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Saturday, December 9, 2017
History ... Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

It’s just about time for the Winter Solstice. From now thru Dec. 12, the sun sets at 4:28 pm in my neck of the woods. The darkest day of the year is still two weeks away (Dec. 21), due to the fact that sunset and sunrise cycles are naturally out of synch. I.e., we reach the earliest sunset time this week, but the latest sunrise time doesn’t happen until the first week of January. Still, it’s the sunset time that affects me most, in terms of mood. These are the “darkest days” for me, the days that weigh most heavily upon the soul.

In keeping with that mood, let me quote a passage from Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN Secretary General from the 1950’s and early 1960s’s. Mr. Hammarskjold was a public figure, but he also had a deep spiritual life. So I am taking an entity from his book “Markings“, a collection of entries from of his own spiritual journal. Here is his entry for Oct. 12, 1958:

Day slowly bleeds to death
Through the wound made
When the sharp horizon’s edge
Ripped through the sky
Into its now empty veins
Seeps the darkness.
The corpse stiffens,
Embraced by the chill of night.

Over the dead one are lit
Some silent stars.

Ah yes, the silent stars twinkling throughout the long, cold night. Tiny sparks of hope in the long, vast, undefeatable blackness. It hurts all the more as I grow older. In the context of winter darkness and the fading light of the body (recall Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light), one can appreciate Christmas from a very different perspective in their later years. The usual childhood and young adult response to the holiday is the joy of getting and giving gifts, a time of gathering and celebration. But for an aging man at the start of winter, the following passage from the Bible (Isaiah 9:2, NIV) seems to reflect the mood a whole lot better:

the people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

This passage is connected with the Christmas season because several Christian churches (Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist) use a segment of Isaiah 9 in their Christmas Eve readings. The real catch-phrase for Christians follows at Isaiah 9:6-7, i.e.:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

Isaiah was written many centuries before Jesus lived (around the 8th Century BCE), but Christians from the early church through the present day interpret this Hebrew scripture as a prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus’ birth.

Actually, the prophet Isaiah was really not thinking of a situation akin to what happened with Jesus. In Chapter 9 and the chapters leading up to it, Isaiah was addressing the geopolitical situation of his times for the nation of the Jews. In a nutshell, the kingdom of Assyria was expanding in power and rapidly dominating the nations of the middle-east. The Jews had already divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah), and Assyria had just swallowed up Israel along with neighboring Syria. Judah was still clinging to its independence, but things were not looking good. Therefore, Azah, the king of Judah, moved to ally Judah with Assyria, kind of like the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939. You know how that worked out (I hope! If not — read up on Hitler’s 1941 Operation Barbarossa).

Isaiah was essentially writing political propaganda, urging the people of Judah to reject this approach. Isaiah felt that Judah should maintain its integrity and independence, by trusting that God would protect Judah as he had delivered Moses in times past. Those “people in darkness” that he referred to were the Jews up in Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom, which had been conquered by Assyria. The “great light” was the hope and promise of deliverance of all the Jews, both north and south, through divine military intervention (i.e., seemingly unlikely success in battle against a strong foe, as in various other stories in the Hebrew Bible). The child “born for us”, the “son given to us” reflected the hope and faith that a great David-like leader who would deliver all of the Jews from the Assyrians was already alive, and would soon rise to power.

So, Isaiah could care less about a savior who might be born many centuries later and who would die at the hands of the successor to the Assyrians, an even more powerful nation that would persecute Judah and Israel, i.e. Rome. Isaiah wanted real military victories in the present (or foreseeable future, anyway). And obviously, he could care even less about an old guy like me living in a totally different kind of world almost two millennia later, a typical old person of the 21st Century who gets to live longer than 95% of the people from Isaiah’s day, but who also gets to observe and lament the slow but inexorable decline of the body.

But still — maybe there is a basic underlying psychological theme that Isaiah and Matthew and Hammarskjold and the Christian lectionary, and even little old me, are touching upon. Something akin to a Jungian archetype, perhaps like “the shadow”. We all long for hope in “the long night”, whether that be the oncoming night of our nations (e.g. the 8th Century BCE Jewish nation, or modern America under Trump), the gathering night of our bodies, or the dark night of our souls. To be honest, I don’t think that I’ve experienced anything like the light of hope that Isaiah held out to his people (and hey, that light didn’t work out so great for the people of Judah either; about a hundred fifty years later, the Babylonians conquered them). A great light has not dawned over the shadows in my life. But yet, those silent stars that Hammarskjold noticed still twinkle on. The last hint that death is not ultimately victorious has not yet itself died.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:34 am      
 
 


  1. Jim, Nice meditation on the shortening days. So a few tho’ts from me on the same topic.

    I think of ancient humans who must have panicked as the days got shorter and shorter. Would the light EVER come back? What if they had to live in darkness all the time? The massive joy that must have erupted when the days started (finally) to length again; and they knew light was coming back.

    In some ways it must have been a little bit like that when Christians chose the solstice time to celebrate Christmas. (Besides, there were all the “mystery religions” at that time that must have influenced the Christians.) A celebration of the light coming back! The early sunrise time coming in January might account for the long period of time (before there was all this “commercialism) that Christmas started on the early morning of Dec. 25 and went until January 6, the 12 days of Christmas. I have even seen lately that some people think the “12 days of Christmas” are the 12 days BEFORE Christmas! I guess anything to accommodate Commercialism.

    Hammerskjold’s poem of lovely if dour. And yes Isaiah was NOT talking about Christ. I’ve read some interpretations to mean that the “son” referred to by Isaiah was the son of the ruler of Judah who would save them. You are right Isaiah was writing propaganda for the times.

    You are also right that there could certainly be a reference to “the Shadow”, as per Jung; but Isaiah would really have been ahead of his time re that. However, for us it’s an apt metaphor.

    And furthermore, for me it seems that what comes after this life is not a “twinkle of stars” but most likely a much happier place than this hard life on the planet earth is. Some people who linger in death may take longer to totally break ties with life on earth, but they may visit for periods and make a quick, short visit back to their body. (Something I’ve heard about a loved one who died.) It seems to me too many people have been there and been told to return to earth to naysay the next life. It seems to me that when people keep having similar experiences, it’s foolish to deny them. Whatever’s next may be a much brighter star than one might think. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 11, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

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