Monday, December 4, 2017

A Christmas Carol # 1: "Ghosts of Christmas Past"

Christmastime is here. Time for decorations and singing, parties and gifts and laughter. Growing up, one of my favorite traditions was when my mom and dad would gather us together and read Christmas stories like The Little Match Girl and The Gift of the Magi. My favorite was Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. Everyone knows the story of the miserly and mean Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he declared Christmas to be a humbug. Scrooge was visited by three ghosts, with an eye toward changing not just his attitude toward Christmas, but his heart toward his fellow human beings. The first ghost to appear was called the Ghost of Christmas Past. As the mysterious figure took Scrooge’s hand, he flew him over London and back into the old man’s history. Together they revisited Christmases from Scrooge’s boyhood, and when he was a young man. Some of those memories were pleasant and others were sorrowful. Perhaps as you prepare to celebrate Christmas this year, you find yourself visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, and you are flooded with a mix of emotions.

Maybe, like Scrooge, you remember festive parties and elaborate celebrations. Here at the beginning of the holiday season, your ghosts of Christmas past may fill you with eager anticipation of joyful events you’re planning just around the corner. Or, it could be that these ghosts that bring pleasant memories are also bittersweet, because while you recollect the good times, this year’s Christmas isn’t going to be quite as grand. Maybe remembering a happy past simply makes you sad for the way your present situation is going. Sometimes the ghosts of Christmas past can evoke good things, but these can put you in a negative mindset if you allow the past to create unrealistic expectations of the present.

Or, maybe, like Scrooge, your Christmases had a lot of negative mixed in with the positive. The old man revisited feelings of abandonment during the holdiays, emotions of rejection and lost love. These things contributed to his decision that Christmas was a humbug, and that love and compassion were a sign of weakness. Perhaps you, too, have experienced tragedy or sorrow during the Christmas season. Years ago, you lost a loved one during this time, and it has colored your experience of the holiday today. Maybe you remember abuse that you suffered or poverty endured during Christmas, and it has put a damper on your ability to celebrate the Lord’s birth.

Whether the ghosts of Christmas past are pleasant or painful, the Bible has a word of encouragement for you today. In Isaiah 43:1[i], God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” God wants you to know that you are precious and special—even if you think you are the opposite. Just as the spiritual powers in Dickens’ book thought that even Scrooge was worth redeeming, so God believes that even you are worth saving. This is why God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you (43:2).” Though the waters of emotion may come like a flood, God is there with you, holding you up and keeping you from drowning. In verses 4-5, God says, “You are precious and honored in my sight, and…I love you…Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” What an amazing thing, to discover that despite the sorrows of your past, God knows everything about you and loves you anyway!

Maybe you’ve had a difficult past, and you know a lot about pain and suffering. God wants you to know something about Him. Verses 10-11 say:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.
I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.

It may be true that without the pain of your past, you wouldn’t be in this humbug of a condition right now. But without that pain and without that condition, you’d never be in the position of looking to God as the One who made you, loves you, and saves you. Even if the past’s pain is your fault, because of mistakes and failures of your own making, God wants to redeem your past and give you a future. In verse 25, God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

As long as you dwell on the past, you can’t experience a renewed present or a hopeful future. Captivity to the past will always stifle new growth. Whether it’s fond reminiscences of the “good old days,” or present paralysis based on past pain, the voice of God speaks words of hope:

“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland (43:18-19).”

What does it mean, to “forget the former things?” Is God saying to forget the loved ones whose memory makes the holidays so difficult? Is God saying we should repress memories of past pain? No—but God is telling you not to dwell on the past or be dominated by it to the degree that you can’t see blessing in the present or hope for the future. Instead, trust the One who makes streams in the desert.

In Dickens’ story, the Ghost of Christmas Past is described like a candle, bearing a cap that looks like a candle snufter. Though Scrooge wants to put the cap on the ghost’s head, the ghost explains that this will extinguish it and that Scrooge must look on the memories rather than snuffing the out. Eventually, though, Scrooge has seen enough and wrestles the cap onto the ghost’s head, ending the visit. Even so, though the ghost is gone, hopeful light glows from beneath the cap. Even so, you need your memories of the past to make you who you are. You don’t snuff out your past when you refuse to be captivated by it. You honor it, but trust the God of the present to set you free.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.