Whether or not you are a fan of pub quizzes and the like, many of you could tell me where the title for this month’s article comes from. Perhaps you could even go on to quote a little more of it. For those who aren’t sure, these words were written by Charles Dickens in the year 1859. They are the opening words of his novel A Tale of Two Cities, and the version you are most likely to remember is: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I am sure you are not surprised that these words came to my mind when I was beginning to prepare this month’s article.
A Tale of Two Cities was published seventy years after the French Revolution began a period of economic and political turmoil that was to rock the very foundations of European society. In his novel, Dickens explored the lives of several French peasants during the years that led up to the Reign of Terror that brought total change in France – change that, in many cases, has never been reversed. So great had been the upheaval caused by the French Revolution and subsequent rebellions in France that A Tale of Two Cities would soon be followed by another literary blockbuster of the nineteenth century. In 1862, the French novelist, Victor Hugo, published his famous take on the 1832 Paris Rebellion in Les Miserables. This period in the mid-nineteenth century was the time when writers and philosophers began to look back at exactly what had happened in France, and why.
There will, of course, come a time when we will be doing the same about the times we are currently living through. We will look back at our period of lockdown, at the fear that has been engendered by a virus we cannot combat other than by changing the basis of the way we live out our daily lives, and we will wonder. We will, by then, have been blessed with the gift of hindsight. We will have learnt much and some will have come to understand more than they do now. Then, like nineteenth century Europe (and beyond) we will begin to live out our lives in the new reality that will have dawned, not just in Europe, but throughout the whole world.
As we begin another month of lockdown, this time with the added confusion of whether our movement is more or less restricted, it would be good for us to explore our quote from Dickens further. The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities actually says this: 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.
How those words ring out in our current situation. The wisdom of Dickens’ words reminds us that, no matter how entrenched we may be in our own personal worlds, there is always another way of looking at the world. The whole of the Christian Church in this country has had to wrestle with this dilemma. Never before – well, not since a Pope’s edict in the thirteenth century – have our churches been closed and locked, even to the point of prohibiting the clergy from entering them. Some have kicked out against this in aggressive and irrational ways, while others have accepted the situation as yet another inconvenience that has to be endured.
Whichever way you may be looking at the current social situation in this and other countries; whether or not you have been directly affected by the coronavirus; whether or not you have resented or respected the decisions made by those we elect to lead us, we continue to live in a world where the best of times is reflected in the Christian love and charity shown by many, where belief in God’s love leads us along the path of light rather than into the dark forest of despair. This is a time of hope because there is still a future for us – a future in which we can return to our churches and to our lives of amiable sociability and family fun. In the meantime, let us hold fast to Jesus’ words – Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
May the peace of Christ be with you in these challenging times.
Revd Stephen Buckman