Three Reflections from my Evening Spent with a Ghost
It’s customary for our family to watch Holiday specials during this time of year.
Thankfully, removing Hallmark from the list of options leaves us with wide a wide assortment of Christmas classics that bear the test of time.
We rarely, as a family, agree on which Christmas special to watch.
Last night was no different.
From Disagreement to Dickens
As we began our search, my daughter lobbied for White Christmas.
Great choice! But, in my opinion, that particular movie gets prime-time billing, much closer to the big day.
Sensing an opening, I offered The Grinch for our communal consideration.
And, while we enjoy the version featuring Jim Carey, I prefer the older, cartoon version. It’s also, I might add, one of my favorites! What’s not to like about a vile beast’s heart growing ‘three sizes’ in a moment of joyful response to and reception of child-like love?
After a series of exhausting arguments – yes, I have children who argue quite persuasively at times – my daughter finally said, “Dad, why don’t you just read A Christmas Carol† to us.”
So, we grabbed Dickens from the bookshelf, blew the dust off, and hunkered down for a night of re-discovering a piece of literature that has shaped the Christmas season for so many across the globe.
It’s been years since I sat down and read A Christmas Carol.
I was struck, within the first few pages, by how compelling the narrative is and how little of it is efficiently translated onto the big screen.
And, of all the mysteries that leaped off the page, the most significant (at least to this point, as we are reading one chapter a night), is the mysterious after-life of Jacob Marley. Marley was Ebenezer’s friend and business partner, before his death, seven years earlier.
Scrooge first encounters Marley’s ghost at the end of another long and dreary Christmas-Eve. The way in which he encounters the ghost (a series of haunting but brief sighting and sounds) makes the reader feel as if Marley has been trying to get his attention for some time.
Wandering the Realms Between the Worlds
And, in fact, that’s the case. It seems that, since his death, Marley has wandered the realms between the worlds in search of his old friend.
It also seems that Marley has often been quite near Scrooge, at times even next to him. Either Scrooge’s lack of attentiveness or Marley’s lack of skill navigating the “how to appear and make contact with the human world you once loved” terrain, has kept the encounter at bay for seven full years.
By the way, I found myself wondering if there is some more significant meaning behind the number of the years (seven) than readily meets the eye.
At last, on this ill-fated Christmas Eve, he’s finally able to get Scrooge’s attention.
And, when he does, he offers a frightfully clear picture of where Scrooge will end if he doesn’t straighten up, now.
Marley’s ghost is, in some small way, a picture of the ancient Prophets, calling the loved-ones of God back to the truth of His word.
Marley’s ethereal presence comes with a genuine expression of material, embodied, or distinctly earthy hope!
He appears in order to awaken Scrooge to his self-absorbed and sin-soaked existence.
By imploring Scrooge to be attentive to the chains that weigh him, the ghastly figure of a ghost whom he once called a friend, down.
The Chains We Forge In This Life
In a powerful scene, Scrooge begs an answer of Marley regarding his presence in his home and, more pressingly, why ghosts, ghouls, and spirts aimlessly haunt the earth.
“It is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!” Again the specter raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.”
Trembling, Scrooge then notices the chains which hold Marley captive.
Scrooge asks why the ghost is bound by his chains. It’s here were Marley delivers one of his most piercing narratives of the scene:
“I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” Scrooge trembled more and more. “Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas-eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”
The warning is clear: the chains we create in this life are the ones we carry into the next.
His warning ripples with pain.
On the heels of the ghost’s warning, Dickens wonderfully has Scrooge inspect himself (and the reader with him), looking for his chains.
And, while doesn’t see any, we are left with the sense that Scrooge feels the weight of his burden already.
If he does, it’s undoubtedly short-lived.
In the next exchange, Scrooge doubles-down on the virtues to which he desperately clings.
- Hard work.
And, while Dickens doesn’t say as much, each of the virtues mentioned above, present themselves in a straightforward statement, as Scrooge tries to rally his resolve.
To his gaunt, ghost-of-a-friend, Scrooge whines:
“But you were a good man of business, Jacob.”
The ghost of Jacob Marley (sounding terribly like Jesus – in the Gospel of Matthew – when he instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself”) then delivers his most vigorous counterclaim.
It’s a counter that would send any miser trembling to his/her knees:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “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!”
Soon after this forceful encounter, the chapter grinds to a heart-rending close.
Not, however, before two grueling realities take hold of Scrooge. These realities that will forever shape his life:
- The reality of three more haunts, yet to come. The spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. They will haunt him on three successive days. Each appearing at a specific time and place. These three haunts are the answer Scrooge receives when he asks Marley for some comforting news. This news is not what Scrooge wants to hear!
- The reality of countless phantoms wailing, whirling, and wandering in the air. The apparitions restless and hopeless existence is accentuated as they hover above agonizing human pain and suffering. Now – longing to lend a hand or give aid – they are forever unable to do so. The saddest and most gut-wrenching of all possible hells one could invent.
While I don’t necessarily believe that I’ll carry the chains I forge in this life into the life yet-to-come, to what degree I think Dickens is or isn’t right is not relevant.
What may be relevant are the three reflections with which I will end this post:
Three Reflections from my Evening Spent with a Ghost
- Every day is filled with opportunities to surrender our love-of-self in favor of a God-focused and God-forged love of others. Ironically, this time of year – a season which ought to be the pinnacle of such others-oriented love – we rarely extend beyond ourselves or our immediate family. Though we may desire to do more, our relentless pace of parties and endless search for packages leaves us beleaguered, threadbare, and bankrupt in more ways than one.
- God is ever-present and always calling me to be attentive to Him. Most notably, God longs for me to be alert to Him while I am in the presence of others. This is particularly the case when I come across those who are suffering (cf. Matthew 25:31 – 45). We can behold His face in the smile of a baby as we wait in line at the grocer, as well as in the plea of the brow-beaten and broken-down, cowering on the corner, waving his/her cardboard sign in a mercy-seeking plea for help. Indeed, as I become attentive to Him in moments like these, I am then able – invited – to extend His love in every-day moments and daily-doses of joy.
- Finally, the book is always better than the movie. So, the next time we argue over a movie to watch, I am going to go for a classic to read!
I may just keep writing about my reflections on My Evening Spent with a Ghost!
Disrupting to Renew!
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Bantam Books, 1997.