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Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' still has lessons

While the Christmas carnival has already begun in many places, Advent must be marked and reflected on

Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ still has lessons

Marley's ghost, from Charkes Dickens 'A Christmas Carol. In Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas' With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (image Wikipedia/PD)

Father William Grimm, MM, Tokyo International

December 7, 2017

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The irascible miserliness of Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character in Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, has made his name a synonym for nasty, misanthropic greed. As the wife of Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit puts it, he is "an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man".

(Dickens was paid by the word count for his writings, so he tended to pile words on, sometimes excessively, to pad his income.)

The story begins one Christmas Eve in early 19th Century London. That night, Scrooge is visited in his bedroom by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, the declaration of whose death seven years earlier opens the story. The ghost warns Scrooge that he, Marley, is paying for his sin of having been partner to Scrooge in more than business. They were a matched set of heartlessness.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the book, Marley draws Scrooge to his window to look upon the world as Marley now sees it. It is the key to understanding the message of the story.

"The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the specter reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. 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 specter, 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 door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

Even in parts of the world like much of Asia where the birth of Christ is not celebrated, Christmas decorations and carols have made their appearance. Even in the Catholic Philippines, the Christmas carnival began months ago, ignoring the fact that one of the Church's most important seasons, Advent, must be marked, reflected upon, lived and celebrated before the season of the Nativity can properly begin.

Advent ("Coming”) is not, at least in terms of the Church's calendar, a period of preparation for the coming of either the newborn Jesus or Santa Claus, nor is it the festival of Mammon as retailers do all in their power to relieve us of cash.

In spite of what many believers do, including clergy who should know better, the Church doesn't even begin to look liturgically toward Christmas until December 17. It is only then that Mass prayers and other prayers of the Church begin to mention the birth of Christ celebrated a week later.

Advent is a season in which to reflect upon Scrooge's vision at his bedroom window, a vision as true and as challenging in August as it is in December.

One thing that is certainly coming in all our lives is the end of them. The death rate is, was, and ever shall be one hundred percent. Each Advent, we begin the new Church year by recalling that our time here shall end and we must use our new year well, doing the good we will one day be beyond doing.

We don't know how much time we have. We are certain, though, that one day we will have no time, and will no longer be able to assist our brothers and sisters. We will have lost the chance to make the difference for which we were created. For we are born to be loved by God and to share that love with all.

A more apt description of hell, perhaps, than pitchfork-bearing horned red demons in a flame-lit cave is what Dickens describes: "The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.”

Can we learn to see the world and our role in it as Marley learned too late? Scrooge was given the chance to do so and took it.

What about us? What about me?

Maryknoll Father Bill Grimm is the publisher of UCAN (Union of Catholic Asian News).

 

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