Christ is alive: to begin with.
If Charles Dickens had been inspired to write a book of the New Testament, I suspect that it is how it would start—for that truth is the foundation of Christianity: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). It is instead, of course, an alteration of the opening line of his famous tale A Christmas Carol. This justly celebrated classic chronicles the terrifying but morally reformative experience of Ebenezer Scrooge, as unkind and callous a miser who ever stalked the earth. Successively haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Scrooge’s eyes are opened to his own wretched selfishness, prompting repentance and a dramatic alteration of his close-fisted and hard-hearted behavior.
Scrooge’s story is timeless because it is a spiritual story. His transformation echoes that of Zaccheus (Luke 19), the counterpoint to the rich young ruler whose inability to loosen his grasp on the things of this world introduces Christ’s teaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). When we first meet Scrooge, he is that rich man. His love of money has nearly extinguished the sparks of love and joy that sputter fitfully among the gathering shadows of his dark heart. His lamentable condition is brought into stark relief by being examined in the glow of Christmas, “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” when shut-up hearts are opened to let in the light of kindness and reflect it back again.
Not Birth But Death
Despite its long association with Christmas, Dickens’s tale begins not with a birth, but with a death—the death of Old Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner. In fact, death underlies the entire story: it casts a shadow over Scrooge’s bygone memories; it lurks behind the festoons of present revelry; it awaits its inevitable victims in the future. Scrooge is aware of death, certainly. He even recommends it to the poor as a means of relieving the surplus population. But it is clear that he has never thought about it as applicable or relevant to himself. That begins to change when he is confronted by the ghost of the departed Marley, who appears to Scrooge to make him accept death and the consequences of death—to warn him to turn from the dismal road he walks or suffer eternal punishments. Bound in the trappings of death and torment, he comes to offer Scrooge “a chance and hope” of escaping his own dreadful fate.
“You will be haunted by Three Spirits,” Marley tells Scrooge. The Spirits show him many things, but what they collectively reveal is Scrooge’s progressing separation from his fellow man. Still, Scrooge is not wholly lost. Small regrets begin to well up in him early in the course of the spectral visitations. The Spirits know their business, fanning these embers of remorse into flames of repentance. But it is the third Spirit, so frightful in aspect that he is referred to as a “Phantom,” who brings Scrooge to his knees, pleading for the chance to mend his ways. This Spirit is the revelation of death. The visions presided over by this menacing apparition, who provides not even the comforts of speech, are unrelieved by either the sweetness of recollection or glimpses of present joy. Scrooge is brought face to face with his own death, his final separation from the world. But it is not merely his death, but especially the kind of death that shakes Scrooge: a death un-mourned and even celebrated; a death that reveals the utter emptiness and selfishness of his life.
The result of Scrooge’s supernatural experiences is that he is reborn a good man. He begins immediately to reform, to show compassion and benevolence, the change in his heart displayed through good deeds: “and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas very well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” The shadow of death has brought forth life.
True Spirit of Christmas
When Marley first appears, Scrooge, ever the practical man, wishes to establish that the ghost is in fact real rather than a gastronomically inspired delusion. In fact, he begins the interview by flatly refusing to believe in its reality at all. Yet he must come to accept that reality if he is to undergo any moral correction, and the ghost insists that he do so. “What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?” Marley challenges. But the concern to establish the reality of the visitation is not the ghost’s alone: the narrator insists upon it. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am going to relate.” Not only must readers accept this as fact, we must also understand that Scrooge knows it too: “Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?”
This episode recalls the appearance of Christ to the disciples after the resurrection. They knew he was dead, yet they saw him now alive. He appeared to them not as a spirit (that is what they fear) but in body with “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:37-39)—which he demonstrated by eating in front of them. He overcame even the most stubborn of the doubters, Thomas, by appealing to his senses: “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). The visitation is real. Christ rose from the grave and appeared before them, not as a tormented shade, but as the master of death and the king of life.
In Dickens’s story, Scrooge reforms his life with respect to his fellow man. But the reality of the resurrection is far more powerful. Faith in Christ does not merely reform, it also transforms. His death and resurrection means we are dead to sin but alive in Christ (Romans 6:11). We too have been visited by a Spirit, one who offers not merely “a chance and hope” but a certain victory over spiritual death. For all who believe, Christ’s death has brought about our rebirth. If we remember that grace, we shall keep Christmas very well.