Friday, December 17, 2004

A Christmas Carol

In our household, one of our newer Christmas traditions is to read Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" during the run-up to the holiday. Some of you may even remember a reference to Dickens' work back in my post about Sandy. I love A Christmas Carol, and get choked up every time I read it. Schlocky as it is in some parts, it has moments of intense beauty and overwhelming power.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "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."

Interested as I am in the idea of narrative theology, I enjoy piecing together elements of theology from the story. It's interesting to note that Dickens' description of the ghosts as tormented by their desire to perform some act of good and having "lost the power forever," is very nearly a restatement of the ideas of St. Isaac of Syria about Hell, who writes that the denizens of Gehenna are "scourged with the scourge of love;" namely "bitter regret" for their sins against love (see also Fr. Zossima's idea of Hell as "the suffering of no longer being able to love" in the Brothers Karamazov).

Sentimentality aside, Dickens writing has remained influential because of its immense moral force and clarity. But the Orthodox Church had someone who spoke with the same piercing moral insight a thousand years before Dickens: St. Basil the Great. In fact, when I read St. Basil's writing, he strikes me almost as a kind of "Dickens before Dickens." For instance, consider the following two excerpts from Basil's homily To the Rich:

Wherever you turn your gaze, you will clearly behold the apparitions of your evil acts: here the tears of the orphan, there the groaning of the widow, elsewhere the poor whom you have trampled, the servants whom you have brutalized, the neighbors whose property you have encroached. All your deeds rise up before you; the wicked chorus of your wrongdoings besets you on all sides. Just as the shadow follows the body, so also one’s sins closely follow the soul, forming a clear outline of one’s actions. There is thus no possibility of denial there; every mouth will be stopped, and especially that of the arrogant. Each one’s works will bear witness; without a word being spoken, they will make our deeds plain. How can I summon before your eyes the fearful things that await you?

The "apparitions of evil acts" sound like the Ghost of Christmas past (and future) to me. And check out this description of the end of the greedy person:

Perhaps the servants will not even dress you in burial finery at the last, but will desert the graveside, having already transferred their allegiance to the heirs. Perhaps they will even turn philosophical on you: “It is not right,” they will say, “to adorn a dead body, and to give a lavish burial to someone who no longer feels anything. Would it not be better to dress the successors in this elegant and beautiful clothing, rather allowing such precious garments to rot together with the corpse? What need is there of an officious headstone and a lavish burial, expenses that cannot be recovered? These funds should rather be used by those who remain for their own needs.” These things they will say, at once avenging themselves upon you for your tyranny, and ingratiating themselves with those who succeed to your fortune.

(translation in plain English: "They will dump your sorry ass in a hole naked, and won't even take the trouble to cover you up." Cf. Stave Four for the similar end of Ebenezer Scrooge)

I suppose the point here is that these themes are universal, not bound to any given time or place: the blinding power of greed, regret at what might have been, the recognition that those who live alone and unloving die alone and unloved. And the immense existential optimism that we have the power to change, to repent, to create a more just and humane future than that which might otherwise have been. To make God's Kingdom present, in some small way, "on earth as it is in Heaven."

So on this night before Christmas, check out A Christmas Carol from the library and read it. Read it for your kids. Read it for yourself.

And yes, God bless us every one.


Karl Thienes said...

Nice comparision between Dickens and St. Isaac. Great post!

Minor Clergy said...

Wonderful post. God bless.