“She laid him in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn,” begins the most widely known Advent story. Another one known almost as well begins: “Marley was dead…there is no doubt whatever about that. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”
This is Charles Dickens’ classic, “The Christmas Carol,” of course, and it has been a holiday favorite for 150 years now. Certainly, you know the story; Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, tight-fisted old man “bahs” and “humbugs” his way through the Christmas season with no concern for his fellow man.
Thus, the author has Scrooge being haunted by three spirits: The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. This was Dickens’ creative and prophetic effort to correct an attitude, not restricted to one hardened, curmudgeon of a man, insulated by his money and greed. Dickens was writing to his entire society.
Dickens wrote to storied Victorian England, when London was the most powerful city in the world. Raking in pounds from its colonies, leading the Industrial Revolution, never had the country enjoyed so much wealth – but never had there been such poverty. Soot covered the sweating immigrants, the hardscrabble laborers, and armies of children who lived in poorhouses and on streets that were flooded with sewage, waste, and dirty rain water.
Disease was rampant. There were few hospitals. Churches, orphanages, and charities were overrun with need, and London’s wealthy elite kept their safe and sterilized distance. Dickens wanted these people to see the need just outside their doors – or at least around the corner – and to open their hearts to others.
It was a hard sell, as Scrooge’s words epitomized his entire class. Confronted by the suffering of those whom he felt were not deserving, he wished simply that the poor would perish as quickly as possible “and decrease the surplus population,” so that there would be less panhandling for charity.
When we refer to a “Scrooge,” it should be remembered that this is not a person who doesn’t enjoy the Christmas season (We all grow weary of the crass commercialism, materialism, and end-of-year pleas). No, a “Scrooge” is one with callouses around his or her heart, one who could help others in need, but won’t.
When we are comfortable, possessing all we need, it’s easy to throw around words like “handout” or “lazy;” and to ask strawy questions like, “I worked for mine – why can’t they?” At such times it’s also easy to miss how much like Ebenezer we are. Sure, some people will never help themselves, but there are many, many more who just need the little help we can give.
As Advent begins, it might be wise to remember that we’ve all had help to get to where we are. If you don’t believe that, just look at your navel. That umbilical stump proves that your life began with someone else’s help. No, there are no “self-made” people, only people made to help others.