“Who then shall stir in this darkness, prepare for joy in the winter night?”
- Carol Christopher Drake
It is difficult not to feel this year that wider society has entered a collective winter night of the soul. We have gone rigid with fear in the wake of terrorism and in the midst of a campaign season that can find no bottom to lows in public discourse. Ghosts of nightmares stir in the swirling chill, old memories of history recent past but seemingly long forgotten: the cold of bigotry, willful ignorance, open deceit. No one seems to listen anymore. It is just assertions shouted over the voices of everyone else. Those who shout the loudest win. We are sorted, but not into goats and sheep with the care of simple husbandry. Instead we are sifted ham-fistedly into winners and losers with winner-take-all.
Who then shall stir in this darkness? Who would want to? And where can we find joy when the shadows grow so long and the chill seems unusually cold this year?
Anxiety has always been a part of our condition. It must have been, too, in the air and water and the chill of the winter night all those years ago in Judea and Galilee, when Herod danced with his puppet masters and Roman soldiers watched with suspicion as the people eked out a barebones living. What chills must Mary have felt when all that stood between her and certain ruin were the words of an angel and the dream of her betrothed. And even then the darkness was certain: This new life stirring in her womb was sure to be trouble. Herod would brook no rival, and Rome would tolerate no challenge to the status quo.
To imagine God stirring in the darkness of her womb must have been as terrifying as it was thrilling and dangerous. To be a peasant from a small town few knew bearing a promise that was too hopeful for so many, too hopeful to be more than whispered about in close company… Well, who could possibly imagine any of it? And yet it inspired Mary to speak of a world where winners are losers and losers winners. Maybe she was turned so upside down with this stirring in the darkness, she could not help but see it invite the utter overturn of the world about her.
Who do we imagine might stir in our darkness of today, and dare we imagine anyone or anything stir in the dark in this age of cynical doubt, of narrow materialism, of perpetual war and angst? Is the Virgin’s womb barren in our time, so much so that we must shut our borders and cast suspicion within? So much so that we ignore the plight of teeming refugees, of a world run mad with suffering? So barren that we must be convinced that the gracious years are gone and now we are to grasp in the dark, scrambling over each other for only scraps in the waning days of empire?
We want strongmen to arise and lead us out of the dark. But we who pause and reflect long enough remember in our bones that strongmen are only part of the darkness themselves. They brood, posture, and bellow like Tolkien’s dragons. They threaten and menace with power and its seductive promises. They cast about for enemies and blame, point fingers, and count might and perhaps count the heads of those who oppose them for a coming purge. This is not the stirring of a baby as it quickens in the womb, with innocence and hope. This is only the stirring of the old games of war, politics, states, wealth, and domination.
Who then shall stir in this darkness and prepare, prepare for a joy that is too wonderful to imagine and too subversive to be disclosed? Where would Herod and Rome be if suddenly their military might and posturing was shown to be only a cruel illusion, a self-perpetuating myth? What if the hope were so great that fear no longer roiled our body politic and people turned away from desiring the power to cast death and instead turned to offering only life and love? Terror would then have no claim on us, no haven in our hearts anymore.
But this is precisely the promise of Advent: someone stirring in the darkness, preparing for a joy even in the depths of a world’s winter. John the Baptist was not out to overthrow empire or even the king who wanted the prophet dead. No, someone was stirring in the darkness, he said, someone who would change everything. And change it forever. He had met that someone only once, and even then, it had been while in the darkness of his own mother’s womb. That Someone had come close enough to be felt yet unseen, perceived in ways that were beyond sight or sound or explanation. And in that moment, John had leapt for joy and made his mother cry out with wonder. And so now, too, a grown man stands in the Jordan, peering into the darkness of his people, looking for that Someone stirring yet again.
The prophet peers into each of us, looking for that Someone stirring in the wombs of our hearts, stirring in our relationships, even stirring in that poisonous place we call the body politic: stirring in the darkness of this winter night and every night; quickening, and waiting to be born, to birth joy into our midst, with light, with hope, with love.
Richard Edward Helmer, BSG
A reflection for the Silent Days of Advent
The Bishop’s Ranch, Healdsburg, California
December 17, 2015