Ghosts of Christmas

What the Damned Might Say

“You are fettered,” cries Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. “You are fettered,” exclaims he, trembling before the spirit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. “You are fettered. Tell me why?” (23).

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” comes the ghost’s reply. “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” (24).

Marley’s appearance uproots Scrooge. Marley had been dead seven years now — years, he reports, of “no rest, no peace” (25). At first, Scrooge tries to escape the solemnity with a joke: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” But “the truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones” (22).

Marley soon raises a frightful cry and shakes his chain “with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon” (23). When the ghost’s jaw drops down to his chest, Scrooge cries, “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” (23). Marley presses the ill omen upon Scrooge’s unsettled conscience, intimating that he can see Scrooge’s waiting fetter. It was the length of Marley’s seven years ago, and “you have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain,” he portends (24).

Scrooge looks around, waiting to be devoured by the irons, but nothing. “Jacob,” he says imploringly. “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob!” (24). “I have none to give,” the ghost replies.

What Marley did not have to give, the story of Christ and Christmas does. But too many will not have it — not because they’re too despairing, but because they’re too untroubled and carefree. Christmas is merely the luxury of time off of work, visiting family, delicious food, and exchanging presents. They are not sensible enough, desperate enough to receive the glad tidings. So I’ve come to ruin our Christmas — at least the commercial, tinseled, gift-wrapped, Christ-neglecting, man-centered, consumeristic festival it too easily becomes when we forget our total calamity without the Messiah’s coming.

I want one soul in Scripture — a ghost in his own right — to unnerve us, to shake his chains of despair in our ears, and bring biblical sobriety to our Christ-sprinkled Christmases. May he disturb us to the marrow of our bones, as Marley did Scrooge, and lead us beyond the fright to a truly felt and deeply merry celebration of our only hope, Immanuel.

Ghost of Christmas Past

He dressed in purple linens once. He threw the greatest holiday parties and feasted sumptuously every day. His life, like Scrooge’s, was paved with gold coins — “the rich man,” Jesus calls him. His luxury lifted him too high for the concerns of one poor creature whimpering outside his gates — a man itching his sores and swatting away the dogs who licked at his wounds. This hungry man dreamed of a day when he could eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. “Lazarus,” Jesus names the poor man (Luke 16:19–21).

Lazarus dies, doubtless believing in the coming Messiah, and is carried by angels to Abraham, the father of faith (Luke 16:22). In the twinkling of an eye, his soul travels from outside earthly gates to inside those of paradise. No more blisters, no more hounds, no more scratching at an empty stomach. Miserable in life; merry in death.

“The rich man,” Jesus tells us, “also died and was buried” (Luke 16:22) — having heeded neither Moses nor the prophets, nor having waited intensely for the Messiah, nor having loved his neighbor, nor having repented of his sin. He sinks into Hades and,

being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:23–24)

Here in sacred Scripture, Jesus gives voice to a spirit, locked in burning chambers on the other side of death, pleading. We hear him in terrible anguish, tongue-twisted by fire, utterly parched and imprisoned on one side of a great chasm. “You are fettered,” we say. “Tell us why!”

“Sin!” returns his sweltering reply. “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.” He is now the dog, begging to lick the flesh of Lazarus’s finger to taste some dew upon it. How awful those flames, and how dreadful those blows, that make even a drop of water seem like heaven.

Wish of a Dead Man

Before our eyes of faith appears a ghost, horrible his image, hideous his voice. “Speak comfort to us,” we implore him. He has none to give. But this fearsome soul has something to say. Jesus tells us: “I beg you, father,” says he, “to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:27–28).

He wishes his (and our) family gathering would no longer be a warm fireplace to escape the cold realities of sin and death and judgment, a time of triviality climaxing in a fat man falling down a chimney. He would warn all who would listen of what lies just past the careless drinking and laughing and eating: a place of torment.

If he cannot make the trip, he pleads for Abraham to send the spirit of Lazarus back into his body so that he can show up to their party with grave omens and solemn appeals. The rich man reasons, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” (Luke 16:30). Imagine it: the pale body of Lazarus now vomited from the grave, placed again outside those shut gates, banging, howling, warning of the wrath to come. This would be enough to amend their erring judgments and change their sinful ways, he thinks. O Abraham, please!

Then comes the final, stunning reply: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

O Holy Night

Do we now begin to feel (again) what makes Christmas glorious? Warm holiday smiles, good food, fond memories with family do nothing, on their own, to overcome our peril. Ponderous our chains would remain; unspeakable our torment would soon be. Tree lights and Christmas decor and anchorless sentiments cannot overcome our winter’s darkness. At Christmas, we celebrate that the only one who could overthrow our curse and its unending consequence came. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. . . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:2, 6).

Midnight, our darkness; shattered, our hopes; a blaze of unquenchable fire, our rightful destiny. We were “condemned already” (John 3:18), but suddenly the clouds broke and multitudes of angels sang to earth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). The Father foretold of this coming one,

I will give you as a covenant for the people,
     a light for the nations,
     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
     from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6–7)

Such glory makes it a befuddlement to heaven (and to even the rich man’s tortured soul) why we should partake in a Christmas without Christ shining at its center. What madness to lift our glasses to the Messiah’s birth, but not cherish him; to pretend to notice the fallen prison door, but not follow him out into life; to know the Savior shall be born in the town of Bethlehem, but not go fall at his feet to worship him. Christmas, if it means anything at all, means everything. We celebrate a miraculous night, a divine night, an indispensable night when God came to dwell with man as man to save man from eternal misery.

Far as the Curse Is Found

Look about you this Christmas. Can you catch even a glimpse of the ponderous chains that these, your unchristian family, coworkers, and friends, or perhaps you unmindfully wear? Impenitent coworkers and relatives already in the grave, if anything like our rich man, would return as apparitions at Christmas, pleading for us to escape the unendurable wrath to come. Will we who know the truth and have escaped such a fate not pray earnestly and speak intimately to even one lost soul? What do we mean when we say we love them?

“I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate,” says Marley to Scrooge. “A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

“You were always a good friend to me,” replies Scrooge. (28)

Will we be a good friend to any souls this Christmas? Perhaps the soul you need to be friendliest to is your own. With the chains of this rich man still jangling in our ears, let us be intentional in our celebration, prayerful in our witness, and overjoyed in our Jesus, who shines the brighter because of such terrible darkness. Our Christmas does not hide from the grimness of the world, but sings the heartier of its coming redemption:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.