Sermon for the Winter Solstice, 2021

The wheel continues turning.

This article was initially sent to subscribers as a donors-only ‘letter from the editor of The Independent’ on 19 December 2021 (#62). For more like this delivered directly to your inbox every week, support The Indy here.

How are you doing? It’s been a very long year for many (most?) of us, in one way or another. Now seems like a good time to stop and take stock.

This has been a very hard year, too, in many respects—or ‘couple of years’, really, since the world came unmoored in March 2020. Our own personal trials, tribulations, triumphs, and tragedies have continued to play out against the backdrop of the bigger societal shocks we have collectively been living through together. There are moments when it feels like everything around you (and in you) has come crashing to a halt, and there are other moments when it feels like everything, relentlessly, continues marching on. It is the uncanny sense of being pushed and pulled between these two poles—crashing stops and frenetic accelerations—that has come to characterize what we might call, for lack of a better term, pandemic time. This uncanniness feels especially acute again, even here in our scenic doomsday bunker at the edge of the world, now on the eve of Omicron. It is hard, sometimes, not to feel like things are getting darker.

That’s what can make this such a difficult time of the year. Sometimes the light really recedes. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, the darkness deeper. The earth is really heating up; the economic system is really melting down; the thin veneer of civilization is really coming undone at the seams. Bonds break; things fall apart; people die. Those we love most dearly hurt us and we do the same in turn. You cannot kindle a fire without casting a shadow; there is no way to love without some measure of pain. This is the price of living in your fleshy body with other people through a transitory world. Sic transit gloria mundi; the bell must toll for thee.

Darkness is inevitable. The only way to pass through it is to acknowledge and confront it. There are times when the only way to keep things together is to let them go. The alternative—to cling relentlessly to the repetition of what is felt, desired, demanded as ‘normal’; to insist on sticking unerringly to yesterday’s script—is the true road to ruin. The map is not the territory, and to mistake one for the other is the surest way to get lost, maybe forever, in the dark.

But inevitability is not eternity, because you do come through it. You do not and will not dwell in darkness forever. It gives way to light the same way sorrow gives way to joy; everything connected along the spokes of Ezekiel’s wheel James Baldwin describes in Go Tell It On The Mountain:

He was filled with a joy, a joy unspeakable, whose roots … were nourished by the wellspring of a despair not yet discovered. Where joy was, there strength followed; where strength was, there sorrow came— … out of joy strength came, strength that was fashioned to bear sorrow: sorrow brought forth joy. Forever? This was Ezekiel’s wheel, in the middle of the burning sky forever—and the little wheel ran by faith, and the big wheel ran by the grace of God.

Endings are beginnings. New things can be fashioned out of what has been broken apart. Love can always override its pain. Everything and everyone that goes away stays with us in our hearts because we are so much more than just ourselves. We are radically interconnected; we are never alone. It is precisely because we are so fleeting and fragile that everything we live has meaning. We can break the patterns we have found ourselves forced into; we can choose compassion for ourselves and others; we really do have it in our power to make the world anew—even, and perhaps especially, when it feels like the one we’re living in is ending.

The darkest night of the year always yields to the light, and when the sun rises again in the morning it is the beginning of the long, sometimes imperceptible but always inevitable, return and triumph of summer.

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