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Scrooge’s phantoms: What I missed from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

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As the New Year is about to begin (and it is still Christmastide), I thought it fitting to share one last thought on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each year, I try to immerse myself in the spirit of giving by reading Dickens’ classic and watching a film version masterfully rendered in black-and-white (this year’s choice was the 1951 adaptation Scrooge starring Alistair Sim). I have found that it is striking how many times you can read something and still discover some new insight, turn of phrase or bit of wisdom. This follows the old dictum that the first time you read a story you find out what happened and every time thereafter you begin to understand what it means. This year’s reading, I assure you, was no different.

Late Christmas Eve (as you know) Ebenezer Scrooge, the inveterate miser, found himself distraught in the company of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s Ghost had just informed Scrooge of the coming three spirits necessary for Scrooge’s “reclamation”. But before the Ghost disappeared, he beckoned Scrooge over to the window opened to the cold night air. With trepidation, Scrooge approached.

When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear; for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
     Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
     The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

Whoa.

“The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

It was like something out of Dante’s Inferno: Those unrepented sins which a man or woman clutched and committed in life were oppressively crushed upon them after death. This lot of selfish souls in life were, in death, condemned with acute consciences and utter helplessness to do anything to salve them. Smug and comfortable in their dislocation from others in life; tortured and agonized in impotence to help others in death.

How strange.

This dramatic scene had forever been in Dickens’ story, but somehow I had missed it. Again and again.

While the lesson of Generosity is the constant refrain of those who reflect upon A Christmas Carol, there is no Generosity without its fundamental inspiration: Love. And, in an apt corollary, there is no Love without Generosity. We have seen this interplay between Love and Generosity again and again in our Faith. St. Augustine’s first draw away from heresy and into the Faith came not from an apprehension of Truth, but from the kindness of St. Ambrose (“I began to feel affection for him, not at first as a teacher of truth…but simply as a man who was kind to me.”). Gerard Manley Hopkins, according to Flannery O’Connor, once answered a man asking how he could better believe with two simple words, “Give alms.” And the Church Father, Tertullian, observed the distinguishing feature of Christians from pagans when he wrote,  “Look…how [these Christians] love one another…Look how they are ready to die for each other.

Those agonizing phantoms outside of Scrooge’s window seemed to grasp this Truth only too late: Our time is finite to do the good we are called to do. Don’t wait. Love and give now. And if uncertain how we are to do this, we should look no further than the Christ child around whom our season should be centered. Love Incarnate – Generosity Enfleshed – came to die so that we may live. As the lyrics of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing remind,

Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Marley’s Ghost, three spirits and a sky full of suffering phantoms led Scrooge to change his ways. But it was Christ and Christmas that made it possible. Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give us second birth. 

Dickens’ Scrooge changed. Genuinely and vigorously.

In this coming year, will we?


Photo credit: Pixabay

 

 

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