliation of debtor’s prison, as Charles Dickens’ father had (see Laura Grande, “How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas”).
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, which I was reminded of when I watched “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” with my partner the other night (I highly recommend it). Scrooge, as Dickens described him, mirrored the dour, miserly spirit of the 19th century barons of capital: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire …” Scrooge – by the covetous standards of his time – would have actually been regarded as quite virtuous. He was frugal, hard-working, self-sacrificing, he paid his taxes, and he was even a “job-creator” as the employer of poor Bob Cratchit. What more could you want from the man?
The word “sin” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “Missing the mark”, or as author Eckhart Tolle puts it, “Missing the Point.” We are in a state of sin when we are walking around, like Scrooge, missing the point of life. What is the point, you may ask? Well, the Gospel of Matthew shows Jesus defining the point as “You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40). While Scrooge may have been utterly righteous in his behavior, he was also utterly devoid of love – either for God or for his fellow humans: “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [the workhouses and the prisons] – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.” So Scrooge’s sin was not about failing to comply with a long list of rules; it was about failing to live in loving relationship with God and his fellow humans. It was about missing the point.
Around about this time of year, I begin to empathize with Scrooge. Isn’t it enough for me to go about earning my daily bread without expecting me to paste on a grin at these idiotic office parties and fight off the crowds in the stores for an endless list of Christmas presents? I completely understand Scrooge when he says “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!” I, too, start missing the point, snapping at my partner, yelling at the dogs and cutting people off in traffic.
Scrooge’s lonely occupation with his own business, however, is about to be rudely interrupted. While Scrooge is not literally baptized in “A Christmas Carol”, he certainly undergoes an immersion into the world of the spirits. He is visited during God’s darkness in the night before Christmas by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In the course of one night, the spirits take him on a trip that turns his life upside down, makes his paths straight, fills his emotional valleys, makes low the mountains of his ego, turn his crooked ways straight, and make his rough ways smooth. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge his lonely childhood, lost in his books and abandoned by his friends, and how he later came to fill that well of loneliness with an obsession for money that eventually drives away his first love. The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the courage of Tiny Tim and the happiness of Cratchit family, in spite of the pittance that poor Bob Cratchit earns under him. Finally, the silent Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his ultimate end – a lonely, unmourned death, and a life celebrated only by the rag-pickers who come to pilfer his belongings.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for “repent” – shuv – also means “to restore” or “to renew”. When we thoroughly examine our past, present, and likely future, and we decide to do things differently as a result, we are renewed and restored to relationship with God and our fellows. Scrooge was certainly renewed as a result of his immersion in the world of the spirits. He wakes on Christmas day with the delight of a newly-baptized baby: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy.” He buys the biggest Christmas turkey in the shop for the Cratchit family and pays a long-overdue visit to his long-suffering nephew. As Dickens says, “ … to Tiny Tim … he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
So why should we care about the repentance of Ebenezer Scrooge, who doesn’t even exist? Well, the story of Scrooge’s repentance certainly made a difference to Victorian England. According to Laura Grande in her article “How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas”, “By Christmas Eve [after its publication], all 6,000 copies had sold out and it continued to sell out with each new edition well into the following year. The observance of Christmas experienced a mid-Victorian revival, with a heavy emphasis on family-oriented festivities. Dickens was hailed as a hero and he did public readings of A Christmas Carol every holiday season from 1853-70. In total, Dickens read his book aloud to massive crowds 127 times” (ibid.)
The coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God aren’t things that happen by magic. They happen because people – individually and collectively – are willing to take the time to immerse themselves in the world of the Spirit during God’s darkness, and do the hard work of examining the past, the present and the future. When we stop lugging around the dead weight of our past and decide to behave lovingly and peacefully in the present, we pave the way for a future where the love of God and generosity toward our fellow humans is the rule, rather than the exception. It doesn’t matter if the people around us are deserving or not. As Thomas Merton says, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” If the story of Scrooge’s repentance revolutionized Christmas in England, image the effect that our individual stories of renewal could have on the people around us. This Advent, if we’re busy missing the point, let’s take some time out and pray for the Spirit’s guidance. Like Scrooge, you might be surprised at what happens. God bless us everyone!