Ebenezer Scrooge, visited already by several Spirits, “was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances…nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.”
I’ve had the pleasure of thinking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol frequently this Advent. G. K. Chesterton says that “it is characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories,” and that the happiness of his Christmas stories depends on a certain antagonism, “the quality of divine obstruction.”
The baby is a good antagonist. A baby was the supernatural guest of the first Christmas. Only Herod the Great, not given the same grace as Scrooge, intuited the threat the baby posed.
An atmospheric aspect somewhat overlooked in A Christmas Carol is the poverty. Dickens’ most godlike quality (besides world-making) was probably that, although he knew the failings of the poor and understood the difficulty of helping them help themselves, his jealous love for the poor had no limit. Scrooge is not deficient because he lacks the spirit of Christmas—he is a pecuniary pervert bound to burn in torment for his usury. He is not converted by sentimental yearnings for cheer, which do arise in his breast when he sees the young rejoicing—he is turned by seeing that even the more good-natured of his lending victims hear of his death with barely-suppressed malice.
The poor are not to be trifled with, even in Ordinary Time. Christmas, as Saint Wenceslaus shows us in his song, is the time of their greatest exaltation at the hands of Christians, in honor of the baby. To have a part in God’s own charity, which is His life, is eternal life for us. But charity must be fanned into flame all year round, so that it can blaze abundantly at the high feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Furthermore, seeing a baby is not sufficient to move us to charity. For some in our twisted world, a baby is the most frightening home invasion imaginable. Dickens would have agreed with George Orwell, the skeptical socialist who protested the foisting of contraception on the poor: for them, having babies is a manly protest against the chilling grip of the sterilizing State.
In Advent, though, we see not the baby but the rhinoceros. Impatient advocate of the poor, he is charging us, rushing us to the End, to move us to charity. “Lo, he comes.” Lord, may what obstructs us fall, and may we learn to give and receive of your merciful alms, before time runs out and we grow cold.
Image: Jackson rhino