Winter Solstice (12/23/18)

This sermon was delivered to UUCSS by the Rev. Lyn Cox on December 23, 2018. The cover art is by William L. Brown.

The moment of the Winter Solstice is rich in direct experience, mythic stories, and layers of meaning and tradition. Of all of the gifts we can receive by observing the Winter Solstice, there are three in particular that are calling out to me this year: Reflection, Resilience, and Rejoicing.

First, the Winter Solstice is an opportunity for rest and reflection. The night itself seems to invite us to take a breath. Finding that breath can be a challenge. December means a lot of things to people in our culture. It can mean bringing things to completion, or showing up to annual gatherings, or figuring out what to say in the holiday letter. Those aren’t bad things. Holiday busy-ness can call forth our creativity and remind us of our values. On the other hand, sometimes the season is so crowded with demands that we produce and perform, it’s hard to remember to simply be. The Winter Solstice is like a hinge in the wheel of the year, a turning point that opens doors to a different mindset.

Let us remind each other that, as Universalists, we know human worth is unconditional. Our place in this world does not depend on our usefulness, our productivity, our decorative qualities, or our ability to be entertaining. You belong here. When each one of us makes time and space to acknowledge ourselves as human beings rather than human doings, it is easier for us to practice acceptance of one another.

The Winter Solstice is the perfect time to celebrate acceptance and renewal. With the next harvest so far away, we may be able to use this time to experience ourselves apart from tangible results. If this is a time of year when we search for words to write in cards or to say in party conversations, perhaps it is also a time ripe for silence, to allow words to come to us. With the hope of growing light and fresh calendar pages ahead of us, perhaps we can connect with wonder and meaning as it happens right now, before we get caught up in planning for the future.

This Winter Solstice, let us rest in the heart of night, valuing ourselves in process rather than product. Let us receive words and silence as they fall like snow, finding beauty in both their dance and their stillness. Let us attend to the year being born, holding off on answers as we honor the mystery of beginnings.  

Second, the Winter Solstice is an opportunity to notice and exercise resilience. In many legends, the Winter Solstice is a time of the rebirth of the sun. The holiday brings images of return, of restoring or renewing one force, while another force fades or retires or heads toward its own time of rest. We come to understand through these stories that change is part of life. We might think of our lives in phases or generations, though the transition from one phase to another may not be clear when we are in the middle of it. People can be reborn in some ways throughout our lives, with new approaches to spiritual practice, new ways of relating to our loved ones and neighbors, changing gifts and abilities.

Resilience asks us to figure out how to bounce back, how to ally with the forces that create and uphold life, given the resources, gifts, and talents that are available to us now. In resilience, we focus on the present moment, and we apply creativity and teamwork to do and be what we’re called to for this time.

When we are talking about resilience, I want to be cautious, because sometimes the people who are most praised for their resilience are people whose suffering could be avoided with the suitable application of justice. People who have one or more marginalized identities have to be resilient, have to be creative and clever and persistent and collaborative, because that is the only way to survive. Encouraging resilience must not be another way of letting ourselves off the hook from removing the obstacles we as a society put in front of people based on race, ability, gender, immigration status, class, or any other category of identity. Winter shows us what resilience might look like in the natural world, but let’s keep in mind that there is nothing natural or inevitable about systemic inequality.

That being said, winter in our climate might be considered a season of challenge for wildlife, and so we might think about whether we can translate adaptations to our own lives. Cardinals, for instance, have a variety of strategies for getting through the winter. Cardinals can build their nests in a wide variety of places: trees up to 15 feet high, dry shrubs, open woodlands, tangled vines; they are flexible. The males are brightly colored and the females are more subtly colored, so either blending in or standing out are valid survival strategies. Maybe having two complementary strategies working together is one of the things that makes them so successful.

Then there are the mammals. There are some that hibernate and some that shift their habitat, so flexibility wins again. Another strategy is cooperation. Squirrels and mice tunnel through snow and huddle for warmth. Squirrels don’t remember where their caches of acorns and nuts are; they hide food and then might discover different caches of food left by other squirrels when they get hungry. They share. Cooperation and generosity might be the most powerful strategies for us as humans; we can get through a whole lot more things if we get through them together.

All over the natural world, life continues on through the winter. Let’s take stock of where we are right now, team up, and get creative. The Solstice is a time to create strategies for resilience.

A third gift of the Winter Solstice is rejoicing. Sometimes we really need a little bit of music and laughter. The return of the sun gives us a reason to bring out the treasures and stories and rituals that remind us of joy. We have a reason to create change in our environment, to deck the hall that we share in common with our community. This re-orientation of our senses gives us a chance to catch up with our reasons for being authentically happy.

If merriment is not on the agenda, we can stop and appreciate that we have gotten this far. We are still here. There is loving and growing and learning yet to do. We have experiences to look back on. In this, we rejoice.

Earlier, we heard about Julian of Norwich. We don’t know if her name was Julian or anything like Julian, we call her that because of St. Julian’s church in Norwich where she lived. The words, “all shall be well,” might sound like cheap advice, glossing over the hard parts toward empty reassurance. In Julian’s time, there was famine and plague. Life expectancy was around 30 years old at birth. I hear in her writing the confidence that all of us are, have been, and will be enfolded by the Source of Love. The wellness of all is not a denial of suffering, but trust that there is a love holding us through that suffering. Implicit in the phrase “all will be well” is the willingness to represent the power of love for other people. For the capacity to love and be loved, when the winter winds blow and the world seems to be falling apart, even if that capacity is not yet fully realized, we can find gratitude and perhaps even joy.

There are beliefs and legends and myths and songs that are associated with the Winter Solstice. If storytelling and music and the mystery of the Divine is bringing you deep meaning and joy, blessed be. Yet the gifts of reflection, resilience, and rejoicing are there even if spirituality is not your way of moving in the world. It is dark, and that may give us some room for quiet contemplation. Thriving might be more difficult in this season, yet we can look around and within and find real examples of resilience. Pain and uncertainty are realities, and at the same time we have reasons to rejoice.

May the darkness of the season bring you peace. May the contrasts of the season bring you wisdom. May the returning light bring you gladness. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.