“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.”
The quotation is from the opening of the literary classic “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The novel was written in 1859. The story that unfolds is set during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that engulfed France in the late 19th century. The opening paragraph captures the confusion of the times whereby characteristics of the day were only described in terms of extremes.
The words capture in artistic fashion the “times” which they describe. In living the Christian life it is helpful to identify the “signs of the times,” in which we live. Doing so helps us to understand the influences that come upon us daily in our efforts to live as disciples of Christ in the 21st century.
The Second Vatican Council took up this exercise in composing Gaudium et Spes, “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” The opening paragraph in that document situates the church within the times saying: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
As the document develops, the Council Fathers speak to a wide range of issues that affect the lives of people living in the modern world. In doing so they identify the “signs of the times” and the influences, for good or evil, that the thoughts, practices and lifestyles of the day have on the faithful.
As we are coming to the close of this liturgical year and the opening of a new one, the readings for our Masses have the theme of the “end.” What is important in hearing the Word through these readings is that while the end will come and the ultimate victory will be Christ’s, remaining faithful in the present needs to be the focus.
Jesus uses the image of the fig tree in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy. He says: “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Identifying the forces that influence our thoughts, attitudes, dispositions and actions helps us to respond better to Christ in faith.
As Dickens wrote that famous opening paragraph he alludes to a comparison to the “present age.” Some people today might feel like these words apply to our age. In other periods of history as well, though not all, this may be true. So what keeps us grounded in the midst of such confusion? Jesus gives us the answer when he says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Jesus is the One who keeps us “grounded.” He is the One who lives eternally and continues to speak to us through his words for he is the Word that leads us to our heavenly home. Through the Scriptures and life in the Church, his Body, he draws us to himself into the very life of God. Hearing his words, listening to his voice and responding in faith is the sure way to navigate through the confusion of our times.
In the early Church, one of the descriptors of the Christian life was “The Way.” Jesus used this term to describe himself when he said: “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.” Living the Christian life is like walking or running on a path. The road leads to life, so it is a road we want to be on. Sometimes the road is clear and we progress with good speed. Other times there may be obstacles that pop up which slow us down or distract us along the way.
Since Christ is with us on the journey, and more to the point, since he is the Way, we can overcome these obstacles with his help. Yet, there are other times when we might see another path that might seem attractive and it might allure us. This last path is the one to be wary of because it leads us away from Christ and leading us away from Christ leads us away from life.
Keeping to the Way will lead us to life. As we seek to answer the questions of life posed by the world in which we live, wisdom is needed. Wisdom helps us distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, better from good and so forth. Distinctions help us clarify thought, to discern the Truth and to walk the Way.
In a world where “anything,” “everything,” and “nothing” are commonplace, distinctions become all the more important. Wisdom helps us to make these distinctions. If Jesus is the Way perhaps we can speak of the Holy Spirit as the navigator. Through the Spirit we receive wisdom to discern what is the true path and to help identify the obstacles to advancing along the Way.
As we journey through life in the sometimes confusing and contradicting values that arise in the post-modern world, we have the ever increasing need to be wise. Our hope lies in the fact that this gift has been given; all we need to do is to avail ourselves of it.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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