In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow. Snow on snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
I remember the church service we had here in Montreal in the middle of the ice storm – the other ice storm, the one back in 1998. No one was sure there was even going to BE worship. But in the end the people of Christ the Redeemer decided to try. All the bridges were closed because of falling guillotines of ice off of the signs, so I decided to risk the metro (which actually shut down completely about two hours after my return trip). Then eventually I caught a ride. When finally I got to the building, it was cold. There were only a few others, but all present seemed happy to be participating. We sang the hymns heartily and accapella; the organ couldn’t make a sound. Everyone wore their coats in the sanctuary, and some people held the worship books with gloves. After church, Ivar Traa, a big booming Norwegian who has since passed from us, brought his gas camp stove, and – making sure we had fresh oxygen supply – made tea and coffee and hot chocolate for everyone and reminisced about Christmases back in Norway where they had no power.
It’s odd – that day, almost none of the things that we normally associate with a good worship gathering were there – there was no majestic organ, no warm lights, no crowded pews. But, of that year, that is the one service that I remember clearly. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe because that hard experience connected in a whole NEW way with the message that we preach and teach and share and sing.
Everyone knows that the first Christmas, whatever it was, was not comfortable. We can argue over whether Jesus was born in a cowshed or a cave, in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, in the year 6 BC or 0 or some other time, in the winter or spring or summer. But one thing is clear. Whatever else it was, when the Word became flesh it was an unexpected birth, marked by difficulty, scandal and trouble, in the middle of a tough situation.
Which makes it all the more amazing that every year we spend so much time and energy and money trying to do the opposite, to find the “sweet spot” in marking an event that had no sweet spot. Completely unlike the few things we can assume about the first Christmas, in our time we want to find the deepest, most comfortable rut that runs through our memories, and crawl in there to hibernate in sugar, real and metaphorical, for a few, hopefully magical, weeks. The smell of baking. The hot chocolate or eggnog. The candles and smell of evergreen in our houses. The fires, the puula, the stollen, the songs. The wreaths, the gifts, the carols, the smell of cinnamon. We ALL do it, instinctively. I almost never eat herring throughout the year. But every Christmas I buy a jar and eat herring. Why? It’s a childhood memory from growing up in a Scandinavian home. It’s a sweet spot urge. We’re like children who want to put our stuffed animals (that is, our memories) in a very specific order around us as we cuddle into the long cold night that is winter.
That’s not always a bad thing. We NEED comfort, of course. Especially in winter. Nothing is more wonderful than holding someone precious, surrounded by lovely smells and warmth and love. But maybe, nice as that is, we shouldn’t mistake it for the only kind of holiness there is. Especially we shouldn’t do that when we have a faith that somehow always leads us back to the foot of a grave. There is more of ice storms from our God than we usually care to admit, and the spirit that spoke to the Baptist and called to Mary is often a cold wind that leaves us shivering and uncomfortable.
Ice storms, like the storm that has left so many tens of thousands in the dark right now all over central and eastern Canada, are a reminder of the fragility of all of our comforts. And they’re a reminder of the fragility of our security and safety in an environment that seems to be kicking back at us so-called “masters of creation” for our idolatrous beliefs that somehow we’re in charge. I remember – as some of you must too – lying in bed in the quiet darkness and listening to the alarming sounds of tree limbs hitting the roof as they snapped and broke. There are lots of people living that right now, even though this time, here in Montreal, we’ve been spared.
A good friend of mine in a part of Ontario without power, posting on FaceBook, wrote “I’m not having fun yet” about her Christmas. She’s not the only one. So what can we learn from an not-fun, ice-storm, Christmas?
We can learn that there’s more growth in hardship than in comfort, almost always. None of us like them, but the hard times of life are often the most memorable. And instructive. If we survive, we come out stronger, despite our wounds. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We can also learn, deeper to that, what theologians and mystics call “the theology of the cross”, and the mystery of celebrating Jesus’ birth so close to the longest night of the year. It is when things are at their darkest, as Luther said, that the hidden God is closest. It is when there is no room in the Inn that the wondrous birth takes place among the animals and outcasts. It is when the darkness is deepest that we learn patience and hope, what to grasp onto and what we should let go, what is real and what is shadow. It is on the coldest of nights that we might hear angels singing strange and terrible songs that make us afraid and yet move us seek the child of promise in unusual places.
The good thing about sweet spots is, ironically, also the bad thing: they’re so good they keep us immobilized. When I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the annunciation and asked the gathering how a thirteen or fourteen year old Mary might react these days to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, a jaded father in the back row pretended he was texting and had no time for the angel. We are a comfortable people, and that is a huge problem. The light came into the world, and the world came into being through that light, but the world did not recognize it. When you re-tune a guitar to play in a different string configuration, there is always a period of awkwardness and disharmony, before the new tones are established. Ice storms, of all sorts, are those awkward, disharmonius times, that we pray God will use to play in us a song the world would otherwise never have heard.
It’s easy for me to talk about these things this year. When I wrote this, I had fruitcake at hand, and I’d put some water with cinnamon sticks on the stove to give the apartment some more humidity. I actually managed to get a tree up, despite everything.
But I know, from experience, that this is not the only Christmas, or perhaps the best. Certainly not the most memorable. Christ was – and IS – born far from the sweet spots of life. We pray for those who are suffering hardship because of cold and lack of power right now. When heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World”, it will be a challenge to go out, into the cold, where they are, and where the restless, birthing God awaits.