An Advent Tale of Two Cities: New York and Rome

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

In Rome, in recent days, Pope Francis quoted Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, comfort my people,” and startled the world by extending merciful reconciliation for having had an abortion—beyond the year-long Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which ends this month (November 2016). One year ago, the pontiff had declared that, during the special Jubilee year, he was allowing priests to forgive an abortion in the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as confession. In Francis’s words: “I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”

In New York City, in recent days, another world leader invited journalists to a private meeting at his building—then berated them, letting them know that years of confrontation lie ahead.

The comparisons of detail-for-detail, city-for-city could go on and on, but this is not a political column. It’s a ReadTheSpirit cover story on a question our readers have been asking us over and over again this month. That question: How do we continue to promote reconciliation and celebrate our diversity in a world that we can only describe along with Charles Dickens in this way?

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.

As a lifelong Dickens’ fan, to be honest, I never cared for A Tale of Two Cities. As a relatively short Dickens novel, the book was required reading in many public schools back in the ’60s and ’70s. Even at that time, I greatly preferred Dickens’ true masterpieces that plumb his responses to poverty, abuse, cynicism and utter Darkness in the world. If you are finding yourself thinking of diving into a Dickens master work over the holidays, please—by all means—tackle the mother ship of the Dickensian realm: Bleak House. (Two years ago, ReadTheSpirit actually encouraged a “group read” of that novel, if you care to look back.)

‘A Little Better All the Time’?

The point here is: As Baby Boomers, millions of us grew up with the assumption—eagerly promoted by many post-Great Depression and post-World War II parents—that our world would only get better, one step at a time. Yes, the Civil Rights Movement claimed countless victims, both in terms of scars and actual fatalities. Yes, our war in Vietnam claimed victims, too. Yes, the battle for LGBT inclusion claimed victims. But, collectively, we Baby Boomers could assume with the Beatles: “I have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.”

Talking with dozens of readers as American Thanksgiving 2016 came and went this month, more than a few of you have also mentioned the death of Leonard Cohen as “one more thing I’m in grief about this month,” as one interfaith leader put it. Perhaps the prophetic poet/songwriter was telling us all something with his final album, released just last month (October 2016), titled You Want It Darker. Like many other Cohen fans, I remember thinking the title and the music were sly and amusing—back in those heady days of October before Election Day. The album’s title was just more biting Cohen satire, I thought—as did many of us.

Now, I think we may find ourselves mining the album’s lyrics, such as this chorus from the song Treaty:

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

‘Comfort, comfort my people.’

Or perhaps that’s a fool’s errand—as Cohen himself likely would have said at such a thought in such a column as this. Perhaps we all—whether we are Christian or not—should mine the words of Francis as this new liturgical year begins. Let’s close with a few lines from the pope’s recent Apostolic Letter:

“Comfort, comfort my people” (Is 40:1) is the heartfelt plea that the prophet continues to make today, so that a word of hope may come to all those who experience suffering and pain. Let us never allow ourselves to be robbed of the hope born of faith in the Risen Lord. True, we are often sorely tested, but we must never lose our certainty of the Lord’s love for us. His mercy finds expression also in the closeness, affection and support that many of our brothers and sisters can offer us at times of sadness and affliction. The drying of tears is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped.

All of us need consolation because no one is spared suffering, pain and misunderstanding. How much pain can be caused by a spiteful remark born of envy, jealousy or anger! What great suffering is caused by the experience of betrayal, violence and abandonment! How much sorrow in the face of the death of a loved one! And yet God is never far from us at these moments of sadness and trouble. A reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood, a caress that makes us feel love, a prayer that makes us stronger… all these things express God’s closeness through the consolation offered by our brothers and sisters.

Think about printing out these words and carrying them with you in coming weeks. Perhaps it will remind you, when you’re feeling things are just a bit too dark now, to refuse to pull back from friends and colleagues—to reach out, instead, in “a reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood,” as Francis puts it.

“Comfort, comfort my people”


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  1. Judy Craig says

    Ah, David….you have not lost your “touch”. Thank you! And may the season of hope bloom large in your heart and the hearts of those you love.

  2. Benjamin Pratt says

    You give me great comfort, my friend–great comfort@ Thank you for your heart and wisdom. Benjamin