Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Coming of the Sun: a three-part solstice sermon

© Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This is the text of the three-part sermon delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, December 20th, 2015.  I was weaving worship with two of our lay Worship Weavers.  Given the way our conversations about the theme unfolded, and the nature of the service itself, we decided that each of us would offer a perspective on our topic.  This is a collaborative version of the "jewel" form of sermon construction -- holding up and idea and, as if it were a diamond, turning it took look at several different facets.  You can listen to the sermon if you'd like, as always.  (I'd note that Lucy Wayne became a part of the Worhip Weavers' Guild this year, and then promptly moved with her husband to Israel.  It was especially delightful to be able to welcome her into the pulpit during a visit back to the U.S.)

Part 1:  Lucy Wayne
Today we are exploring our church’s theme for December, expectation. We are also considering the phenomenon of the coming of the sun.
Two days from now is the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, the time that the sun is absent from the sky for the longest amount of time. This is immediately followed by an increase in light as Earth tilts closer to our big star.
As the longest night of the year approaches, I invite you join me in an inquiry into darkness.
What comes to mind when you hear the word? Art, psychology - even social agreements - form from distinct understandings of what darkness brings.
For many, it brings welcome rest and respite - even relief from physical ailments like a migraine.
Darkness can be a place of things happening unseen, of gestation and the unconscious. It is in the dark oasis of the cocoon that a caterpillar works through its chrysalis stage before becoming a butterfly.
Some equate the word with an idea of badness. In Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness the eponymous land was not only a site of mystery but a place of dread.
Many children fear the dark and what it might contain - many adults too.  
For just a couple of minutes right now, let us consider the darkness of pain. People who have experienced depression often describe it as a dark time. Suffering becomes so vast it eclipses even the expectation of brightness. In this kind of darkness, it feels like it is “always 3 o’clock in the morning” inside of us, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The contemplative stream of Catholicism has a name for this period. They call it: the Dark Night of the Soul, a phrase that was coined by Saint John of the Cross in the 16th century.
To simplify greatly, the dark night of the soul is when a faithful believer experiences no connection with their God. It is bewildering and scary.
One of the reasons it’s so scary is the fact there’s no “calendar” for when - or if - the dawn will come. This phase lasted astonishing lengths for people considered saints. Saint Paul of the Cross lived through a 45-year dark night of the soul. Mother Theresa beat him with 49 years in the night.
Whether an official dark night of the soul or an emotionally or physically crushing time, sometimes we cannot track where we - and the metaphorical sun - are in the rhythmic cycle.
This brings us to a key question - Are there any advantages to not expecting an increase of light?
If we are not distracted from the present by a hope our hard situation will change, we can fully take stock of reality. This can give us the motivation we would not otherwise have to respond appropriately.
For example, recognizing incompatibility in a failing relationship and letting go of a conviction it can improve can give us the strength to move on.
Similarly, acknowledging a sick loved one is not going to get better - the sun of healing is not coming - can help us do the hard work of being present with someone who is dying.
To further explore this concept, what are disadvantages to expecting the coming of the sun?
In concentration camps during the Holocaust, it was well-known among veteran prisoners that many people died soon after January 1 of each year. This was not due to the weather, but psychology that was tied to the seasons.
Some prisoners’ life strategy was to focus on hoping for change for the better. We might call these people optimistic solstice-waiters. They thought, “By the new year, we will be free.” At first, this conviction was a source of strength and in the autumn they were noticeably more cheerful than their peers as they counted down the months to liberation. However, when January 1 came and went and they remained imprisoned, these optimistic people lost their will to live, which in the camps meant death.
Although it’s an understandable impulse, pinning our resilience on an expectation that “things will be better” can be dangerous - especially when connected to a specific time frame.
Yet there is a strengthening way to await a solstice. We can trust that the darkness itself is a teacher, that there is growth, meaning, purpose in the suffering of a difficult time. Even if we don’t know what the meaning is, we can trust that the lengthened nights of the soul are part of a natural cycle. This is an expectation that can sustain us.  
So when we are in darkness and hear the community’s call reminding us the sun is coming, instead of anticipating the specific outcome that our lives will fill with light, we can be warmed by the sun’s reminder that the darkness is part of the circle of ebb and flow, the turning of our Earth.

