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On how the Christmas story rewrites our own.
Through a cradle, a cross, and an empty tomb, we are told how our past is swallowed in love.
Charles Dickens’s famous novella A Christmas Carol is almost as synonymous with Christmas as Mariah Carey and Santa Claus. You are, no doubt, familiar with the beloved tale — perhaps as a result of repeat viewings of the story’s countless adaptations. Whether it’s General Patton or Captain Picard or Jim Carrey or Mr. Magoo, notwithstanding who assumes the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the same essential story is conveyed, replete with appropriate Yuletide verve. Indeed, I think what makes A Christmas Carol so iconic is its balance of simplicity, applicability, and recognizability. The iconography of the parable of Ebenezer Scrooge is ubiquitous with Christmastide. And perhaps that is true not only because it is representative of specific holiday accoutrements, but also because it articulates one of the best redemption stories this world has ever seen.
At the beginning of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge is a greedy miser, a penny-pincher, who hates Christmas. “Humbug,” he famously gripes. “What else can I be when I live in such a world of fools a this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer?” (7). Ebenezer’s only concern is for the expansion and preservation of his bank account — a concern which has cost him friends and family and love and life. In short, he’s a scrooge. His fortunes change, however, in the course of a single night when he is visited by three consecutive spirits, the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, Future. These specters proceed to show Ebenezer precisely what a miserly life buys — that is, a pitifully dingy existence that stifles the joy out of all those around him. The spirits show him how suffocating it is to be a scrooge, which, in the end, sees him die alone, bereft of any company, with nary a person missing his presence or mourning his passing. This image of his fate stirs Ebenezer to his core, bringing him to his knees:
Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been . . . Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life! I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present, and the future, and I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. (141–42)
And with those words, he awakes. His spirit-filled nightmare, however, has sparked a unmistakable change in old Ebenezer Scrooge, who goes from being “a scrooge” to being a “cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). In many ways, his transformation echoes that of Zacchaeus’s in Luke 19, complete with “fourfold restoration.” “Scrooge was better than his word,” Dickens says. “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world” (158). The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is, for me, one of the most resonant redemption stories ever told. However, I would submit that there’s an infinitely better redemption story than even Dickens’s classic tale, and it’s preserved for us in Luke 2.
Luke 2, of course, is the titular account of Jesus’s birth. You can’t escape a Christmastide church service without hearing from Luke 2, and for good reason. Integral to the narrative, though, is Luke’s mentioning of Jesus’s birthplace in “the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4). This detail not only fulfills God’s prophetic Word (Micah 5:2), but also serves to redeem that little town itself. You see, Bethlehem Ephratah was a city whose reputation was not the best, to say the least. Yes, it was the hometown of Israel’s paradigmatic king (Ruth 4:18–22), but it was also beleaguered with one of the most sullied backstories in Israel’s history. For that tale, you’re obliged to read the sprawling tale of Judges 19, which recounts the story of promiscuous priests, unfaithful concubines, and sadistically violent men. And that’s only half of it. Here’s how the account closes:
Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him. And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, and said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing. But the men would not hearken to him: so the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go. Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man's house where her lord was, till it was light. And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold. And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered. Then the man took her up upon an ass, and the man rose up, and gat him unto his place. And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel. And it was so, that all that saw it said, There was no such deed done nor seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt unto this day: consider of it, take advice, and speak your minds. (Judg. 19:22–30)
It’s a foul story, to be sure. One which, as Chad Bird says, allows us to “see a microcosm of the vast and mangled mass of humanity,” epitomizing the extreme depths of mankind’s depravity. I almost feel the need to shower after reading it. In fact, these events are so searing and so scandalous they ignite a tribal civil war amongst the people Israel (Judg. 20—21). The concluding verse of the book serves as the severest indictment on God’s people: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). And to think, all this corruption can be traced back to Bethlehem.
The town we often think of in quaint, simple, precious terms isn’t so innocent after all. It’s a place with a sordid and unsavory past, whose legacy is one of the darkest in all the annals of Israelite history. “Wicked Bethlehem, dark Bethlehem, lost Bethlehem, black Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” quips Douglas Wilson. And yet, it is this same city that is remade through the course of one night with the birth of God’s only begotten Son. Jesus’s arrival in Bethlehem undoes the sullied past of that little town. Bethlehem is remade in the quiet splendor of Christ’s unassuming Incarnation. Instead of being a town stained by the unmentionable travesties of man’s past, it is forever known as the place where God’s eternal purposes were first made manifest. It remains a town we know as the birthplace of the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:10–14, 26). And in much the same way, Jesus undoes our past, too.
Perhaps you haven’t thought of the nativity narrative in that way before, but when Christ comes to earth in the form of a baby, he comes to undo what sinful man has done. He comes to live and to die in order to “fulfil all righteousness” on behalf of those who are entirely unrighteous (Matt. 3:15). His mission in the Incarnation is, ultimately, to die the death we deserved to die. But he also arrived to live perfectly in the stead of those who are perpetually imperfect. And so it is that by living, dying, and rising in righteousness, we who repent and believe now find our righteousness in him. At Golgotha, all our winding, wretched stories have been re-written. What were St. Paul’s words to the Colossians? Namely, that Jesus came to “blot out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14). Jesus Christ melts away our granite histories of sin and vice with the white-hot grace of his cross. Such is why the Son took on flesh.
You see, the Christmas story is the story that rewrites our own. “Jesus is the ultimate New Way,” writes Charlotte Getz, “the final Rewiring of a world gone wrong” (369). Through a cradle, a cross, and an empty tomb, we are told the timeless story of God’s Son and how he swallows our past in his love. Perhaps you have a backstory you’d rather forget. Perhaps you can think of a “yesterday” you wish you could reverse. A word to unsay. An image to unsee. A hurt to undo. Perhaps there are moments in your past that you would die to erase. The good news is that Someone has already done that for you. “Jesus,” writes Robert Capon, “takes all the badness down into the forgettery of his death and offers to the Father only what is held in the memory of his resurrection” (232). Your sins are forgiven. They are under the blood. They are remembered no longer. The hope of Christmas and the promise of the gospel is not only for better tomorrows in the presence of the Lord but also for pasts remade in the sin-erasing death of the Savior. All of which gifts us a hopeful and joyful present in the company of the redeemed.
Merry Christmas and God’s blessing to you, my friends.
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1901).
Charlotte Getz, “Nov. 25,” Daily Grace: The Mockingbird Devotional, Vol. 2, edited by CJ Green (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2020).