Every year faithful Christians struggle with the rush and distraction of holiday preparations and long to take a moment to slow down and reflect on the real meaning of the season. It is an especially difficult struggle for Orthodox Christians as we are prescribed by Mother Church to fast in our preparation to meet the newborn King in his Nativity. The Lenten Fast by comparison is somewhat easier in the sense that the season is already more austere in the wider culture (everyone fasting in the springtime, if for no other religious reason, so that they can fit into summertime bathing suits). The weeks leading up to Christmas in America are anything but austere. Between Christmas parties at work, holiday concerts galore, and the extra latte at Starbucks to keep up our shopping stamina, few things in the broader culture give us pause to stop and reflect on our eternal destiny with one amazing exception, Charles Dicken’s classic Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol.
Though most folks only encounter the story in movie or theater form, we have an established tradition in our home and at our parish school to read the original out loud during the season of Advent. Most are scared away from reading Dickens in the original because of unfamiliar language and the presumption that someone who got paid for every word will be too verbose. In most cases with Dickens, the latter is true, but Christmas Carol was designed as a short story and can be covered in a relatively short period of time. The original contains such rich commentary on Scrooge and his repentance, like this one when he is poised in the future over a dead body that he fears is his own:
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion. But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike. And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal.
And Scrooge’s repentance is never more clearer than in the almost yearly production of the classic by New Life Fine Arts entitled Scrooge. My daughters and I were fortunate enough to attend this afternoon’s performance, and it lived up to its consistently good reputation.
The director of the company who is also the pastor of their affiliated community church always delves deeply into the inherent spiritual nature of the story. Scrooge is guided on his path of transformation not by three separate ghosts, but by a unified messenger angel who appears in three guises and leads him to recognize again in his heart the Christ of Christmas. Having acted in their former productions myself in several different guises, it was a pleasure to simply be a member of the audience this time and experience the performance as a whole. There are still seats available for the evening performances this Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but act fast as their Sunday matinee has already sold out!
Finally, if we don’t get to either read the original, or attend a good stage production, there is always the George C. Scott classic film rendition. I have seen almost all of the versions available, including the Alastair Sims version that everyone raves about, and I still think that this 1984 version rates better than them all. I find Scrooge via Scott to be the most understated and believable. Being such a monstrous figure, the character of Scrooge tempts too many an actor to overplay the role. Reactionary, angry Scrooges fail to hit the cool, business-like demeanor that George Scott is so good at delivering. It is much better for the soul of the viewer to see Scrooge transition from a man of business who has everything figured out because that is where most of us are when we first join the story. It increases our ability to identify with the protagonist and go with him on his journey of repentance.
And make no mistake. Repentance is the goal of this wonderful time of the year. It is our best preparation for the holidays (holy-days). The lists we should be making and checking twice are the list of our sins and the things which keep us apart from others and our God. This sober Christmas ghost story is a good tool in teaching us how to make amends. May our repentance be as complete as Scrooge’s was.