In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, the first spirit foretold by Jacob Marley is The Ghost of Christmas Past. “It was a strange figure,” Dickens writes — a white-haired apparition with the face of a child and jet of light beaming from its head. The Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge by the hand and flies him over London to observe his younger years. There are joyful scenes, such as his rollicking apprenticeship days with Old Fezziwig, and painful remembrances, including the time he let his fiancé slip away to pursue Lady Wealth.
In film adaptations of this classic story, The Ghost of Christmas Past is usually portrayed by a woman. This holds true in the popular 1970 movie, Scrooge, starring Albert Finney as the title character, which composer Leslie Bricusse made into a stage musical in 1992.
In Bricusse’s theatrical version, The Ghost of Christmas Past reveals herself as the dead sister of Scrooge, Jenny, whom he adored. She asks why her brother doesn’t show love to her only son, Harry. When Scrooge realizes who he is talking to, he begs Jenny not to leave him. Poignantly, as she passes through a mirror, she says, “There’s no coming back, Ebby…which is why you must never hide your love from those you cherish…love is life’s greatest gift, and once the ones you love are gone, it’s too late!”
Love is indeed a gift — and it doesn’t come from flighty human sentiment. “We love because (God) first loved us” (I John 4:19). The only way we can truly love is to allow God, who is love, to move through us. The Christian mystic Simone Weil stated, “We can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”
The Bible calls this love agape. This word carries no romantic, red-hot feelings. It is not a cutesy puppy love that swoons and pines. It is also not a “love” that is here today and gone tomorrow, an affection based solely on what you can get out of someone else. C.S. Lewis called this “need love.” He points out that this kind of love lasts only as long as a need is met. If that need is not fulfilled by the other, then the lover moves on.
On the other hand, agape is “gift love.” An agape lover is one who would give a lavish Christmas present to a homeless woman, never expecting to be repaid. Agape is driven by will and resolve, refusing to be pushed around by fickle feelings or external circumstances. It is mature and stable, never self-seeking, always desiring the highest interests of the beloved. The object of this love can resist, reject or run away, but the agape lover will continue to love. The advice-giver, Ann Landers, summarized this kind of love when she wrote, “The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.”
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge joyously discovers this love. He buys a prize Christmas turkey for the family of Bob Cratchit, an employee that he has treated shabbily in the past. He makes amends with his nephew, befriends beggars, and gives a generous contribution to a man he rejected the day before, who was raising funds for charity. Scrooge also becomes a “second father” to Tiny Tim, and “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.”
The change in old Scrooge was so dramatic that some people laughed at his transformation, and he laughed right along with them. God’s love isn’t laughable and it’s no joke — but it does tend to bring a joy that the world cannot give and can never take away.