Charles Dickens gave us A Christmas Carol, and among many others, he also gave us A Tale of Two Cities. I plan to to savor some Christmas literature this season, but first I’d like to consider Dickens’ opening to his latter tale, a fitting interpreter of our current year.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short,
the period was so like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
All these sentences, punctuated as a pregnant, single (run-on) sentence, course through Dickens’ pen as if being suddenly delivered from the swollen womb of his soul. In this tale of historical fiction set in London and Paris, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) writes of a time preceding his own, the time leading up to and during the French Revolution.
Does Dickens help us to interpret our times? The events of our closing year, especially the last few months unload a burdensome weight. For all the good of this year, the improvement in our economy, the lowered unemployment rate, the building of new houses, the protection from many dangers, the advance of the gospel in some parts of the world — these and other goods have been confronted by evils of every shade of darkness: natural disaster after natural disaster, terrorist attacks and mass murdering, insidious moral scandals involving people we should be able to respect, layers of government corruption, threats of nuclear war, the numbing 24/7 gossipy news, and the flow gushes on.
The stench overwhelms the fragrance. (Must it always? No.) Suffering humbles us; moral failures shame us. Our times present a world we cringe to give to our children. The blatant battle between good and evil surrounding us should remind us of invisible, eternal, spiritual realities. Instead of undermining my Christian faith, our world’s battles reinforce a biblical view of reality. Should we be surprised? No. But we should be alert.
The recent public exposures of sexual sin and government corruption along with various voices of outrage and calls for accountability remind me that God has designed the human soul to resonate with a moral standard of some kind. Everyone opposes the deviation from those benchmarks, those red lines. Secularists, agnostics, and atheists own a morality, whether or not they have a right to one. A randomly evolved, material cosmos somehow claims meaning? That’s a big topic. My point simply is that everyone has some standards which one expects others to understand and follow. This reveals an assumption of meaning. This reveals an innate propensity and longing for justice. But what is justice without moral criteria?
I’m reminded of the closing to the book of Ecclesiastes: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”
So, our times nudge us to reflect upon our own lives. We’re not famous, not public, so our sins, unique to ourselves, don’t go before us, exposing us. We should be cleansed by Christ’s blood (Col. 2:13-15 – read it and gratefully rejoice). We can see the cross of Christ as our place of judgment for our sins and the place where we can be reconciled to God. We also recognize that a judgment is yet coming.
Season’s greetings. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times. I’m reminded that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). My best and my worst and everything in between. Makes me reflect.
I’m not excited about appearing before Christ’s judgment seat, even though I believe that the Cross of Christ was my judgment, taking my sin and nailing it to the cross, making a public display of Christ triumphing over my treachery. I look at the verse before II Corinthians 5:10. It encourages me, that as long as I’m alive in my broken body, my ambition should be and can be to please the Lord.
This is good reminder at this season. My aim — in the best and worst of times, in this epoch of belief and incredulity, in this season of Darkness and Light — is simply (though often not easy), in the ways I live, to please Him, to bring a smile of pleasure to the face of the Light of the World.