The Gospel According to Charles Dickens: The Horizon of Death

By Timothy King 12-24-2011
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.
Illustration from Dickens' "Christmas Carol." Photo by Tim King.

It is with death that Dickens begins his story and it is with death that Scrooge completes his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Scrooge hears other businessman saying that they wouldn’t attend the funeral unless there was sure to be lunch served. Men for whom he had great business esteem gave no more thought to his death than they did the weather. There were thieves who stripped the clothes off his dead body and the curtains from around his bed.

He begged the Spirit to show him a scene in which some person, any person, was moved to emotion at his death.  The Spirit brought him to the house of a debtor who rejoiced with his wife at the death of Scrooge because now they might have time enough to pay back their loan. When he was shown the Cratchit household there was no mention of Scrooge at all, only mourning for the passing of Tiny Tim.

For a story about conversion, death is a necessary character. It is in the finality of death that our eyes are able to readjust and see the horizon of our life and being. It is within that context of understanding our end is coming that we can live our lives well.

It was around this time two years ago that I was in the ICU with acute necrotizing pancreatitis caused by complications from a diagnostic procedure. I was in respiratory distress, had been catheterized and was wearing an adult diaper as I was no longer able to control my bowels. I was 25 and the doctors told my family there was a fifty-fifty shot as to whether I would live or die.

With a clear vision of my own mortality it was never more sure to me that little matters in life as much as who shows up at your hospital bed to say goodbye or hold your hand and say that there is still hope.

Dickens describes the corpse of the Scrooge of the future:

He lay, in the dark, empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child to say he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him.

The woman who stole the shirt off the cold body of Scrooge was correct in her insight that it would be of little good to him now. Nothing that moth and rust can destroy or thieves can break in and steal is of lasting value.

Death of self, Paul teaches in Colossians 3, must be confronted before the gift of true life can be received. Before God, we are all stripped bare.  

It is the reflection of ourselves in the mirror of death that allows us to weigh our life.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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