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  • Writer's pictureThe Friendly Fogey

Resurrection And Liturgy In 'A Tale Of Two Cities'

My favorite Easter read is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Among other things, it beautifully depicts how to practically live out what it means to believe in the resurrection and gives, I think, a powerful example of how liturgy works to shape our actions.

On the first point, resurrection is the recurring theme of the novel. At least three characters experience resurrection in their own ways. Dr. Manette is “recalled to life” by the love of his daughter after spending years in the Bastille. Charles Darnay, a French aristocratic, becomes disgusted with France’s treatment of the poor and renounces his family name and title to start a new life and live on his own merit in England. And finally, Sydney Carton is a brilliant but self-loathing young attorney who lives on the brink of alcoholism and depression. But before the end, Carton remembers the phrase “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” Carton clandestinely takes Darnay’s place in prison and is guillotined by the mobs of Paris.

There’s something to be said for each example. Dr. Manette is resurrected through the love of others. He is found helpless and mentally unstable after his imprisonment and it is only through the love of his daughter and friends that he is recalled to life. He makes good use of the resurrection by returning all the love he was given. Darnay on the other hand, resurrected himself. He made the conscious choice to leave all he knew and seek out a better and more just way of living. And Darnay’s second life ends up looking very much like Dr. Manette’s. Darnay marries Manette’s daughter, and loves them and their friends as best he can.

Each of the men have to give up something to have their new life. In Darnay’s case, that’s obvious. He has to give up his life of comfort as an aristocrat. But Manette has to give up things as well. It would seem an easy choice to give up the habits picked up in prison, but it turns out it’s actually harder. To cope with the torture of imprisonment, Manette learned to make shoes in his cell. After his release, he finds the weight of freedom is too much to bear and so he continues to do nothing but make shoes and mutter his cell number over and over again. To face his freedom and claim his new life, he has to let go of his coping mechanisms. That’s easier said than done. When asked if he cares to be recalled to life, he can only respond "I can't say." (A great example of the difficulty people have of turning away from obviously destructive habits for a better life. Or of turning away from the bondage of sin to the freedom of Christ.)

And that brings us once again to Sydney Carton. Carton makes the biggest sacrifice of all when he gives his own life for Darnay at the end of the novel. For most of the novel, Carton is an alcoholic, resents the success of his friends, and in general is given over to acedia - all the despair of modern life under late stage capitalism in an 18th century man. But in the last book, Carton has a conversion and finds hope - hope that an ultimate sacrifice will not be in vain. (It’s also interesting that it’s away from London and in the vibrant, if anarchic, Paris, that Carton finds the circumstances in which to make the most of his life.)

Practically, then, a person who believes in the resurrection will have the strength to make the necessary sacrifices, knowing they aren’t in vain, and the knowledge that his chance at resurrection is a calling to do something good. Both Darnay and Dr. Manette devote their resurrected lives to worthwhile pursuits. Manette repays the love of his daughter that recalled him to life. Darnay marries the daughter and loves the family and their friends as his own. And it makes sense that a resurrected life would be full of love and family. Resurrection demands that you do something worthwhile - that you make good use of your second chance. A life may be a terrible thing to waste, but a new life is something even more precious. It has to be put to good use - even unto death.

Finally, on the power of liturgy. Carton is strengthened in his conversion by a single phrase: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” It comes into his head while wondering the streets of Paris, and stays with him until his death. But the quote as relayed by Dickens isn’t from any translation of the Bible. It’s from the Order for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer. Carton only heard the phrase in childhood at his father’s funeral, but it came back to him when he needed it.

That’s the power of good liturgy. It’s a reminder that it’s the job of liturgy to impress itself onto language - to make itself memorable. Compare Cranmer’s language above to the new liturgy for the Anglican Church in North America: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.”

ACNA’s language is cleaner, but at the expense of poetry and authority. You believe the Lord who saith, and you remember what he saith. But the Lord who merely says is easily forgotten. It’s not the sort of thing that comes ringing back into your head as you prepare to face death.

A liturgy that is dragged along by culture, that is updated every few decades, by definition isn’t doing the heavy lifting of creating culture that sticks with people. The Prince of Wales, remarkably, once put it rather well:

"I would have liked to begin with a ringing phrase from the King James's Version of the Bible: "Harken to my words".
But the New English Bible translates the phrase in less commanding terms: "Give me a hearing".
It might seem more humble but it also sounds less poetic: and what we have to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is whether, by making the words less poetic, you really do make them more dramatic. Isn't there something rather patronising about that whole assumption?
Possibly there are more people today who read less well than people in the past, although I doubt it. Most people then couldn't read at all. But supposing it were true, whoever decided that for people who aren't very good at reading, the best things to read are those written by people who aren't very good at writing? Poetry is for everybody, even if it's only a few phrases. But banality is for nobody. It might be accessible for all, but so is a desert."
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