The Ghost of Christmas Past
Hespeler, 27 November, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 43:14-21, Philippians 3:4b-16, Psalm 51:1-12
t will happen in just a little less than one month. People will go to bed filled with expectations. They will have sleep “with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.” The visions may vary from person to person. The kids w
ill dream of presents and stockings bursting full. The adults, maybe,
will dream of turkeys and stuffing and mashed potatoes. A huge number will
dream of family, friends and loved ones coming together and what it will be
like when they gather.
Christmas, more than any other festival in our lives is full of expectations. That is as true today as it was almost two hundred years ago when Clement Moore wrote his famous poem and included that line about the sugarplums. And expectation can certainly be wonderful, but there can also be a downside to them.
I remember the Christmas when I was about 10 years old or thereabouts when the reality of Christmas just didn’t measure up to my expectations. I guess that when I was younger than that, it wasn’t all that hard to simply be overwhelmed by the experience of opening presents and thinking about how awesome they were. But I clearly remember that year when I finished opening of my presents and I just wondered where that feeling of awe was. It wasn’t that my presents hadn’t been great – they had been. I had gotten exactly what I had asked for. It was just that that feeling of being overwhelmed by what I had received that I seemed to remember from when I was younger just wasn’t there. I was disappointed; I had been done in by my expectations.
And I know that you don’t feel too bad for me about that. I’m sure that every child experiences that at some point and that it is a certain corrective to the infantile greediness that we experience at Christmas when we are really young. I learned and I adjusted and I think I’m the better for it. But there are other times when we are done in by our Christmas expectations and it is not necessarily a growning experience:
A father, who has always poured his love and care into a family Christmas dinner and has always looked forward to that warm feeling of having everyone gathered around one table, finds his expectations thwarted this year. One son has a new girlfriend and it is really serious. He has been invited to spend the evening with her family and really wants to go. A daughter has joined the military and will be shipping out to Germany a week before Christmas. A second daughter just landed her first job as a paramedic and, as the low person on the totem pole has to work all the Christmas shifts this year. None of the kids will be home and, as proud as he is of his children and what they are doing, he can’t help but be bitter and angry all season long and make everyone around him miserable. His good, positive and wonderful memories of Christmases past seems to have made this Christmas almost not worth celebrating.
In another part of town, a grandmother and matriarch of a large family has had to give up so many of the things that she has always done for her family this year. She just doesn’t have the stamina to cook the turkey, decorate the room and table, shop and wrap and do a thousand other things. Her children and grandchildren have very thoughtfully organized and parcelled out all the various tasks amongst themselves. She won’t have to do a thing but sit back and enjoy the holidays. She is so appreciative that she is doing her best to make them all feel miserable because their efforts aren’t exactly giving the results that she had in the past.
And, lest you think that it is only good memories of past Christmas that can cause problems by building up expectations that are no longer realistic, consider these people for whom Christmas every year is a dark time:
· The man whose father left his family one week after Christmas when he was only ten and who every year feels a deepening dread that he will lose the people he cares for as the season approaches.
· The woman whose ex-husband drank too much every Christmas and who still feels the pain of his beatings every December 25.
· The man who still plays out an angry discussion about politics that he was part of during a Christmas dinner ten years ago. He cannot let go of it!
When Charles Dickens wrote his Christmas classic story about how people can change, especially at Christmas, he knew that the first thing that he had to deal with was the memories of Christmases past. They have a unique power to affect how we see and live out Christmas today. And they do that for each and every one of us.
The first ghost that Ebenezer Scrooge meets after the warning he receives from Marley has long proved to be the hardest one for artists, animators and directors to illustrate. It is a ghost who is exceedingly hard to pin down. It’s face changes constantly to evoke figures from Ebenezer’s past and even the number of its arms and legs cannot be stated with certainty. This is a reflection of how our memories of the past affect us. They are rarely clear. Sometimes the happy events of the past are magnified (and any negative parts edited out) as we look back upon them with nostalgia. Negative events, for their part, have a tendency to grow worse as we look back on them. They are indistinct because we rarely have the courage to look back at our past memories without the adornment of our own fantasies and it is precisely for that reason that they have such power over us.
