Winter Tales (and Being Intentional)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 14 December 2014

If it weren’t for the holiday season, how would we make it through these darkest days?  Yet here we are again, feeling a bit stressed, wondering how, oh how, we should mark the holiday season this year when there’s always so much else to keep us busy?  There’s lots of advice floating out there about how to simplify and do with less.  All that advice seems to ring as a reminder that the future is looming like a giant storm cloud waiting to burst at any moment.  

I come to this time of year and wish that my mother and mother-in-law were still here to take care of it all.  There is an irony in that wish, since once upon a time I would have begrudged their fussiness.  Yet they knew how to make this season splendid.

My mother fried her potato latkes with laughter, sang the Hanukkah blessing over the menorah, and taught us special songs (On this night let us light one little candle shining). She opened the doors to our Christian neighbours and taught us to share what the season meant to us, even though we were less-than-observant Jews.  

My mother-in-law made Christmas into an art form; her chocolate and vanilla pinwheel cookies, her tree for the children in one room, and the small tree in the living room decorated with her most precious ornaments.  Having lived through trauma as an adolescent in wartime Italy, Christmas was her way of making sure that her children and grandchildren would live lives touched by joy and magic.

I’m not as good as my mother or mother-in-law at the holiday magic part.  But each year I promise myself that I will be intentional. I’m not thinking of intention as dogged determination. What I mean is that I want to connect to the wonder, the mystery and the awe of this season.

Years ago, Caroline Balderston Parry and I facilitated a workshop on “Unplugging the Holiday Machine.”  At the beginning, we asked everyone to take some reflective time to draw a picture or write about a favourite holiday memory.  Some of the participants wrote words and others drew simple stick figures or fanciful indoor holiday scenes.  But one young man took a dark piece of paper and drew the most wonderful winter landscape at night.  He told us that his memory had transported him back to a cabin in the woods on a holiday night overlooking a frozen lake.  Peace descended over the room.  Everyone seemed to sigh with longing.  “That’s the holiday tradition we need.  A winter cabin and a quiet night.”

Each year I remind myself that intention means acceptance of the beauty and the cold energy of the winter.  I keep trying to learn how to love the darkness and the snow.  I want to feel connected to the earth, as much as I want to feel connected to humanity.  Maybe this is something I’m often neglecting, too caught up in a life that often leaves me indoors tied to a computer.

These days, with snow on the ground, I find myself really missing my dog who died a year ago in August.  David was really the winter dog walker (each winter our neighbours would ask if he and I had split up when they’d see him walking the dog alone – “No,” he’d say.  “We’re still together.  It’s just winter.”)  But when I did finally take my turn and go out into the snowy darkness, I’d find myself feeling so grateful, and I’d ask myself, “Why don’t I do this more often?”

I remember one night when the moon was full and the sky was clear. The trees encased in ice glittered and swayed in the moonlight, their branches singing like wind chimes.  The dog and I walked toward a neighbouring courtyard, the narrow passageway bordered by low trees wrapped in white holiday lights, their bejewelled branches arching over us.  Before us was a fountain, covered in ice and snow, like a frozen Roman ruin.  Outside of the occasional sounding of a snowplough’s alarm in the distance, all was quiet.  

That night, the sound of my feet and the dog’s paws softly crunching in the snow brought back a precious memory, one that I want to share with you. I’ve told you this story before, but that was five year ago.  So…

Ten years ago, a dear friend decided to invite all of his friends and family to celebrate his 50th birthday at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden.  My friend had never lived an easy life, having been abandoned by his father when he was very young.  But a twist of fate reunited him with his father when he was a grown man.  At the same time that he inherited his father’s business and wealth, my friend lost his wife to cancer.  

Deep reflection brought him to a decision that his greatest desire in life was to bring together everyone he loved to see his beloved Sweden.  He always said that his life and his sanity had been saved by a small village in southern Sweden that had adopted him as if he were a native son when he had studied there as an exchange student during a year of high school.  It was there that he returned in times of transition, going back when he was a college graduate seeking purpose in his life, and again returning to purchase a home after his wife died.  

“Come to Sweden as my guests,” he said.  He chartered a restored antique train and, together, sixty of us travelled in January 2004 from Stockholm to the edge of the Arctic Circle.  For 21 hours we travelled nearly the length of Sweden, mostly in the darkness,   eating, drinking, singing and talking. Most of us began the trip as strangers with only our host in common.  His wife, Susan, had been a dear friend of mine until they had moved to California and we had stayed in the East.  We had kept in touch for years through Christmas letters.  She had been the first of our friends to have a baby, and the first to be lost so young.

Like many on the train, I had been too far away to attend Susan’s memorial service.  How can I describe it?  There on the train, we stepped out of time and routine, and we found sacred closure.  We shared our memories, we rejoiced in her husband’s new life, his new love (his Swedish fiancée), his son who was now in college, grown up and full of promise.

Over 21 hours later, we were suited up at the Ice Hotel, an army of sixty in matching blue snowsuits and hats lined in reindeer fur, equipped to withstand a temperature of 40 below zero.  Inside, the hotel was a balmy -5 celsius. The Ice Hotel was beautiful to behold -- beyond description, but very cold -- a bit like sleeping in a refrigerator snuggled up to the most gorgeous ice sculptures you can imagine.

The next day, we gathered at the edge of the frozen Torne River to ride by dog sled north across the Arctic Circle.  It was four in the afternoon, but the Northern Lights were dancing in the deep darkness.  They blazed down to the horizon in waves of red, green and yellow, more intense and vibrant than had been seen in Jukkasjärvi in fifteen years.  

We rode, four of us to a sled, feeling as though any moment we would be able to reach out and touch the brilliance of that northern sky.  The deepest silence enveloped us, and the only sounds we heard were the soft drumming of the dogs’ paws and the blades of the sled running in the snow.

In the dark winter barrenness, beneath the blazing sky, I felt that sense of the ultimate, of being part of the cosmos, of being energy and atoms held together by something as improbably as skin.  We were so small, this revelling party of new friends and old friends.  There, on the edge of the earth, where day nearly ceased to exist, where summer seemed an impossibility, we became something more than who we were in our everyday lives.  We had a sense of the human capacity to survive the impossible, to brave the harshest elements, and to find beauty in the frozen tundra.  We were witnesses to the strength of the Saami, the first people to tame the land and who still herded their reindeer in the white vastness of ice and snow.  

Our own spirits mingled with the dancing Northern Lights, danced and met the spirit of our friend’s wife, Susan, and all the spirits that we had each known and loved in our lives.  It was close, infinite and yet finite.

That, I think is intention, as holy as it gets.

This is how I want to approach the holiday season and the long winter that stretches out before us.  I want to go out into the cold with those I love (even without a dog) and I want to revel in the beauty of being alive, in the winter.

May we each glide through the holiday season and the winter with intention, as thoughtfully and as lovingly as we can – even if imperfectly.  May we find the holy in the promise of a newborn babe who reminds us that all things are possible, in the glowing of candles that remind us of the price and value of freedom, and in the gradual return of the sun that reminds us that the earth and her seasons are gifts to be cherished.

That’s my story.

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