The Rev. Alison Cornish
Sunday, December 19, 2004
“It was the longest night. People gathered from near and far, in small groups and large, to share their fears and grief and the darkness in their hearts.” In our western, modern, or post-modern, 21st century lives, it is nearly impossible to recapture the sense that our ancestors must have felt, sitting on hilltops, or cowering in caves, thinking that the sun was dying, disappearing. It appeared that the sun was dying because its rising and setting was so very low on the line of the horizon – they feared it would fall over the edge. Their winter belongs to a different world than ours. It was a world of forces both large and unpredictable. We can only imagine the questions that might have swirled around those hills and caverns: Where did the sun go? Who took it away? What have we done to make it disappear? How can we tempt it to return? Who must we appease? It was a world filled with dark mystery.
And then, after years, generations, even millenia, the patterns emerged. The sun came back. The sun disappeared, and then reappeared in ways that were observable, even predictable. The patterns and rhythms of the seasons emerged, first in story and song, then marked in stone hewn from the ground. Ancient observatories and monuments, Chichen Itza and Stonehenge among them, were raised, marking the precise moment when the sun would return, when the light would grow stronger. Just as it did last year – and the year before that. Like it would next year, and the year after that. The moment arrived when history was remembered, and the future expected. The time of the solstice was less about calling out in fear and despair, imploring the gods to return the sun to its home. Instead, the solstice was a time to celebrate the rhythms and cycles of the world of nature, to revel in the changing seasons. To see the present moment in relation to something grand, to the very movements of the heavenly bodies. It was a world filled with awe.
And then, in time, the solstice was all but forgotten. The marking of the sun’s return was absorbed into religious and cultural traditions that had other objectives, but found the timing of the solstice convenient. Hanukkah – the festival of light. Christmas – the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Both “borrowed” the solstice for their celebrations. And the natural world ceased to mystify or worry us in the way it did our ancient ancestors. It even ceased to amaze us. In fact, the task became this – how to best insulate ourselves from effects of the world which surrounds us. At first, shelter gave us security. But then it became comfort, too. With light and heat supplied at the touch of a switch, the separation became complete. Now our engagement with the world around us is mediated by multiple interpretive lenses, each one adding more distance between us and the “real thing.” Now the solstice passes by, unnoticed by most. It has long ceased being a cause of fear. Neither is it regarded with awe. It is just another day to get up, go about our business of work or school or errands, and go to bed. The solstice is like a memento of a former life, lost in the back of a closet – unseen and forgotten.
By passing by the solstice, we do more than leave behind some of our ancient history.
We also turn our backs on the season of winter. this has become a popular way to deal” with winter. Try to forgot that it happens at all. Or, if it does, despise it. Each year I am struck anew by television and radio media that portray the winter season as an enemy to be feared, fought and defeated. Storms are seen as intentional attacks upon the human population and its comforts. Cold is unexpected – and certainly unwanted. Winter, we are told, is to be endured. Oh, except for the winter sports areas, where, of course, we create more snow and more ice to satisfy our desire for entertainment and recreation. That’s what we would like to have, ideally – a winter that makes its appearance only in the places and ways that are beneficial and agreeable to our plans. If the snow would fall only on the mountain, and not the road leading to it … if only the skating pond would freeze, and not the path to it. That’s what we’d like – a winter tamed and domesticated, without a trace of mystery or awe.
But in wishing away the season of winter, we also wish away “wintering” – the means by which we pass the winter. By this I mean the time when we humans might follow the rhythms of the natural world, to see that we have the opportunity to view the world from a different perspective. Maybe even to marvel at its mysteries, and experience again some of the awe. Here are Annie Dillard’s words on wintering from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
Outside, everything has opened up. Winter clear-cuts and reseeds the easy way. Everywhere paths unclog … The woods are acres of sticks … When the leaves fall the striptease is over; things stand mute and revealed. Everywhere skies extend, vistas deepen, walls become windows, doors open … All that summer conceals, winter reveals … It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.
All that summer conceals, winter reveals. Vistas deepen. This is what we miss when we are too anxious to push away the winter, when we forget the gifts it has to offer us.
If we bundle ourselves up against the wind, and ignore the dire warnings of the prognosticators, we might see our earth home with different eyes, even listen to her with different ears. And, when we are forced to stay inside, perhaps we can discover new aspects of our own all-too-hidden lives. We come in to come out. Things we have never understood become clear.
Dillard’s words also point us to another winter. There is a winter “out there,” the one of bare trees and landscapes softened by snow. But there is another, metaphoric winter for us humans. This is the winter of the spirit. It is a fierce and bitter winter, colder than any north wind, darker even than the longest night. If we are honest with ourselves, we know we have all had an experience of these soulful times. But I believe that right now many of us are – collectively – feeling this winter of the spirit. It is here, in the words of Claude Stephenson:
For all thinking and caring progressives … we are now in the deep and harsh
winter of our discontent. It appears that it will indeed be a very long time until
our days begin to grow longer again …
I am with Stephenson, and I imagine with many of you, too, in feeling that the winter upon us right now is not just one of nature, not simply a moment when we are tilted away from our sun, but a coldness that runs through the very lifeblood of our nation.
As the weeks have passed between the election and the coming inauguration, I have felt again the words from our reading – this has been “a year like no other … testing us beyond what we’d ever imagined.” We are a country at war both at home and abroad.
We all know there is more winter to come. We all know that the solstice, though it marks the beginning of the return of the light, is still followed by months of cold. We all know that the light has a long way to go before it will shine brightly through these dark times. And yet, we also know that winters come to an end. Some winters end with the sighting of the first crocus. Some winters end with a final, triumphant ascent out of grief and despair. Some winters end because “day after day, week after week, we found ourselves growing and becoming sturdy because there was no other choice.” If there is a lesson that still clings to the solstice, to the centuries of celebrating the return of the sun, it is this – all winters do end.
And our winter of the spirit? How might it begin to end? Let me return to Claude Stephenson’s words. He says:
I spent the day after the election … dragging a ripping plow deeply into the soil to break through the hard pan below … this will allow better drainage and healthier plants next year … To me, this past election was much like a tractor dragging a ripping plow through the heart and soil of America, deeply dividing the soil and bedrock of our nation. As with my garden, now, in this winter of our discontent, it is time for all liberal progressive thinking Americans to rise up and spread our ideals and fundamental beliefs into these deep furrows and till them into the American political dialogue … Four years ago my garden was an asphalt and gravel parking lot. Four years of labor later, it produced a modest bounty for my family and neighbors … Four years from now, my garden will be primed and ready to produce blue ribbon vegetables for my local grower’s market and the state fair.
I think what Stephenson describes is true both of the wintering garden and a nation’s wintering spirit. It is time to break through to the hard layers below the surface, to find the ground that is common to us all as human beings regardless of political or religious affiliations. Gardeners know that a bountiful fall harvest depends on what happens in the winter with its compost and mulch and “nature’s fertilizer” – snow. And activists know that any real change to our collective consciousness and conditions for living comes from the depths, too.
Once in our collective history the winter solstice was a time when ordinary people gathered in the dark night. They came together for support and comfort. It was a night of anxious watching, and waiting. “And then the Solstice fire was lit and the candles passed and the light of the new year’s dawning lifted our heavy hearts and brought us brightness and hope.” This solstice, our winter, is a time to gather, holding the memories of all our human forbears who faced the dark places in their own lives and the larger dangers of their time in history. May their commitment to the light be the spark to our own hopes today.