The one feature of the Ghost of Christmas Past that is entirely clear is the light that burns like a flame from the top of his head. This light is the symbol of hope in Scrooge’s encounter with the ghost. By casting a clear light on all of the events of the past – good and bad – this light has the potential of exposing them in truth. Basically, Dickens is saying that, when we dare to examine the events of our past clearly – even if they are painful or too good to believe – we rob them of the power to destroy our present.
So, for example, as we follow Scrooge’s journey through the past (which includes many a good memory such as the rauchaus Christmas party in Fezziwig’s shop) we discover among other things that his experience of want and poverty so deformed him that it made him into a man who loves money more than he loves humanity. It is a scar that runs deep.
But this exposing light is so frightening to Scrooge. He cannot face it. As he jouneys through his past, Scrooge becomes ever more disturbed and fearful until at last he can take it no more. “Remove me!” Scrooge cries out to the ghost, “I cannot bear it! …Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!” And then, when the ghost does not comply, Scrooge does what we all do when we do not want to face our past clearly, he grabs the ghost’s hat which is in the form of a giant candle snuffer. He forces this cap down over the ghost’s head until he extinguishes the flame.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is the only ghost that Scrooge has the power to banish. By extinguishing its light he makes it go away. And we too have that power. We can choose to extinguish the light the illuminates our own past and allows us to see it for what it truly was. We often do so because, like Scrooge, we are afraid to face the reality of our own past. We suppress it deep inside and think we have controlled it. We have not. We have only given it more power over us. Scrooge can only be free of the past that has enslaved him to the pursuit of money by facing this past, and so his trials will continue as he faces his other ghosts.
Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a great work of literature and, as such, it contains great and universal truths – truths that we call in the church Gospel truths. The truth that he teaches about the past and its power to enslave us is also found in the Bible. We read two passages this morning that talk about how God would release us from the power of the past to deform us. In the Book of Isaiah, God implores the people of Israel, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” He is asking them to make sure that they aren’t trapped by their memories of the past. And the past he is talking about here is a good past; he is talking about the time when God saved them from the Egyptians by leading them through the Red Sea. In fact, the prophet describes those past events in some detail, speaking of “the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.”
But God is aware of how even memories of the most positive events can mess us up. When he says, “do not remember the former things,” he does not mean to repress them or to quench them, like Scrooge, with an exstiguisher cap. He actually invites the Israelites to examine the past closely by describing it. He’s talking about how trust in God can help to keep that past from controlling you or destroying you.
The Apostle Paul says much the same thing in his letter to the Philippians, talking about how he forgets what lies behind and strains forward to what lies ahead. Here the past that might destroy him is not all good. It is more of a mixed bag. He talks about positive things like his heritage and education but also negative things like his past persecution of the church.
The message, however is much the same. Paul is teaching us, by example, that we cannot allow the past to have power over us. He is not telling us to repress the past or our memory of it. On the contrary, he describes these things from his past in quite explicit detail: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
He knows these things intimately because he has not hesitated to examine them closely under the harsh light of reality. It likely made him uncomfortable as it made Scrooge uncomfortable but he would not snuff out the light of truth and it is precisely because of that that he has the freedom to strain forward to whatever God has put in front of him without being weighed down by his past.
Sisters and brothers, I know that many of you are like Ebenezer Scrooge. I am not accusing you of being a miser or of being as cruel as him. That is not what I mean! But I am suggesting that many of you, like him, have allowed your memories of the past to have too much power over you to define you, to tell you what you can and cannot do and to overwhelm you with guilt or regret or grief or a host of other feelings that threaten to destroy you. Know that God wants to set you free from the power of your past to control and define you. That is why he sent Jesus into the world. That is what forgiveness and redemption and death and resurrection were all about: setting you free from all that.
Will you trust God enough to take a lamp (or the light that shines from the head of the Ghost of Christmas past) and examine your past and see it for what it truly was so that God may set you from living under its power. That action was the first step towards making Ebenezer Scrooge the man that God had always meant him to be. It can be for you and for me as well.