Part 2:  Cypress Walker
One morning, a little engine was working in its railroad station. Then a long train asked a large engine to take it over the hill. "I can't; you are too heavy for me", said the large engine. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and refusals. In desperation, the train asked the little engine to pull it up the hill. "I think I can", puffed the little engine, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. Believing that it could succeed and determined to do so, the little engine kept puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."

As it neared the top of the hill, the little engine went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can." It reached the top by drawing on this expectation that it could. As the little engine went down the hill, it said "I thought I could, I thought I could.”
How many of you are familiar with this story?
If you know the name of the story, please call it out for us to hear. I thought you could, I thought you could tell me the name of the story! 
In this story, the little engine is faced with a seemingly insurmountable task. With the ambitious yet realistic expectation that it could do what others deemed impossible, it was able to draw upon the strength and determination to pull the large train up the slope. I believe that we are not so different than this little engine, because we too need to create and act on expectations that enable us to do what at times seems beyond our power.
Optimistic yet rational expectations of ourselves and each other can compel us to achieve well beyond our initial beliefs of what can be done. A fit individual who embarks on marathon training with the expectation of completing the race may still be awed by what she went through to cross the line on race day. By contrast, irrational expectations may not only be unproductive but even downright harmful. If an individual with a cardiovascular condition resolves to run a marathon, the same expectation is more likely to diminish health rather than boost a sense of accomplishment.
We’re talking about light and darkness this morning.  How do expectations of light and darkness affect our expectations of ourselves and each other.
Though climate change and El Niño weather conditions may affect what we expect of this winter, millennia of seasons suggest that for the most part we can expect a fairly routine shift from winter to spring. Indeed, this pattern is so well established through our observations and measurements that we can look at the day on the calendar and form reasonably accurate predictions about what the weather will be. For those who are curious, weather.com forecasts that on the 2015 Winter Solstice we will have a high temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nature and life hold many mysteries, but when the longest night of the year will be is not generally considered one of them. My question is, if we know when we can confidently expect the sun’s resurgence, why do we have so many rituals to call forth the light? If these rituals are not physically necessary to restore the sun, why do we summon it in the heart of darkness?
I think that it’s because we need to feel that we play a part in the annual resuscitation of brightness. By acting on our hopeful expectations for the earth’s renewed verdant vitality, we may also create and express expectation for ourselves and each other to be resilient. I think I can survive the darkness.  I think you can work through the hard times.  I think that we can help it to be better.  I think I can, I think you can, I think that we can be better.
Optimism that the sun will come may be insufficient. It may even be inappropriate in times where we need the darkness to incubate or instruct us. I personally am craving, and needing, that hibernation and reflection. When it is time to leave the darkness – and I believe that that time always does come – the realistically optimistic expectation of ourselves that we can and should bring more light into the world can increase how brilliantly it shines. Perhaps we don’t bring forth nor brighten the morning star, but we can enable the sun to rise on our own lives. Through song, prayer, connection, action, and the many ways in which people around the world seek to prepare for the sun in the times of greatest darkness, we enact a belief in our human abilities to learn from our own darknesses in readiness to shine greater light in our lives and societies.
Given what I understand of science, it is not realistic to expect that we have much sway in how the solar calendar plays out. Given what I understand of human nature, we can stretch our expectations within reasonable limits to keep growing. Without running from darkness, we can remember and rejoice that there will be light again. Without ignoring reality, we can expect of ourselves to learn from adversity and emerge stronger. Channeling the little engine and expecting light via darkness, I am fueled by this mantra: I think I can, I see we have, I believe we will.

