“Why did I walk through the 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 it’s light would have conducted ME?”–Ghost of Jacob Marley
Your eyes do not deceive you any more than Scrooge’s were deceived at the sight of Marley’s Ghost! It really is a new blog entry! There’s been a lot going on in my life over the last year, but that’s for another post! Suffice it to say that you may be hearing more from me in the coming weeks.
What better way to jump into the Holiday season than with the classic story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens? We’re discussing it in our adult Advent class at church this year, and as a part of that class, I’m reading the book again for the first time in probably 20 years. Needless to say, a lot has changed in my life in the last 20 years, so I’m bringing totally new experiences to the table this time around. In fact, I’m not sure I even finished it the last time I tried to read it. If I remember correctly, I was somewhat obstructed by the archaic language and the fact that it was so different from the myriad film versions that I have seen over the years. Not to mention, 90% of what I read is non-fiction, so it can be really hard for a fictional story to grab me these days.
That being said, I wanted to give it a fair shot for this class. We’re not just reading the book, but using a Bible Study/book study guide about the story prepared by Christian author Alan Vermilye along with it. It asks some very provocative questions, and I’ve been turning those questions over and over in my head for a couple of hours now, so I thought I’d do a blog series about it. So once a week between now and Christmas I’ll post a write up of the “Stave” or chapter that I read for the week and reflect on some of the questions asked in the study guide. I might also do some separate entries on some individual questions. When we think of Christmas carols, we think of songs. So did Dickens, hence the term “stave” instead of chapter. “Stave” is a synonym for “stanza” or verse of a song.
The first Stave of the book is called “Marley’s Ghost.” Most of it will be familiar to anyone who has seen a film adaptation of the story. It begins on a dark, foggy, Christmas Eve afternoon in the counting house of Ebenezer Scrooge, formally the counting house of Scrooge and Jacob Marley, who had passed away 7 years ago to the very day. My favorite film adaptation is the 1970 musical “Scrooge.” So I’ll be using pictures from that film.
The story opens with Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, entering the counting house and wishing Scrooge a Merry Christmas and issuing him an invite to his home for Christmas Dinner. Of course, Scrooge flatly declines and basically tells his cheery nephew what he can do with his “Merry Christmas.” Some of the most memorable lines from the story occur in this opening encounter. “Bah Humbug” makes it’s first appearance, and Scrooge gives his famous opinion of what should happen to people who make merry at Christmas.
‘If I could work my will,’ Scrooge said indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with MERRY CHRISTMAS on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart! He should!’
Unable to convince his taciturn uncle, nephew Fred departs the scene, wishing Scrooge’s clerk (who is not named yet) Merry Christmas as he exits.
He is followed by the entrance of two gentlemen soliciting for charity for the poor. They’re not sure if they’re addressing Scrooge or Marley, since the sign on the door still lists both of their names. Scrooge informs them that Marley has been dead these 7 years, and probably wouldn’t be any more interested in their cause than he is. Scrooge denies their request by mentioning that he is already forced to support prisons, union workhouses, and treadmills to help the the poor. When the men mention that many poor people would rather die than attend these institutions Scrooge utters his famous line, “than they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population!”
After admonishing his clerk for wanting the WHOLE DAY OFF on Christmas, WITH PAY, Scrooge dismisses him and locks up his office, returning to his dark, foreboding home for the night. Upon arriving home, Scrooge notices that the knocker on his door has taken on the appearance of the face of his former partner, Jacob Marley. This understandably freaks Scrooge out, but upon opening his door he sees nothing on the other side except the screws holding the knocker to the door.
Still, upon reaching his room, he can’t quite shake the fright and double checks the entire place before double locking himself in for the night. It’s then, while Scrooge is sitting by the fire and eating his gruel, that the ghost of Marley manifests itself to him, accompanied by the ringing of all the old servants bells and the clanking of Marley’s great chain upon the floor.
At first Scrooge attempts to dismiss the Ghost as indigestion, but becomes convinced when Marley screams bloody murder and rattles his chain about in the air. Following this he undoes the bandage around his head, and in a rather frightening image, his jaw falls down upon his chest even though he keeps talking.
We know what transpires next, Marley talks about his chain, how he got it, and that Scrooge’s chain was just as big 7 years ago, and is now much longer and heavier. Marley mentions that he is doomed to wander the earth for eternity, lugging his chain around, but has come to offer Scrooge a chance to escape the same fate. Of course, Scrooge isn’t really excited about the method of his possible deliverance. He will be visited by three spirits. Here is where we get our first major deviation from most of the films. In the story, Marley says that one Spirit will appear to Scrooge each night at 1 AM for the next three nights. Most of the films and adaptations condense them all into one night.
