The Freezing Point

Beneath two miles of Antarctic ice lies Lake Ellsworth, resting in perpetual solitude, having been isolated from the earth’s atmosphere for half a million years—until a team of British scientists recently undertook a sophisticated experiment to probe its depths for any micro-organisms that might help our understanding of the limits at which life can exist on earth and to observe the patterns of polar ice melt.

Life at that depth would face major challenges. It would exist in total darkness; it would be hard-pressed to find any nourishment; it would endure colossal pressure from the two miles of ice weighing down on it; and it would subsist in complete isolation from the very atmosphere that we regard as essential. But it would have its own water at least, for at such intense pressure, the freezing point of water decreases sufficiently to allow the lake to remain in a liquid state. So who knows what life might be waiting down there, quite cut off, until now, from our searching gaze?

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When I read about this experiment, I was powerfully reminded of the state of the human heart in our world today.

We too live in the dark—a darkness of bewilderment and sometimes of despair, groping our way through life with the tiny candle of what we think we know or can predict, yet acutely aware of the surrounding dark of unknowing and unpredictability. We may have an abundance of trash food, not just for our bodies but for our minds and souls, but where is there any real and lasting nourishment—what Jesus called the bread of life and the water that never runs dry? As for high pressure, no need to remind ourselves of that, in a society where even our children are prey to depression, self-harming and suicide. And in spite of, or perhaps even because of, our worldwide social networking skills, we can easily remain isolated in worlds that are rapidly becoming reduced to a tiny screen.

We have a lot in common with that lake deep below the Antarctic ice. Could we be living in fragile bubbles of pleasure and distraction while our hearts are frozen over with thick layers of fear, bewilderment and loneliness that effectively isolate us from the source of true life that is waiting to coax the greening of springtime from our emptiness and darkness?

I was saddened recently to watch small children being entertained by superficial and very expensive sideshows at a seaside holiday fair. Had they only looked behind them they would have seen a whole vista of rocky shoreline, running waves and the distant views over the Mull of Kintyre—a world beckoning them in vain to the possibility of real adventure. The seduction of the superficial was isolating them from the joy that was surging all around them, calling fruitlessly for their attention. Are our little ones becoming trapped, like the lake, beneath an impenetrable layer of trivial matters?

And yet, as we are reminded every year, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2). If Advent-Christmas-Epiphany is merely “the holiday season,” it may well be all frosting and no cake. But if it is truly the celebration of the birth of a revolution, then it heralds the dawning of a light that will far outshine all human tinsel and melt the thickest layers of ice that encase us. But how? Does the Incarnation offer us a “probe” to penetrate the heart of the matter? I think not. Our ways are not God’s ways.

An old fable tells the story of a man who went for a walk wearing his overcoat. The wind and the sun had a game with each other. Each claimed it could persuade the man to take off his coat. The wind tried first. It blew and blew and tried its hardest to blow the man’s coat away, but he just pulled his coat more tightly around himself. Then the sun came out, and, simply by shining down, warmed up the man so much that he quite naturally took off his coat.

The Christmas revolution is a lot like this. All the troubles and terrors that life can pitch against us will only make us close up more tightly into our darkness and isolation. But at Christmas the Son comes out. The power of love melts our defenses and dissolves the barriers we have erected between us. Dare we, as a human family, risk leaving the caves of our fears and stand in the sunlight of that love? Who knows what new life God is coaxing into being from the melting ice of our frozen hearts?

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