The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Hespeler, 18 November, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Luke 1:46-55, Luke 12:13-21
“Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.” It is with those words that Ebenezer Scrooge greets the arrival of the Ghost who is called, “The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.” Scrooge is not alone in this. Nothing frightens us more than the dark unknown of the future.
heless, though his trembling legs can
barely hold him up, Scrooge promises to brave the Ghost’s company and to pay
heed to whatever it may show him. In this he lies, as we all probably would in
The ghost doesn’t speak but it shows him people reacting in various ways to the death of some wealthy person. There are some men of business for whom the death barely registers. Then Scrooge goes to see two women and a man who have pilfered various objects from the dead man’s rooms and his body and are seeking to sell them to a pawnbroker. Finally, he is shown a poor couple who are in debt to this man and who rejoice that his passing has given them a little more time to settle their debts.
Scrooge observes all of this but does not see any of it – at least, he does not see the central truth of it all – though it is obvious enough to us, the readers. The dead man is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge himself. We all guess it within a few paragraphs, but Ebenezer misses it. He doesn’t even recognize his own laundress when she takes his bedclothes to the pawnbroker. For that matter, he doesn’t recognize his own blankets and sheets and the curtains that have hung about his bed for these many years. He neither recognizes his own buttons nor pins nor the debtors who owe him money.
How are we to explain this? Whatever else he is, Ebenezer is not a stupid man. But he is like us in this one thing: he has wilfully blinded himself to the inevitability of his own death. He just can’t see it. We hear him grasping at other explanations as unlikely as they may be: there just happens to be someone else standing in his habitual spot in town and the dead man is remarkably like him in every imaginable way but that is (Scrooge explains to himself) simply because the ghost has chosen for him the best possible morality lesson. The most obvious conclusion, that he, himself, Ebenezer Scrooge, has died, this he cannot see.
And I cannot blame him because I think that this is something I do – and you do it too. We will admit, of course, to the logical inevitably that we shall die some day. We know the statistics, the medical limits of the human body, the realities of life. We just don’t want to see it. But, in the end Scrooge is put in a place where he cannot help but see it and it is a moment that changes his entire life. Such a reality, when we face it, can only do the same for us.
Jesus understood the power of seeing the reality of mortality. He told a story of a man who had done well for himself. He had a great deal of land and it produced a huge abundance of crops. He had everything that he could dream of and the only problem he had left was trying to figure out where to store all his wealth. The conclusion seemed obvious. If he had all of this, he must have deserved it. He must have done everything right and was being rewarded by God for it. But Jesus called him a fool because he had failed to take one thing into account: the reality of his own death – a reality that proved that all of his priorities were wrong and that he really was a fool.
Now, most often in the life of the church when we talk about the reality of death changing things, what we are actually talking about is what happens after death. It usually boils down to the idea that you should be motivated to do good out of a healthy fear of eternal punisment or (perhaps better) by the promise of an eternal reward in heaven. But actually that is not what Charles Dickens is talking about in A Christmas Carol (and I don’t think that it is what Jesus was talking about in his parable).
Dickens probably believed in heaven and hell, but he was not actually interested in motivating people by means of eternal reward or punishment (Nor, do I think, was Jesus). Heaven and hell actually have no place in Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The only punishment he sees is to be found in this world. We see that in the suffering of Scrooge’s very first ghostly visitor: Jacob Marley. Marley, Scrooge’s dead old business partner, is in agony, but it is not the agony of hell. His agony is discovered in this exchange:
Scrooge sees the suffering of his old friend and seeks to comfort him by telling him that he was always a good man of business. To this Marley cries out in deep pain: “Business! 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!”
Marley’s agony is simply this. His life was the only opportunity he had to do good, to help the weak, to comfort the afflicted, to assist those in need and he didn’t use that opportunity. Now that life is gone and he has no more power to do any of it. His agony is now to see the starving people and have no power to give them food, to see the grieving and to be totally unable to offer comfort, to not even be able to weep with the one who weeps. His powerlessness to help, to respond with human decency, is what makes him suffer now.
Friends, life on this earth is a precious gift. And one of the things that makes it most precious is the fact that it is limited. Realizing that is a hard thing, no one can easily see the reality their own death, but it is something worth seeing because it allows you to learn what Scrooge learned and what Jesus was trying to teach in his parable: to invest however much time you have on this earth doing what really matters.