By Ron Bergez
In Stave Three of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit carries Tiny Tim aloft on his shoulders into the Christmas-warm Cratchit household, followed by the Tim’s oft-imitated utterance “God bless us every one!” Stave Three becomes the place where we are relieved for a time from the bleakness of Scrooge’s sad, solitary existence and the fearsome revelations which accompany the visits of the Spirits. But then we are challenged. As the stave ends, Scrooge spies from under the Spirit’s robe a foot so meager that it could be a claw. Beneath the Spirit’s garment are two gaunt and frightened children. They are the boy Ignorance and the girl Want, says the Spirit. Both are the offspring of Man, and the Spirit warns Scrooge to beware particularly the boy Ignorance. “[O]n his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” The Spirit disappears.
Dickens was a man of his era, and he saw a threat to society in the prevalence of ignorance, in an age where countless young, rather than enjoying (or chafing at) the challenge of learning in a safe school environment could expect a life of backbreaking labor, deprivation, and the illness that accompanies poverty and despair. To become educated was an impossible dream for many who would be denied the means to raise themselves to a better state.
How far we have come. Education through later adolescence is so much the norm that we fret only over the lack of students completing college degrees. We are literate, and since the advent of the Internet through the e-reader and Coursera, access to oceans of information requires devices that are ever-cheaper to own. If the diminishing of Ignorance is the means to avoid Social Catastrophe, as the Ghost implies to Scrooge, we can, unlike Scrooge, sleep easily.
But we know better, and Dickens did as well. Satisfying the body and enlightening the mind are natural human goods, but they will not bring ultimate happiness by themselves. We are more. As Scrooge recalls the loss of his loving Belle in Stave Two, he mourns the near-death of the most important part of his nature: the willingness to lay down his ambition and material desires and instead give himself to love. He suffers from a Want more profound than hunger or nakedness. Nor is he Ignorant at the level of mental acuity – “the sharpest needle was not sharper than Scrooge” – but he knows not the blessing of a hearth “full of comfort,” overrun with children, at which he sees Belle living in comfort with her family, content and fulfilled.
The ultimate answer to our individual and communal troubles – and they are with us today, even in the midst of compulsory schooling and goods beyond our ability to consume – is a far different Child. Dickens reminds us of our hope at the end of Stave Three. The Spirit’s head emits a great light, and Scrooge, trying to gain power over the Spirit and keep him from leaving, pushes the Spirit’s strange, conical hat down on his head, as if he can overpower it by covering the light. “The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the [hat] covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light, which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.” It recalls the opening of John’s Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4,5, RSV).
Despite the darkness of Want and especially of Ignorance, Stave Three leaves us with a reminder that, however we sometimes suppress the light, it will not be hidden. It is not an easy message: Scrooge is challenged, as we are challenged, to meet the needs of men and women, in body, in mind, and most of all in soul. For Scrooge, it takes visitations from several disconcerting Spirits to see the truth of his life before it is too late. Blessed are we to know the Spirit that brings us to the Light of the World, through whom we know God, who is Love.