By Phillip Breden
Isaiah 12: 2-6
The seasons have changed. We have moved from the crisp end of summer through the colourful splendour of autumn, and now winter is very much on its way—if not already here, as we have had very cold and icy weather lately. As if a foreshadow of emotions to come, Halloween the other week brought feelings of excitement and fear. There are the excited kids running around in their costumes and trick or treating, and some adults dress up and have their fun. But there is also the spooky side, with horror movies and a sense of otherworldliness. During this time of the year, the days are getting increasingly shorter, nights are becoming longer and longer, and all around us we are noticing the plants are dying off and animals disappear as they head into hibernation or are less active. It only comes natural to many of us that our thoughts start to dwell on those things, either very much in the forefront of our minds or lurking somewhere in the back. While some of us may have high spirits at this time of year, looking forward to Halloween and Christmas and enjoying the festive time of the year with family and friends, many are affected by the encroaching darkness. This darkness and lack of light can lead to fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of death itself. This season can be a somber and potent reminder of our mortal journey and what lies at the end of it. This can be a really challenging time of year for our emotions and mental health.
So, naturally people fight back. They must overcome the darkness. Replace it with bright light and joyous times. Many cultures over the world have had their ways of fighting off the darkness and fighting their fears of this time. The Celts fought against the darkening days by having a celebration of lights on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to cheer themselves up and look forward to the lengthening days. They would decorate trees with wonderful lights, and their homes with evergreens. To the early Christians, the idea of lights at this time of the year resonated with them, as they saw Jesus as the light of the world. So, bringing lights into the darkest time of the year was very fitting.
Replacing darkness with light has helped many people in the darker months of the year, by using spiritual, cultural, and personal practices to lighten up this time of the year.
But what if there was another way? What if the darkness was not a thing to be feared at all? But rather an opportunity given to us by God to connect with the divine and draw strength and wisdom from God. We already are aware of the uses of darkness. For example, at nighttime after a busy day, we are given an opportunity to sit back, reflect on the day, and get a good night’s sleep. I know for me after a long day of work the idea of crawling into bed at night is a welcome one! Or sitting in front of a fire or heater with a hot beverage, spending time with friends and family while it is dark outside.
And speaking of nighttime, recall the creation story. Light and dark were separated: one was called day, and the other night. There was no positive and negative about that, but a simple day and night cycle of the world. In Psalm 139 it says, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” I see this as a statement that both light and dark are positive things, and God is always present. It gives darkness an opportunity to offer us beneficial things and to connect with our loving Creator.
In the scripture reading today, Isaiah 12:2-6, it speaks of God as a wellspring on which we can draw nourishing water from. This abolishes fear and promotes joy. The Creator has become a foundation for us to be grounded upon, and a wellspring in which we can draw from. And by giving thanks and praise, we sing and glorify that outpoured love. Thus, letting the wellspring overflow and be offered to others through us. And again, in John 4, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman at a well and speaks of a living water. That by drinking the water that Jesus offers, it creates a wellspring of eternal life from within. And the woman very much wanted to taste that water. We are offered a great opportunity to access this wellspring, this connection and groundedness with God, during the dark of the winter months.
This time of year evokes for me an image of a dark and silent night. With a moon lazily shining its light upon the still surface of a lake, its depths remain hidden for the time, but promising a connection with the depths of our souls and connection with the divine. So, this time of year invites us to slow down from our busy lives, to go inside where it’s warm where it’s safe, to withdraw within ourselves, and to reflect.
We may be tempted to let those fears creep up when we see the annuals and perennials die off, the world darkens, and animals hide away to hibernate. But if we look closer at nature…. Those perennials have shoots near the bottom. Sedums have these little green buds poking up out of the earth. I am always reminded of the icon for the cabbage patch kids toys: a little face poking out of the green. And when you look at the ash tree, you see how it has lost all of its leaves, which makes it look bleak and dead, but if you go up to it and look, right there on the branch are little black bumps all over the branches. These are buds, promising a return of life. And indeed, it is so temping with our deciduous tree brothers and sisters to see them as dead or sleeping, as they stand there silent without any leaves. But they aren’t asleep or hibernating! During the winter trees perform root growth, digging their roots deeper and deeper into the earth, further grounding themselves and drawing nutrients up. Silently meditating as they continue to draw strength from creation and be an integral part of the ecosystem.
And as we are also a part of this ecosystem, we are invited to partake in the natural cycle of the year. During spring we are to burst out with new plans and a year ahead full of promise. Who hasn’t thought: this year I am going to do this and this, and accomplish such and such goal? Excited about the year ahead. In summer we are thriving during the heat of all that we are trying to accomplish. We are in the full swing of things. In autumn, we harvest the bounty of what we set out to do, wrapping up our projects, and perhaps, deal with some crestfallenness of not accomplishing as much as what we had originally planned. And in winter, we are invited to shed off what is no longer useful or relevant anymore, and to withdraw and reflect on the year and ourselves. A great time for self-reflection, and for mediation practices. The very fact that winter is cool, quiet and dark allows for the perfect setting for meditating inside, studying scripture, or doing many of the things that we personally do for grounding and centering ourselves. We can ground ourselves in God and mother earth as the trees do and draw upon that wellspring of Christ to refresh ourselves and store reserves for that spring growth.
What is darkness to you? What does this time of the year mean to you? How does what you see around you in nature and in the world affect your emotions, your health, your spirituality?
So, during this winter season, if we feel the hint of fear of darkness and death, let us know that God is already there in the moment. There is nowhere we can go that God is not with us, offering groundedness and protection. Know that the darkness is not dark to the Creator. We are loved and that outpoured love of God offers us ways of seeing the world as God sees the world. May we accept the invitation from God and the example from nature to slow down and reflect, to find that quiet center where we can connect with the divine and be nourished and refreshed. To grow into that scriptural quote: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
May it be so. Amen.