I suppose there are still people around here and there who complain about the creeping secularism of the Holidays and who in consequence admonish others to “keep Christ in Christmas”. I well remember such exhortations from the time of my childhood, growing up in Wichita, KS. Such hortatory rituals were often accompanied by carols, religious services, and – I would argue, curiously enough – by a reading of Charles Dickens’ perennial A Christmas Carol. I say “curiously enough” because I have just finished reading Carol for the few-hundredth time and for the first time, I noticed the absence of Christ in Carol, except in a very "thin", allusive sense. Carol without Christ, or with Christ in the background of the background, is a much more universal, even “archetypal”, story of the awakening of a man’s conscience through the awakening of his consciousness. Separating Christ from Dickens’s classic narrative results in a story remarkably like that of the Buddha under the bo tree, of the farmer in the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, the story St. Paul tells of kenosis in Philippians 2:7, of what happened to Thomas Merton on a street corner in Louisville, KY, in 1958. Carol even shares many of the semiotic motifs of those other stories, not as specifically Christian conventions, but as universal narrative patterns.
Perhaps the most obvious “trans-Christian” motif is the pattern of kenosis: the down-then-up archetype St. Paul uses to describe Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection in Philippians chap. 2. (In fact, and at the deepest level, "The way up and the way down are one and the same," as Heracleitus said at the very beginning of Western philosophy.) This corresponds to the Buddha’s grim discovery of the universality of suffering, followed by his enlightenment; to Muhammad’s time in the darkness of the Cave of Hira, where he received the Qur’an, followed by his return to Mecca and the proclamation of Allah's message; the impoverishment of a beggar, as the lifestyle Hindu mystics are expected to assume as part of their quest for moksha; etc., etc., etc. (The down-and-up pattern of kenosis can also be an inward-and-outward pattern, something Elizabeth O’Connor writes of movingly in Journey Inward, Journey Outward.) I believe the fairest way to read Carol is to read it so that the story of Christ becomes, not unique and therefore historically abnormal, but as a part of the archetypal pageant of spiritual individuation of which all great religions and their Teachers partake.
Like all such journeys, the kenotic descent begins with death, literal or figurative. Carol begins with a literal death: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. … Old Marley was as dead as a door nail”. Gautama Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment was initiated, among other causes, by his encounter with a cadaver. My father-in-law’s funeral was another such occasion. Scrooge becomes sensitized to the death involved in the experience of kenosis by being forced to contemplate the kenotic experience of others, courtesy of all his ghostly preceptors, beginning when Jacob Marley’s shade shares with Scrooge the vision of revenant spirits who yearn to change others' circumstances that, because of the intervention of death, it is now too late for the dead to alter. Hence his experience of Marley’s death. Hence later, also, Scrooge’s tremulous question to the Ghost of Christmas Present: “’Spirit … tell me if Tiny Tim will live.’ ‘I see a vacant seat … in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved … “ Of course, the climactic moment is Scrooge’s prevenient experience of his own mortality under the tutelage of the Ghost of Christmas Future. “Scrooge crept toward [the headstone], trembling as he went, and … read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge”. Virtually all religious traditions insist, in different ways and speaking different dialects, that all being is being-toward-Death, and the first step in the individuation of anyone, Christian or non-, is to squarely face this brute fact.
