“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!”
This is the Ghost of Christmas Present speaking, from a book published 173 years ago, A Christmas Carol. All 6,000 copies of the first edition sold in only four days. It would go on to transform the Christmas folks knew back then: notorious for its emphasis on drunkenness, sexual license, and hooliganism–imagine the worst of office parties and then multiply by 10. But that was then; now, the holiday emphasizes family, goodwill, and compassion. It’s completely different now.
In 1998, the Sunday Telegraph of London would call the author, Charles Dickens, no less than “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
But let’s get back to the story.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!”
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 shrivelled 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….
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“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. […]”
“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?”
The bell struck twelve.
One of the incontrovertible lessons of A Christmas Carol is that children are so vulnerable, so easily wounded, and the karma from those wounds are fierce. Instant karma, long-term karma.
Sometimes the wounding comes from the economy. Dickens knew this directly. He was born to a middle-class life, but difficult times and his father’s careless money management contributed to the family’s financial ruin. His father landed in debtor’s prison. While the rest of the family moved in with him, Charles was left on his own in the wide world, like an Oliver Twist, fending for himself, working from 8am to 8pm in a boot polish factory, with one hour for dinner and thirty minutes for tea. This was his life, so you better believe he could relate to the figures of Want and Ignorance personally. He could feel them growing in himself. And when his fate turned and he went on to live a rags-to-riches story, he never stopped thinking about those other boys and girls who stayed behind, complete victims of Want and Ignorance: he never stopped thinking about their stale and shrivelled hands, their eyes which devils glared out of, menacing… Upon their backs, the Industrial Revolution and its very few wealthy people were built, but how long would it last before Want and Ignorance would explode the edifice, and everything would come tumbling down?
That is certainly something I am wondering about, maybe you as well, in our own post-election times…
But it’s not just all about the economy. A Christmas Carol reminds us that you can be blessed with a silver spoon in your mouth and, still, things can go sour. Its protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is the example. His father, we learn from the Ghost of Christmas Past, was cruel. It’s implied that his mother was dead. He’d been sent away from home to a boarding school, and that’s where he’d be at Christmastime, all alone, every other kid at home with family and cheer but not him. For him: abandonment. Loneliness. Unworthiness.
There’s more that could be said about Scrooge’s biography—that he was loved by characters like Fezziwig reminds us that his past was not completely sad—but it was sad enough that his inner child would be deeply, deeply wounded. So his scroogy, grinchy, Mr. Potter-ish like self should be considered more as unprocessed hurt than as rational position. Listen to what happens when two charity workers invite Scrooge to give:
At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Listen to his abandoned child’s voice, that’s become so hardened, so bitter. That one who himself suffered could be so cruel to others is striking; but it’s what happens when Want and Ignorance twist a person up. And logic can’t solve this. Healing has to take a different route….
The argument of A Christmas Carol is that such a route has to have at least two dimensions: social and personal. And Christmas is the ideal time to begin.
The social dimension is eloquently stated by the Ghost of Jacob Marley, who returns from the grave full of regrets. “Business!” he cries out, wringing his hands. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Then he says, “At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
People read this in 1843, and remember what they knew about Christmas back then. The worst of office parties multiplied by 10. But here was a voice that wanted to bring Christmas back to its Christian origins. It’s about a blessed Star and the Wise Men and the family whom they visited.
But notice above all that Dickens, as he speaks through Marley, says much more than this. He says that that Star is always shining and it is always leading folks who can give to those who need to receive. Veneration for the specific person of Jesus is not the point of Christmas and it is definitely not the point of vital religion! The point of vital religion is to love one another. Jesus might inspire it, but so might the Buddha, so might Elizabeth Palmer Peabody!
Christmas is a story that lays love out purely. So let us live the spirit of Christmas all year long. It’s not about crazy office partying.
The message gets repeated again and again throughout the book. Here’s Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who says, “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
That’s the quote. We are fellow-passengers to the grave. Sometimes we are the Wise Men led by the Star, and sometimes we are the refugee family who just had a baby and we see holiness in that new life but we are completely vulnerable and afraid and our need is overwhelming. Sometimes we are the one, sometimes we are the other. But always, fellow-passengers.
Come Christmastime, we think on that.
We need a Christmas revolution in our country right now.
But this is not the full picture, for Charles Dickens. Did you know that, in 2008, Forbes included Scrooge in its list of the top 15 richest fictional characters and estimated his net worth to be eight billion dollars? It means he could have immediately and substantially improved the lives of everyone around him and it wouldn’t have put a dent in his wealth. Yet there he is, approached by two charity workers asking for a small donation and he’s having none of it. Not gonna budge.
This takes us to the personal dimension of the route to undoing the damage of Want and Ignorance. They twist up our souls. How do we get untwisted?
And here is where A Christmas Carol lines out nothing less than a complete spiritual discipline, or, what a Christmas revolution for the soul would look like.
Read the book again. Watch the movie. What you will see unfolding in the soul of Scrooge is this:
- Scrooge experiences undeserved kindness from the Ghost of Marley, and this is when Scrooge’s heart starts to soften. It means that, when you are generous enough to show kindness to someone who does NOT deserve it, the gift you are giving is profound and it may just save that person.
- Scrooge encounters the Ghost from Christmas Past and he reconnects with the child he was. He feels those feelings again, and he needs to. He doesn’t need an encounter with Christ; he needs an encounter with himself. And it leads to a further softening of the heart. It means that you can’t think your way to healing, people. You can’t study Plato and Kant and get to kindness. That’s not how it happens.
- Scrooge meets the Ghost from Christmas Present and what happens is his awareness of his world is expanded. He discovers someone named Tiny Tim and he is amazed by the deep love that erupts for this sweet child. In other words, healing requires people to see beyond their own lives into the lives of others. With whom are you in relationship? What Tiny Tims are out there but you haven’t connected with them yet?
- Then comes the Ghost from Christmas Future, and here we remember we will die and here we acknowledge that our name will be held in other people’s mouths and our deeds will be told by others. So what will our legacy be? What will people say about us?
- And then comes Christmas morning. Listen: “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, 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, 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.” In other words: don’t let anyone trap you by their small vision. Don’t let any one freeze you in time. If a Christmas revolution happens in your heart, then you just be you. You do you. Others may laugh, they may doubt. But let the truth of your life be quite enough for you.
Listen to what this book says! Listen to its two main lessons:
- Exclusive veneration for the specific person of Jesus is not the point of Christmas and it is definitely not the point of vital religion! The point of vital religion is to love one another.
- People like Scrooge exist, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Radical transformation is possible. Love people, even when undeserved. Remember the child you were and still are and will always be; feel all the feelings. Expand your world and relations. Know you will die, and so live all the more urgently. Don’t let others freeze you in time.
All this is from the “man who invented Christmas.” This is from a person who knew Want and Ignorance directly, and his life was lived in service to healing.
This is also from a Unitarian. Yes. When Dickens wrote this book, he was a faithful member of Little Portland Street’s Unitarian Chapel. He once said that Unitarianism is “a religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none; who would do something for human improvement if and when it could; and would always practice charity and toleration.” Fellow writer Robert Browning said, “Mr. Dickens is an enlightened Unitarian.”
The final lesson of A Christmas Carol is that our faith has real, enduring power. Christmas as we know it today comes from it. It urges a Christmas revolution in society. It urges a Christmas revolution in the soul.
Despite the pain of this time, when Want and Ignorance worry the land and worry the children, I am so grateful for Unitarian Universalism, and I know it will carry us through.
There is a Blessed Star, and it will lead us.