One of the most popular Christmas stories of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You know the story even if you’ve never read it. It’s one of those stories that’s so provocative that it’s entered into pop culture. Dickens originally published the story in 1843, and by 1905, the word ‘scrooge’ – the name of the main character – had become a popular slang term for ‘miser’ or ‘selfish’.
When your story literally adds words to English, it’s pretty impressive.
Anyway, you know the plot, don’t you? Ebenezer Scrooge is a wealthy businessman who won’t even let his poor employee Bob Cratchit off early for Christmas Eve. Not only is Bob poor, but he has a disabled kid and Scrooge barely pays him enough to feed his family.
Anytime anyone wishes Scrooge a ‘Merry Christmas!’, he responds with ‘Bah! Humbug!’. That night, Scrooge receives a visit from the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who carries heavy chains that are the evils of his life. He tries to warn Scrooge to change his ways, and when Scrooge refuses, Marley promises he’ll be visited by three spirits in the night.
Sure enough, Scrooge receives visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Each shows him the reality he has closed himself off from – that his isolation and misery are largely of his own making, that the possibility of love and community exists if he will only change his ways.
But it’s not until the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him the horrors that await if he doesn’t change – an unmourned death, a lonely grave and hellfire – that Scrooge awakens a changed man. He makes a large donation to a charity, anonymously sends a huge turkey to the Cratchit family and spends the day with his estranged nephew. The next day, he gives Bob a raise and is thereafter known as a kind and generous man.
It’s a terrific story – no wonder it’s been remade and reimagined so many times! But I think there’s a reason it’s a Christmas story too. Even though it doesn’t talk about God becoming human or the manger or the shepherds and magi.
At its heart, A Christmas Carol is a story about an unjust world, and what happens when one of those who perpetuate injustice has a chance to change. How many Christmas movies can you think of where there’s a real villain? It’s most of them, isn’t it? Even Elf is, at its heart, a story of a dad changing his ways.
Even though this theme is embedded deeply in the way we think about Christmas, it’s not one we readily associate with the Christmas season. So I want to ask today what happens when we take repentance seriously?