This time last year we had already been enjoying about two weeks of snow, blizzards and a general sense of the classic wintry wonderland. This year I think it was December 5th before I realized that October was over. On my way to my parents for Thanksgiving, I was dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seemed a bit mixed up, and neither I nor that bee had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green in my neighborhood well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves falling outside my studio only two weeks ago. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays (and this blizzard today) sneak up on me unprepared. Although Duane Reade had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I didn’t hear a Christmas tune until Glee’s holiday special.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in. Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we just crossed through Yule, the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that held onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are finally once more just bare bones outside my studio, outside our windows and along our walks. If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come late December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons. A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces. To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe realized.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself. The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990?s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
I believe our community choir this evening is a really remarkable example of this religious expression. The community choir can also be one more answer to all these questions I just laid before us. As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. As this vespers service is a bit different from our traditional Sunday morning ritual; allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song, meditation and prayer following this shorter homily. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”