The stave comes to an end as Marley departs through the window and Scrooge is given a look at all the other tormented spirits meandering through the air in similar situations. Scrooge even recognizes some of them. The events of the day have worn Scrooge out so much that he goes to bed without even undressing.
So as I finished reading this section my first thoughts were about how dark the story really is. Sometimes I feel like we have neutered this story a bit in our modern age. The first version I ever remember seeing was “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” a very unassuming and non threatening cartoon. Of course as I’ve said, my favorite version is the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney as Scrooge. While it does contain some frightening images, including Scrooge’s visit to Hell, the musical humor, albeit dark humor, takes a bit of the edge off of it. There have been other Cartoon type versions and actors from George C Scott and Patrick Stewart to Bill Murray have all played Scrooge in the movies, with various degrees of darkness woven into the films.
But I wonder if as a society this story still makes us uneasy enough that we have to try to take the edge off of it. I mean, look at Christmas now. Greed is one of the major themes in this story, yet one could argue very convincingly that greed and consumerism are two of the major driving forces behind our modern Christmas observances. You only need to watch videos of people in crowds throwing punches over cheap TVs or video game consoles on “Black Friday” to see this in action, or even get a look at those lined up to get their “deals” on Thanksgiving afternoon. Many of those people would probably say that they commiserate with Bob Cratchit and his uncaring boss, but still don’t give a second thought to patronizing stores that are open on Thanksgiving and keeping their employees away from their families. The cognitive disconnect is palpable. A day where we are supposed to be thankful for what we have now ends in an orgy of people stomping on each other to get at more material things that we think we need. What might Dickens say about that?
Next my thoughts turned to Marley’s chain and how large and heavy he says the one waiting for Scrooge is. The thing is, my first thought on it was, “Wow! the chain waiting for –insert name here– must be huge! I’m glad I’m not going to have to lug that thing around!” Of course, in doing that I missed the entire point. I’m not supposed to look at the metaphor of the chain and start judging others and measuring up their iron links, I’m supposed to look at MY LIFE and MY CHAIN.
When we’re looking at finding fault it’s always way easier to see the things wrong with others than it is to see our own issues. This is of course at the heart of Jesus’ admonition to remove the log from our own eye before removing the splinter from someone else’s (Matthew 7:5). To tell you the truth, I might be afraid of how long and heavy my chain would be. Sure, I’ve never killed anyone or anything like that, but there are PLENTY of times I’ve put my own interests above those of others. There have been more than my fair share of times when I’ve walked by someone on the streets and pretended that they weren’t there, not even acknowledging their basic humanity and sacred worth. The number of times I’ve dispensed judgment and derision instead of mercy are too many to count.
What if every one of those instances is a link in the chain?
Scrooge also notes that it’s not just metal links that make up Marley’s chain. There are also “cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.” When Scrooge observes the other spirits floating through the air as Marley departs, he notices that one of them has a large metal safe chained to his ankle.
What if these are the things that are more important to us than our brothers and sisters with whom we walk the earth? Obviously the other objects in Marley’s chain were the basic items that would be used in his business. What would be in my chain? My guess is stacks of books, a tv or two, a video game console or two, every cell phone I’ve ever burned through, a computer, lots of THINGS that often become more important than people. I’d hate to see how creative the entity in charge of putting my chain together might be.
What would be in your chain?
Finally I was struck by Marley’s doom, the sentence he received in the afterlife. If you’re only familiar with the films, you might just think that he has to wander around with his chain, but there’s more to it than that. You see, Marley now knows that his chain was forged by his own free will, his own choices that he made to ignore people in need in his life. Now he is sentenced to wander the earth, not just carrying the chain, but having his eyes opened to the needs of others and not being able to do anything about it, and to exist in constant awareness of the fact that he brought it all on himself. The other spirits witnessed by Scrooge suffer the same torment:
The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
A lot of different people have a lot of different thoughts about Hell, or about punishment or torment in the afterlife. This seems, to me anyway, to be a particularly nasty form of it.
What can I change now? What good can I do now, not only to break my own chain, but to loosen the fetters of others?
What can you do? As we look at the news there’s no shortage of places to go or people that need help. For me, and for you if you’re privileged enough to be reading this on some electronic device, its hard to even fathom the plight of poor people, people without adequate healthcare, immigrants, orphans, and refugees.
So what’s our answer to these needs? Too often I feel like we say that these folks best die and decrease the surplus population. If our words don’t say it, our actions often betray it.
I think we know what Jesus would have us do. Someday we’re going to run out of time with which to do it.