Recently I wandered the grounds of the Heartland Center, near Kansas City Missouri, in 7-degree weather. The sun was shining but the grass crunched beneath my feet. At night it dropped below zero.
I had been thinking about the cold even before I flew back to Kansas City. Over Christmas break I re-read Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in Prose. I was surprised how the cold gets into the very bones of the story. I was surprised because my memory of the story always summons up visions of a warm Christmas hearth and Tiny Tim blessing everyone. Here is how Dickens describes Christmas Eve:
It was cold, bleak, biting weather—foggy withal; and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already, –it had not been light all day,–and the candles were flaring in the windows of neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without that, although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.
It is not just the weather that is cold. Dickens tells us that inside the offices of Scrooge, he “had a very small fire, but the clerk’s [Bob Cratchit] fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.” Scrooge, of course, is so tight-fisted that the whole office is dark and cold. To stay warmer, Cratchit wears a long white comforter while he works and warms himself with a candle.
Even colder is the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge:
The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rim was on his head, and his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
As Dickens follows Scrooge back to his house (we can’t call it a home), the weather becomes “foggier yet, and colder. Piercing and biting cold.” Scrooge does not mind the dark and cold of his house. Dickens says, “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Inside, Scrooge broods over a low fire, barely able to warm him, and contemplates the face of his dead partner Marley—who he has seen on his door knocker.
Dickens is sometimes accused of sappy sentimentalism, but I am struck by how the cold and dark takes center stage in this classic story of Christmas joy. But this is how it should be. At Christmas those who “walk in darkness see a great light” (Is.9:2). The fire of God’s love burns brightly in the face of a baby in the manger.
Believers are simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic. We doubt the natural goodness of people. The cold and dark are real—and like Scrooge, many people prefer it. As Christians we can look with clear-eyed honesty at the depravity of man—the coldness of the human heart. We, like Dickens, are utter realists.
At the same time believers are the wildest and most ridiculous optimists because we believe in redemption—the possibility of becoming, like Scrooge did, a new person. After his transformation, Scrooge wished Bob Cratchit “Merry Christmas” and hollered, “Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Although we don’t know for certain the dates of Christ’s birth, I like that we celebrate it in December. The greatest light came in the darkest time. Hope and joy warms our hearts during the coldest season. We don’t deny the cold, we light fires.