The third week of Advent is upon us. Just as our faith in God’s love, and the hope He promised, begins to waver, we light another candle, and its flickering glow reveals a parade of scruffy-looking
nerfherders shepherds trotting toward Bethlehem, their voices brimming with joy and excitement.
Hmm. I wonder why they’re so happy?
This week, I’d like to turn your attention to one of the oldest old-school works of speculative fiction: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. It’s the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who’s lost his joy, though we don’t understand that at the beginning of the story. All we see is “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.”
Most of you are probably well-familiar with this story. As I was thinking about it today, I realized it also follows the pattern of the Advent wreath.
You don’t believe me?
Come along. Today, I’m the Ghost of Speculative Christmas. Rise, and walk with me.
Marley’s Ghost: the Prophecy Candle and voice of Hope
One Christmas Eve, after a long, hard day of evicting widows and orphans and counting his gold sovereigns, Scrooge retires to his drafty apartments with a bowl of gruel, and he’s confronted by the horrifying spectre of his old business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley is doomed to an eternity of wandering about the world, without the power to intervene for good, and he’s burdened by an enormous length of ectoplasmic chain—the weight of his sin. He warns Scrooge that a similar fate awaits him if he does not change his ways, but a fragile hope remains. To that end, Marley has arranged for Scrooge to be haunted on three successive nights by three spirits, who will lead him down the path to righteousness.
The Ghost of Christmas Past: the Bethlehem Candle and voice of Love
The first spirit takes Scrooge on a whirlwind tour of his youth, where we learn how he came to be the decrepit, penny-pinching miser we know. To our surprise, we discover that Scrooge’s early life was lonely at times, but not miserable. His older sister loved and cared for him. He was intelligent and hardworking, and enjoyed the example of a generous employer. He wooed and won the heart of a beautiful young lady, but lost her when his lust for the power and security of wealth led him astray and accelerated his descent into hard-hearted bitterness. The spirit’s travelogue of self-examination leaves Scrooge shaken and overwhelmed: “Leave me! Take me back! Haunt me no longer!”
The Ghost of Christmas Present: the Shepherds’ Candle and voice of Joy
An evening with the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, passing invisibly among the merrymakers of London and the countryside beyond, reminds Scrooge of the abandoned joys of his early life and reveals that wealth is irrelevant to true happiness. His eyes are also opened to the plight of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose family celebrates Christmas with gusto despite their privation and the illness of their youngest child, Tiny Tim. That brave little boy moves Scrooge to a novel emotion—compassion. As the spirit ages and dwindles, he reminds Scrooge that there are many others he has denied his sympathy and mocks him with his own callous words: “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?'”
The Ghost of Christmas Future: the Angels’ Candle and voice of Peace
Peace seems an odd theme for Dickens’ final spirit, but by the time he appears, Scrooge is beginning to understand the purpose and value of these strange visitations and accepts the spirit’s guidance without protest. He has come to terms with the reality of his plight and his role in creating his own misery. However, he learns that merely acquiescing to the truth isn’t enough—the shadows of the future still forecast his ultimate despair and doom. Scrooge’s soul will never experience peace without a change of heart. He must repent. The shattering revelation of his own mortality, near at hand, inscribed upon a tombstone, provides the crisis that prompts his transformation. He awakens to a brilliant Christmas morning, amazed to discover his journeys have taken only a single night, and grateful he still has time to make good on his promise to reform: I am here — the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!
In the aftermath of his travels through the unseen world, we see the fruits of new life in Scrooge. He falls to his knees and offers glory to Heaven. He’s inundated with joy, a baptism that leaves him “giddy as a drunken man.” He leaves his dank, musty lair to gaze in wonder at a city full of people he’d hardly noticed before. He goes to church. He begins to reconnect broken family ties and makes the welfare of Bob Cratchit and his brood his personal responsibility. Most significant of all, the changes stick. His changed heart and newfound generosity, both emotional and material, characterize him forever after, despite the skepticism of a few acquainted with the old Scrooge:
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.
May our own journey through Advent bring us joy and transformation in like measure, and as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one!”
UPDATE: Stephen has a great post in our archives that offers more insights and historical background on Dickens’ beloved Christmas tale. Check it out here.