Yesterday, December 21, was the winter solstice. What does that mean to you, if anything? Although we commonly think of the solstice as a single day, shortest or longest, the word originally reflected changes in the movement of the sun, not its stage time – namely, those six days when the sun seems to be standing still. Solstice is a word for the times of year when the sun appears to rise and set at the same point on the horizon, halting in its typical shifting from north to south and back again. For peoples dependent on the sun journeying back from whence it came along the horizon, bringing longer days and warmth enough to grow food, this stall was disconcerting. With hope and fear, tribes the world over offered up sacrifices, practiced rites, and told stories to explain the mystery of this stand-still darkness.
And it’s not just that the day is short and the sun hangs in limbo on the southern horizon: the last characterization of the solstice, often forgotten in our UV lamp-filled lives, is the sun’s height at midday. During the solstice, the sun hits its lowest high point. In other words, even the brightest part of this shortest day is as weakly lit as it ever is.
I think a lot about this time, and what the solstice might mean, depending on how you look at it, because my mother died on the winter solstice nine years ago yesterday. Late in the night on December 21, 2004, when I was 21 years old, I stepped out in my socks onto the cold concrete and watched two young mortuary employees load my mother’s body into a mini-van, never to be seen again.
Her death, from breast cancer, offered no apparent consolation. It was, for me, more tragic than it might even sound on the surface, because the last years of her life had not been kind. From my perspective, it seemed to be an end that came at the bottom of a long descent, a dark nadir punctuated by a death that closed off possibilities of redemption and ultimate healing.
And so it seemed so fitting to me that my mother, the passionate scientist, would die on the winter solstice. The darkest, coldest day. The lowest, weakest light. A fearful stand still, perfectly aligned with cosmic truths about the way the world moves.
Perhaps because of that particular time in my life, I am sympathetic to King Ahaz today. Ahaz is in a place of such fearfulness and dread and faithlessness about what the future holds that he refuses to ask for a sign of hope from God, even when God so generously, so remarkably, offers him any sign his heart could desire. Such is his desolation that he does not take God up on the offer. I think I’ve been there, and I’m betting that you have, too. In response, God is wearied, but still gracious and good: Well then, whether you ask or not, God says, here is a sign for you and your people: a young woman is pregnant — and even before the young age when that baby has learned to welcome warm bread and refuse gritty pebbles as food, you will be safe and secure. The deadly scene will change. Soon. This little babe, to be named “God with us,” is your sign and reminder that I am already at work, already here, even in the midst of this awful attack when you have given up hope.
And this prophetic word -- that God is with us, even in this attack -- rung with such truth that Israel kept the scroll; even though they knew the prophet was speaking to a particular time and place; they thought it was worth preserving because it could and would speak beyond the lifetime of the prophet. The Israelites thought that it had an enduring role, and that this prophetic word might ring true in other places and times, too. God is with us, in this attack. And God is with us, in this war. And God is with us, in this searing grief. And God is with us, in this unemployment. And God is with us, in this present darkness. God is with us.
There are Advent hymns and well-beloved Christmas carols, and then, in my opinion, there is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The song we sang today as we gathered in this not-so-ancient space reaches centuries back and touches chords of longing that span the generations. It is, perhaps, the only 15th century plainsong tune that most Americans could hum. The first verse is not exactly the stuff of Disney or even Mother Goose, but even our three year old daughter chooses this song about “mourning in lonely exile here” almost every night when given the choice of three or four holiday carols. How, I think, can this song hold an appeal that beats out Silent Night and Away in a Manger, even among the preschool set? But I shouldn’t be surprised. It is so strange, so hauntingly beautiful, so very different from the gloomy advent marches and then the triumphant joyful carols of Christmas. Somehow, it manages to marry the longing that lies beneath the cover of Advent darkness with the quiet and humble promise of a candlelit ruddy newborn cheek nestled in a livestock feed box. But the song is clearly Advent’s favored child, not that of Christmas. For in the end, the longing it stirs is met with a promise, not a proclamation: Rejoice; rejoice. Emmanuel will come to thee, O Israel. Will come, will come. A beautiful promise and vulnerable hope still cloaked in silvery darkness.
This tender hope is expressed beyond my capability in a poem by Tennyson, written in memory of a beloved:
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?__________
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.*
Here we are, friends, in the deepest depths of Advent. It may not feel like it outside these church doors, where the parking lots teem and the jingle bells ring, but today our texts call us into the heart of Advent darkness and at the same time point to God’s gracious gifts already among us. The psalm today is full of plaintive longing, a ceaseless call for God to shine God’s light and restore God’s people. It is dark; it is desperate.
