My mom called and complained that “it had gotten down to forty degrees” in Los Angeles and people were hauling out the heavy parkas.
I remember those days. Since moving “north” and “east,” forty degrees seems like nothing. But I haven’t forgotten how cold it seemed in Southern California when the bank signs flashed 43 degrees.
To this day, some of my west coast family believes that Minnesota is on the eastern seaboard — “What’s the nearest metropolitan city? New York?” Seriously. If they’re thinking of visiting for Thanksgiving, they call with a recipe they want to try but wonder if fresh produce is available in November. Or, they tell me they can’t visit because they don’t have chains for their tires and they don’t want to brave the icy roads in July. In their brain maps, Minnesota is a barely inhabitable place that hasn’t made it past the twentieth century, where we huddle through winter living on turnips stored in the cellar and stringy venison jerky.
So, mistakenly, of course, because you can’t really “fix” people and I should know that by now, I try and tell them that winter is beautiful. The days when we are forced to slow down because of a storm. The way sounds are hushed and the world is covered in subtler, humbler hues. The winter sunsets whose colors you just can’t make up. The crock-pot meals at the end of the day.
“Oh yeah”, they say, “because it makes you look forward to spring, right?” Or, “Yes, because you have to go through the darkness to appreciate the light.” No, no, no, I respond, winter itself is beautiful: the way each snowflake is so carefully crafted, the mystery of blue and the Advent texts, going deeper into the silence and allowing it to be, the full moon on dark nights. The presence of absence, in that good, not lonely way. They pause, utterly baffled… and then say, “Well, on Christmas Eve we’re planning on barbequing a tri-tip in shorts while drinking a Corona.”
It’s not so bad when things slow down. It reminds me of what’s important. The same way when I’m in a hurry to be somewhere and I get hijacked into a slow-moving, intersection-blocking funeral procession. It forces me to pause and realize that we’re all so fragile and my life is not the center of the universe and someone in that funeral procession might have had their world turned upside down with grief.
Winter allows us all to collectively stop and pause, together, to gather and remember what is essential. Winter makes us humble and prayerful. It forces us to be aware, and live in silence. I’m not claiming winter in Minnesota is easy. I remember this when I venture out to get my mail in the icy darkness in house slippers. St. Benedict wrote “Keep death before you daily” and winter does that to you. It will nudge your spirits toward the martyrdom and mysticism in which the prophets and saints reveled. “Be careful” you tell yourself, “life is brutal and short.” And then, from nowhere almost, gratitude washes over you, for this awareness of our vulnerability is a grace.
Advent is the season where we are reminded what’s important, what’s essential, and what’s vulnerable. Even if the early church developed Advent as a way to “rescue” pagans from the winter solstice, the practice of waiting with hope in the darkness still works. Because as we gather in the darkness, be it in morning or evening; we gather around the fear and vulnerability of texts from prophets and mystics, and finally the Christ child. We cannot pull the incarnation away from the cross and resurrection for both remind us that God made Godself utterly and bodily vulnerable in Christ to the darkness, to creation, to the ones God made and loved and whom God knew would betray and him.
God as a helpless child isn’t some sentimental schlock we stage in the church every year, rather, it is a theological claim: The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
And we, poor pilgrims, gather as a sanctuary befits a stable. We are given a benediction that light overcomes darkness. Angels sing in registers that we hear as our own silent prayers. We are told our vulnerabilities are the means for God’s grace. And out of nowhere, we are overcome with gratitude: for the miracle of mute blue of this winter season; for the scattering of fish in the soft, dimmed light; for this old, old moon. We are grateful for amber and cinnamon and a low-flung sun. We are grateful, for in the pausing, it is all revealed as gift.