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 far 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.
So begins Charles Dickens’ 1859 A Tale of Two Cities, the harrowing and much-acclaimed story of a small but unforgettable cast of characters in London and Paris during the French Revolution. An unlikely candidate for Christmas break reading – nothing of the shepherds in the field or chestnuts roasting over an open fire here. And yet, as Dickens’ prophetically wrote, ‘so far like the present period’ as to make one wonder if Two Cities might yet join the canon of beloved Advent reading.
Long, cold nights followed by short gray days.
Without exception, we wake to news of devastation every morning. School girls disappeared in Nigeria, young adults murdered in Mexico, the black tyranny of ISIS spreading throughout the Middle East, entire communities obliterated by Ebola in West Africa, violence and deep grief in our own cities.
It is [again and again] the worst of times. The bleak mid-winter. The darkest time of the year.
And yet, the news of devastation arrives on a MacBook Air, sleek and light weight, in a warm home with the twinkle of Christmas lights, cinnamon scented candles alit, pantry stocked, healthy, happy children in the next room, a much-loved job awaiting the end of the break. It is [also] the best of times.
How do we hold in tension these parallel worlds? When and what do we teach our children about the hurting world beyond their experience? Some mercifully shielded more than others, but the undoing that began in the Garden of Eden eventually touches even the most protected life – cancer, divorce, unemployment, accident. Gratitude and joy, those precious gifts, far more easily cultivated. What are the practices in our lives, and what is shaping and forming our children for the seasons of darkness that must come?
Advent and Easter offer the only answer sufficient to the question. Infinitely more than “snow, mistletoe and presents under the tree”, we find the Christ-child, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God” choosing to leave unimaginable glory for a life of poverty, injustice, oppression, spiritual darkness and cruel death. And why? The Creed continues: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
O heart, do not pass by too quickly. The problem of sin and its terrible decaying effects could only be answered by the shed blood of the innocent Christ-child become man. Redemption by way of the cross, reconciliation with an offended and holy God, is hideously costly. Here, along the Via Dolorosa, at the stone table, at La Guillotine and in many too many places, suffering and death shriek ‘victory!’
Until we understand the ashes, the phoenix rising is merely a curious bird, without the black night, the candle in the window uninspiring, without the cross, the empty tomb without meaning. How kind the gift of Communion, of standing with our children as the sacred words repeat: “on the night when He was betrayed, He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
In the bleak midwinter of our lives, pausing to recognize and give voice to grief is a necessary and shaping gift. To lament is to create space, to be still, to welcome expressions of pain – in doing so, we acknowledge again the truth: we are not what we ought, we fall irrevocably short of the mark and all creation with us. That Dickens’ season of darkness is around us, and in us.
Mercifully, lament is not the end. Lament points beyond, to a time when things are what they should be, to the best of times, the epoch of belief, the season of light. To resurrection.
At the end of the ancient Jewish practice of sitting shiva, of quietly lamenting with those who mourn, Isaiah 60:20 is spoken: “No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end”. Amen and Amen.
Meeting the dark night.
For our children, inheriting an ever-more complex world, navigating a culture intent on relativism and endless distraction, an honest and modeled lament gives voice to the suspicion that ‘things are not what they ought to be’ and an opportunity to begin to yearn for the redeeming work of Christ. When the difficult phone call comes, the diagnosis poor, the relationship irreconcilable, the evening news devastating, how will we meet the dark night? How will we share our grief, and our hope with the children we’ve been given to shepherd?
Soul formation happens over ten thousand moments, through the intentional liturgies of church, school, dinner table – and the conversations overheard, the private moments witnessed, the teachable moments seized, great joy and deep sorrow. Preparing our children for a life of paradox – for the seasons of Light and the seasons of Darkness – means placing before them examples of lives given to The Important Things. Firstly, the life of Christ, our exemplar, secondly, our own imperfect, but authentic selves prayerfully walking with them towards adulthood. It means inviting others – friend, pastor, teacher, extended family – into their lives to shepherd, nurture, challenge, to dig deep and hold fast.
Short stories, literary novels and biographies are also excellent allies. Reading aloud, or pausing the movie to ask ‘what is in conflict? What is each character facing? How does their view of the world help or hinder? What is the deepest need in this moment?’ In this more abstract setting, we create a safe space to explore a wide range of human experience, further preparing our children for a life that will hold both beauty and brokenness, life as agents of truth and goodness and beauty, of lives that point self and others to a risen Savior.
Even the lyrics of a familiar song can open an important conversation: “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth, a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new and glorious dawn.” To ask “what do these words mean and what do they mean to us?”
The soul felt its worth. Perhaps a place to start.
Because of the soul’s great worth, we are assured that beauty will rise from ashes, life from death.
Because of the soul’s great worth, La Guillotine did not have ultimate victory, nor will ISIS, Boko Haram, Ebola or the brokenness in our lives.
Because of the soul’s great worth, we find time to read the book aloud, to pause the movie, to ask important questions, to listen well.
Because of the soul’s great worth, a simple cinnamon candle and the twinkle of Christmas lights foreshadow coming glory – where all that has been undone since the Garden of Eden will be gloriously, perfectly redeemed.
Because of the soul’s great worth, wisdom and light and hope and belief joyfully, stubbornly persist.
Because of the soul’s great worth, Christ left the City of God for the Little Town of Bethlehem, Advent’s own Tale of Two Cities. Hallelujah.
Preparing our children for all that lies ahead is a herculean task. In God’s mercy, great books, long and honest conversations, communion, lament, service to others, celebrations of the generous foretastes of glory we enjoy, authentic life in community with fellow pilgrims and always, always pointing to the rescue, reconciliation and redemption found in Christ, we make a good beginning.
Deuteronomy 11:19 – “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul … You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Quoted texts: A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, The Nicene Creed, I Corinthians 11:23-26, O Holy Night, Adolphe Adam
Sara Kennedy is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Veritas School. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.