I’m finally ready to answer the question that has guided most of this series on A Christmas Carol: Why did Ebenezer Scrooge change? Today I want to sum up what we’ve discovered and make some connections to our own experience.
Transformation begins when something interrupts our ordinary experience.
For at least a couple dozen years, Ebenezer Scrooge had been a committed grouch, miser, and Christmas-hater. But then something interrupted his otherwise ordinary experience. In his case, the interruption was supernatural: the spirit of Jacob Marley and the three Spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. These Spirits forced Scrooge out of his rut and propelled him along a life-changing path. (Photo: An autographed manuscript of A Christmas Carol. From the Morgan Library and Museum.)
I’ve seen this sort of thing happen time and again in life. People are going along their merry way when all of a sudden something causes them to veer off their established path. Sometimes it’s an unexpected blessing: a new job, a new love, a new friend. Often, perhaps most commonly, the catalyst for change is something unwelcome, at least at first, such as cancer, marital conflict, or being laid off.
Transformation comes through pain.
Throughout Ebenezer Scrooge’s momentous night, he frequently felt pain: the pain of having been a lonely boy, the pain of his broken engagement, the pain of suffering children, the pain of his own wasted life. This pain was essential to Scrooge’s transformation in a number of ways. For one thing, it warmed his frozen heart, helping him to feel things had had not felt for ages. Yet pain also caused Scrooge to desire a different life, a life filled with the joys of living.
In my pastoral experience, people are rarely interested in renewal when they’re happy with their lives. When everything’s great, they’re understandably pleased to stay on their familiar course. But if that course leads to suffering, then they’re all of a sudden interested in God.
Sometimes, unfortunately, that pain-driven interest is short-lived. I think of a couple who had been irregularly involved in my church in Irvine. When they first started attending many years ago, it was because their marriage was on the rocks. But when God helped them find healing, they were happy to return to life apart from Christian community. Then, several years later, the husband had severe heart problems, ones that might have been fatal. Once more, he and his wife were eagerly involved in church. But when the surgery was successful and life got back to normal, this couple stopped showing up at church. I fully expect that they’ll return to church when the next crisis hits, but not in the meanwhile. Pain alone doesn’t forge lasting change in people, however, though it surely can help.
Transformation comes through children.
Scrooge is changed because he sees children in a new light, joining in their celebration and pitying their suffering. The latter was especially significant for Charles Dickens, who himself felt compassion for the plight of poor children, in part because he himself had once been in their shoes.
Children do have way of thawing icy hearts. I’ve seen this especially in men who are trapped in their inexpressive machismo until they become fathers. All of a sudden tenderness flows from their hearts, as if by magic. Or, to cite another example, I think of how the presence of children can bring joy to senior adults in a convalescent home.
Of course it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes cranky people are made even crankier by the noisy gladness of children. So there’s no guarantee that exposure to children will work positive change in people. Usually, more is required.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about that “more,” as I finish this discussion of transformation and wrap up this series on Christmas according to Dickens.