And yet! And yet! And yet, at the same time, I don’t know if you noticed, but baby Jesus arrived in the church today, right there at the end of our Matthew reading, in verse 25, where we hear that Joseph named him Jesus. How can this be? We are still in Advent! We are not ready yet, in so many ways.
But this seems a particular grace of Advent 4, and a particular concern of our texts today: there is darkness, yes; there is hopelessness; yes; but even in the depths of our uncertainty and yearning for the world as we think it ought to be, God is already present, and indeed, has already begun to work and is ready to meet us again with reminders of this timeless word of reassurance: Emmanuel: God with us. God is with us. We cannot yet fully see, or understand. But the seeds of ultimate hope and unexpected, unconventional redemption have already been sown. Even as Joseph feels himself to be in an impossibly scandalous position, a very dark and sad place in which he feels he must turn Mary away, the Holy Spirit has already begun a new thing on earth: in the womb of Mary, and then in the infant Jesus.
There is another infant crying in the night, and it is not us. It is the tender cry of a God so desperate to reveal the truth of divine love, divine forgiveness, and divine closeness, that God does this startling new thing in Jesus of Nazareth.
It wasn’t until three years after my mother’s death that I began to reconsider the implication of the date of her passing. Until then, December 21, the winter solstice, spelled nothing but the darkest day. Then, sitting on the rocks above a stage of pocked tide pools, where I’d gone to remember my mother on her birthday, my open eyes suddenly saw the other side of the solstice, so simple I’m ashamed to say it felt like a revelation: yes, the day marks the depth of darkness, a time when the sun stands unnervingly still, but also – irrefutably – it signals the return of the light.
This is actually the dominant understanding of the winter solstice, the one expressed by celebrations in nearly every culture as far back as our records and research can take us. Apparently it takes a real Negative Nelly to fixate on the dark side of the winter solstice, to buck the jollier perspective of grateful hope for the rebirth of warmer days. Maybe I can blame my modern lifestyle, which gives the illusion that my existence doesn’t depend on the sun’s return, that I could live in winter forever if need be, provided I had a decent space heater and a grocery store nearby. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Either way, most of humanity has not been so deluded by supermarkets and artificial light. When the sun is low, food gets scarce and animals battle cold and disease. When the sun is high, crops grow tall and animals thrive. Our ancestors knew that the winter solstice was not a nadir best expressed by sackcloth and ashes; they prayed and then partied with thanksgiving that their lives had been saved, yet again.
A few weeks ago I was back in Oregon, where I was raised and where my mother lived and died. But on this holiday visit, I wasn’t waiting for the end of my mother’s days, as I did that Advent nearly a decade back. This visit found me in my socks as I walked the warm wooden floors to put my daughter to bed, a girl named Elizabeth, for her grandmother, but also Robin, as a testament to the fact that life and spring do, in fact, come again. I sat with this second unknown but already beloved child in my womb and listened to my brother play the guitar just hours before his firstborn entered the world. In the corner, my little sister watched her toddler son play with trains while she sat with a pink baby quilt in her lap, anticipating a daughter in April. It is not just new babies that matter, of course. There have been moments and movements of redemption and healing that I never could have anticipated that cold winter night. But these babies that my mother would have loved beyond measure are indeed a sign of something larger; they are vulnerable miracles with movement and momentum beyond our control, beyond our making. They belong to God, as does every sign of life.
Here is the thing about December 22: it is a very dark day. The night is still long. It still feels very much like December 18, or 19, or 20. But December 22 is different; it is past the winter solstice of yesterday, when the sun seems to stand still in the sky and then begin its long journey north to shine on us more fully again. And it’s not just in our heads: because of the earth’s elliptical orbit, the sun will continue to rise a bit later for a few days after the solstice. But we’ve passed the turning point. Did we notice? It’s such a small change. It’s so subtle. How can we? It’s almost like a baby-sized sign from the divine.
It takes time to notice the signs of a God who chooses a vessel as humble as a newborn; signs that the light is growing as slowly and surely as a child hidden in the womb.
Even in the darkest days, God has already begun to act. We are beyond the hinge. We are past the nadir. The door is opening and the light is breaking in, as it has time and again, because it is true, what the prophet proclaimed: Emmanuel. God is here. To be with us.
December 22, 2013 - Advent 4, Year A
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
* ( “In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 54,” by Lord Alfred Tennyson.)