It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Things seem not to have changed much since Charles Dickens penned these words to open the first chapter of A TALE OF TWO CITIES*. Dickens released his book chapter by chapter in a weekly journal he debuted in March 1859. I dreaded tackling this book when it was assigned reading in high school. However, in the wake of recent news, I find Dickens’s opening observations to be quite pertinent. It seems that these sentiments have described the human experience since the beginning of time…
October 27, 2018 was a truly enjoyable Saturday until it wasn’t. That morning, a man driven by hatred shot his way into a Pittsburgh synagogue where he murdered eleven worshipers. He wounded six others in the process. When I heard this news, I immediately lost interest in the M&M packets I was pouring into the large bowl near our front door. Donning my most-orange flannel shirt to greet Gurnee’s trick-or-treaters no longer amused me. Though the aroma of beef stew simmering in our crock pot did its best to entice me, I had no appetite. What should have been a carefree day had morphed into a period of mourning over the loss of yet another measure of our humanity. I found myself in the worst of times.
In spite of the amazingly polite and appreciative trick-or-treaters who frequented our door, my thoughts returned to that synagogue and to similar events which have rocked my world. It was April 1968, when another of our fellow humans assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A heartbroken junior in high school, I couldn’t accept that any one of us could respond to the author of the I Have a Dream Speech with such hatred. A few years later, some friends were drafted to serve in Vietnam, while others thanked God that their birth dates allowed them to avoid the war and remain in college. I wrote often to the guys in the service while I protested the war here at home. I loved my friends in Vietnam and I marched as I did to bring them home as quickly as possible. The shooting at Kent State in May 1970 tore me apart once again. I cringed as I wondered how our home turf had also become a war zone. Those who lost their lives in that synagogue weren’t given the time to ask that question. Our neighbors in violence-ridden neighborhoods tell us that they’ve lived in a war zone forever. So I ask, “Dear God, will it ever be the best of times?”
Before I continue, I acknowledge with genuine gratitude and joy that we’ve all been blessed with the best of times at one time or another. Perhaps this is the reason it’s so difficult to accept the terrible events which hurt us so. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus embraced his work among us with such fervor. Jesus himself was born among us in the worst of times. Roman occupiers mercilessly lorded it over the Jewish people throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Herod was a tyrant who inspired ruthlessness in those who served him. When Jesus’ parents settled in Nazareth, their tiny town was overcrowded and unsafe. Still, Joseph and Mary provided Jesus a happy home there where he learned firsthand about the love of God and the love of his neighbors. Through his parents, Jesus came to know our Benevolent Creator who, above all else, loves us and wishes us the best in this life and in the hereafter. Yes, even Jesus found that the best of times can be elusive. Jesus endured the worst of times just as often as we do.
In today’s gospel (Mark 13:24-32), Mark indicates that Jesus was sometimes quite dramatic in his response to the evils around him. Jesus told the people, “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “And they will see the Son of Man coming from the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds.” Jesus seemed to say to them and to us, “Yes, this too shall pass!” Jesus knew God’s love and God’s intent for our happiness firsthand. This is the reason Jesus came. This is the reason Jesus shared in our trial and tribulations, pointing out all the while the joy to be found in God’s love for us, in loving God and in loving one another. When happier times seemed too elusive to imagine, Jesus called the people’s attention to the joy to be found in the things to come. Jesus assured all who would listen that the worst of times served to make the best of times all the sweeter!
When I look back upon the difficult times in my life, I’m amazed that I made it through them. At the same time, when I look back upon the happiest times of my life, I’m amazed at my capacity for joy. Though I’m tempted to wonder what God was thinking in all of this, I need only to turn to Jesus. Jesus would be first to say, “Love, Mary. In the best of times and the worst of times, it’s all about love.”
©2018 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved
*Charles Dickens, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Book the First, The Period, page 1, March 1859.