Part 3:  Wik Wikstrom
There is Christmas, of course, and I’ve long argued that there are two distinct religious holidays that bear the same name – I call them “homophonic holy days.”  There is the Christian holy day of Christmas, and a more recent, secular holiday that’s also called Christmas.  There’s Hanukkah, a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar that’s been elevated in stature because of the way Christmas gets all the hype.

But there’s a lot more than these two at this time of year!  There is Diwali –  significant to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains – symbolizing the victory of good over evil; and Loi Krathong in Thailand, when people put lighted candles, incense, and coins into a small lotus-shaped boat made out of banana leaves, place it in a river, and allow the current to carry it, and all a person’s bad luck, away.  There’s the more recent Kwanzaa, of course, the week-long celebration that has its roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established Dr. Maulana Karenga as a means of helping African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage.  In fact, I read somewhere (but was not able to confirm) that there are something like 27 different holidays and holy days during this “holiday season.”

But unquestionably the one that started it all was the solstice – as Lucy said, the day on which the balance between night and day tips as far toward night as it can.  Thousands and thousands of years ago our ancestors were building astonishing stone structures that – whatever else they were built for – were (and still are) amazingly accurate markers of the winter and summer solstices.  Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England is probably the most famous one, but there are thousands more around the world.  And each one of these stone circles was built by a people saying, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over, and over again.  Just kidding.

Each one of these stone circles was built by people who were deeply connected to the earth, the sea, the sky; people who were deeply connected to nature in all of her many forms.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, today, may inspire many of us when he points out that the iron in our blood is the exact same element as the iron in a comet; and Carl Sagan, in the 80s, may have poetically taught us that “we are made of star stuff;” but the people who built Stonehenge and the other remarkable stone monuments didn’t need to be told these things – they lived that truth.  They did not see themselves apart from the natural world but, rather, as a part of the natural world.

Here in the 21st century we have become so distanced from the world we live in.  Most of us spend much more time with concrete beneath our feet than we do grass and dirt.  For many, if not most of us, the changing of the seasons means little more than the changing of our thermostats and how long we leave our lights on.  But not them.  Not our ancestors’ ancestors.  They didn’t just live in the world; they knew that the world lived in them.

So I’m going to throw out a new idea here – new to me, at least.  It came to me as I was writing this sermon.  It came to me as Lucy and Cypress shared their homilies with me and I reflected on these themes of light and dark and expectation.  Here’s the new idea:  we are the ones who fear the descent into darkness and await the return of the sun.  We, our ultra-civilized selves, and not our so-called primitive ancestors.

They did not fear the shortening days and lengthening nights.  They did not worry about whether the sun would ever come back.  At least that’s what I suddenly realized this week:  I don’t think that they did.  And that’s because for them the cycles and seasons weren’t something out there; the cycles and seasons were part of them.  Integral to them.  Part and parcel of them, and they of it.  There was no doubt that the sun would return.  They expected it.  Their bones told them it would, as did the world in which, with which, and as part of which they lived.  So with all due respect to Cypress, and the notion I held strongly until just this week, I do not believe that all of these light festivals were meant to “call forth the light.”

So why all the celebrations?  Well … don’t you make a big deal of it when you see an old friend who’s been away for a while?  And what better way to welcome back the sun than with fire?  The more fire the better.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Christmas – both the Christian and secular Christmases.  And I value Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.  But when I really want to get in touch with “the reason for the season” I go back to the roots – the roots kept alive by modern Wiccans, and Druids, and Asatrus, and other neo- and paleo-pagan groups.  Because we are made of star stuff, and these seasons and cycles live within us as we live within them no matter how far removed we have tried to make ourselves.  We cannot live over, and above, or outside of the natural world because we are the natural world, as are the rocks and the trees … and the sun and the moon.

We do not need to fear the lack of light – out there or in here – nor do we need to be anxious for its return.  We need to be reminded to trust it … to trust Life … our life  … Life itself.  My prayer for each of us is that in the days to come we find such a reminder, and that we find ourselves because of it able to live with more confidence and more courage.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: