Charles Dickens begins his classic A Tale of Two Cities, about London and Paris during the French Revolution, with the familiar contrasting phrases: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..” and in a sense, though not the mayhem of the French Revolution boiling past the Bastille and gushing poison into provincial France, yet the horrifying, senseless slaughters in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere in our own United States have ricocheted into the outlying regions of the country with rapid TV and network transmissions. Bombshells bursting in the fear-driven arena of Covid make this day-shortening season a dark experience mirroring Dickens’ “worst” upon us.
Pervasive rootlessness in the meaning of life and its expectations, especially as experienced by the young – more prone than ever to suicide – represents the climate of a non-biblical world view, even an anti-biblical one. With due respect for the sincere efforts and advances science has made to bring this other plague, Covid, under control, it has become the breeding ground for fear, insecurity, and an all- too willing condescension to the State as its commandeering Captain through a storm enveloping minds and hearts.
There is another dimension to this world’s travails, however. It points to the “best of times.” The not yet, but even so is addressed clearly in the context of Salvation History – anticipation and its joy!
And so it is that Mother Church oversees the seasons God has granted us so we can measure the seasons of our own lives as well, the worst and the best, the dark and the light, the evil and the good, with God at the Helm, none less. We have entered Advent.
It is always meaningful to draw together Thanksgiving Day, Christ the King and Advent. And it is the thankfulness in Advent that we celebrate together now. We are thankful for the Gift of Christmas, rather than just the Christmas gift. And that Gift, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, is with us in his Word of Scripture, year after year in the liturgical readings that recall first Israel’s awaiting his coming for centuries up until in the actual “Word made flesh, dwelling among us”, the root of light and hope. He is “the Glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John, 1: 14) “The Gift of Christmas is Jesus, Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” with us, yes, even in the “Flesh,” as John will record Jesus’ later describing His Real Presence in the Blessed Eucharist (John 6: 35ff).
But it began with a Baby! And not one held up to reverence and fame, but rather Who slipped into the world in a “back alley” or as we read, an eating trough (manger) for animals. Hardly the messiah the Jews were looking forward to receiving as their savior! Such is God’s plan to turn the darkness into light through the tiniest. “But in the dark street shineth / the Everlasting Light! / The hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in Thee tonight.” Our familiar Boston carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” puts it forth with grace and memorable charm. It begins with the Baby! Take away the Baby, the Christmas Gift, and the world becomes just tinsel town. A shell. And the residue of “the worst of times.” Put the Baby back in the picture and there is truly “Joy to the World.” He is Truth and Life. And sense.
The Supreme Court has just presented oral arguments pro and con on the Mississippi Dobbs v Jackson lower court dispute, and the “worst of times” (pun intended) opines on with the “right to choose” screed poised to be severed or even altered by the highest court of the land. Hysteria. But it begins with the baby, legally a plaything, tossed about in trimesters, who in every single instance is a reflective creation of God of that Baby, the Christmas Gift, the same and always Jesus. It is hard to recall anything being a universe farther apart from Christmas than the ongoing slaughter of now over 64 million unborn human beings since that 1973 jurisprudential miscarriage, Roe v Wade. These are, yes, persons made in the “Image and Likeness of God” so singularly honored from the beginning of mankind in the first pages of the Bible (Genesis 1:26). This is, after all, where we get our life’s rooted meaning, so elusive to people today who in the “worst of times” are conditioned by fear, and envision no way out.
No, the Baby is the “way out” of the “worst of times.” And the magnetic call He offers is also the “way in” to our hearts. That’s what Advent is about, the anticipation and hunger for the Child Gift Who is Truth and Life. Shakespeare coined the expression in Merchant of Venice: “All things that are/ are with more spirit chased than enjoyed.” His keen sensitivity to human nature points out not the eternal, but the passing allurements, where the small “gifts” of a season or festive day are here one day and gone the next. There is, after all, not one item that we will take with us into the afterlife, that we have voraciously run after, saved up for, and dished out for our eyes, stomachs, minds, save One: this Baby. And He alone makes our experience, – come what may in the otherwise ups and downs that ripple about in our sea – “the best of times.” And beyond time, eternity.
Dickens went on: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” In the twenty-first century these immortal contrasts ring out with dire warning and challenge. The ongoing killings on the streets, even a car ploughing through a parade, or horrific classroom mass slaughters are all but displays of the evil gushing forth from the blasphemy of “my choice, my body,” disguising the slaughtering of one’s own child or the glib thumbs down vote against protection for the baby in the larger society. In the multimillions. The sooner we get back to the Baby at the center not only of Christmas but of the childlike trust Jesus encourages and even prescribes us to develop in our own selves (Matthew 18:13), and the firmer we actively work and persuasively converse to promote protection from womb to tomb for the most disregarded, to change law, but more significantly to change hearts, the surer will be the return to rootedness while ridding fear that darkens the social climate. Advent rides over these darkening days, but carries a deeper hope
Instead of the “foolishness.. incredulity … darkness… despair” of the “worst” we’ll harvest “wisdom… belief… Light… hope” of the best of times. That’s what Advent does despite the growing darkness.
It all begins with the Baby, “the everlasting Light” in such darkness. That demands a personal real-life choice, for “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” in that very Baby, not just “tonight” at Christmas, but until eternity. I’m banking on hope rather than fear. Are you?