But perhaps the most significant element of Scrooge’s experience of kenosis is not only death – but also life, Scrooge’s life. What Scrooge lacks is context, and the reason he does not have context is because, at various points in his life beginning with young boyhood, Scrooge ceased to pay attention. Scrooge stopped seeing. In particular, Scrooge stopped seeing that which was right in front of him, that which was hidden because it was so obvious – hidden in plain sight. He forgot to see the emotional impoverishment visited upon him in his boyhood by a cold and distant father, and also the rejuvenation he experienced when his sister invited him home for the Holidays and to a renewed home life. He forgot to see how joyously his previous employer, Mr. Fezziwig, greeted Christmas, and how profligately Mr. Fezziwig spent money to enable his household and his employees – Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, not least! – to celebrate. He forgot to see how his ex-fiancee had been, as she herself said, displaced in his affections by his subsequent love of money and gain. The greatest lesson I ever received in how to see my in-law family was my sudden kensho-like experience after my father-in-law’s memorial service in 2008. I had never had in-law troubles. I always felt welcomed. But after that memorial service, they seemed to “stand in glory, shine like stars, appareled in a light serene,” not because I was seeing them as more than they were, but because I now saw them just as they were. And I see them that way to this day. Likewise, thanks to the intervention of his ghostly interlocutors, Scrooge begins to see again.
What he sees is, yes, the impoverishment of others, e.g., the Children of Want and Ignorance hidden in the folds of Present Christmas’s robe – but the reason he can now see this is because he now sees his own impoverishment of spirit. So Scrooge is able to begin to grant himself that which, even when he was not aware of it, he most needed from others: forgiveness. Some of the wisest words C. G. Jung ever wrote occur in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ -- all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself -- that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness -- that I myself am the enemy who must be loved -- what then?
And it all begins, as it began with Scrooge, by learning to see again. Nor is this unique to Christianity, nor is the teaching about the necessity of learning to see unique to Christ. On the contrary, vast tracts of all religions, “major” and “minor”, are oriented toward disciplines that enable us to see what is in front of us – to see it again. "We walk by faith and not by sight" is just true enough to be misleading.
It is when Scrooge learns -- or begins to learn -- to see again that the upward trajectory of his kenosis -- Scrooge's resurrection, if you will -- begins. Buddha sees that the central problem of human existence is the dynamic of suffering, attachment, and the tendency to enter a vicious circle by attempting to use the latter to palliate the former. It is no accident that the blind Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus on the Jericho Road "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me," and that when Jesus asked what Bartimaeus needed, Bartimaeus replied "Lord, I want to see again". (Perhaps the most exquisitely revelatory aspect of the Bartimaeus pericope is that Bartimaeus's name, half Hebrew ["bar"] and half Greek ["Timaeus"], translates to "son of honor" or "honored son".) That scales fell from Paul's eyes after his Damascus Road enlightenment is to be expected. This, in a thousand diverse dialects, is the Cry of the human heart: to see (again). The essential task of individuation -- or enlightenment or kensho or satori or moksha ... call it what you will -- is to see that which is hidden in plain sight in front of us.
When Scrooge begins to see again, "old things are passed away, all things are become new". I make bold to assert: this is the universal experience of all and any who attain, or even feebly glimpse, enlightenment. It is an experience of radical kinship based on the conviction that we share a common mortality, a common inheritance of contingency, and a common kinship with others. With Scrooge, this takes the form of a newly found and exuberant generosity toward others, a passion to mend injuries from the past and to assist those he has hurt to a better future. The charm he now sees in the schoolboy he sends for the goose was always there. The difference is that now he can see it. The decency he senses in Bob Cratchit was always there. The difference is that now he can appreciate it. The esteem of his nephew was always there. The difference is that now he can value it. The poor and indigent were always in dire straits, at Christmas and otherwise. The difference is that now he cares.
All because Scrooge has learned -- and is learning -- to see.
There is nothing specific to Christianity in any of this. In fact, there is even nothing specific to religion in any of this. The title of A Christmas Carol notwithstanding, it is possible, without doing violence to the narrative, to see Carol as essentially secular. It is a story of just common human decency.
In any case, Merry Christmas to y'all!
James R. Cowles
Scrooge and Marley ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Xmas present ... John Leech, 1817-1864 ... Public domain
Xmas future ... Jim The Photographer ... CC BY 2.0
Scrooge on Xmas morning ... Jim The Photographer ... CC BY 2.0
Charles Dickens ... Jeremiah Gurney ... Public domain
Scrooge and Marley's Ghost ... Arthur Rackham ... Public domain