Thursday, December 21, 2006

River: A Meditation for the Longest Night

Last year the church I was serving marked the Longest Night with a pre-Christmas service for those struggling with loss during the holidays. This is one of the meditations I offered at that service.

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The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. 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. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

~ Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

In the early 70’s Joni Mitchell was known for folksy ballads such as “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” as well as for the generational anthem “Woodstock.” But she was also known for the album “Blue.” That album included the song “River,” which has since become a classic along the lines of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” It is a wistful and gentle song whose words speak of sadness and alienation in the face of everybody else’s enjoyment of the Christmas season. She sings,

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
…I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

…I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

In these lyrics Mitchell dreams of freedom from her sadness, symbolized by the exhilaration of skating away on a river on a frosty winter’s day. This song is the story of the breakup of a relationship, but of course that is just one of the many kinds of losses we can face. On the same album Mitchell sings, “Little Green,” about the wrenching experience of giving up a baby for adoption, an experience she herself lived through.

At this time of year the darkness of the natural world, when the days are growing shorter and shorter, can be amplified and intensified by interior darkness for those of us experiencing sadness or loss. The reading from Isaiah tells us that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We Christians understand that light to be the light of God shining through Jesus Christ. But living with depression and grief can obscure even that light.

The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of a God who comes to be with us in the darkness. If we believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, then we profess faith in one who knows every kind of sorrow that we can know. Even if we are still walking in darkness, Jesus is the promise that God walks with us. Even if we choose to skate away into the darkness, we can trust that Jesus too will strap on his skates and follow us out onto that long frozen river.


steve said...

Lovely and stirring. Thank you for sharing it.

steve said...

Me again. Your meditation has stuck in my head, and after awhile I realized why. I sometimes run across clients who have been to some Christian counselors -- one in particular (who shall remain nameless) who seems to be very well-meaning, but...

I can think of one case in particular where an individual was struggling with disabling anxiety. And the counselor's advice to them was that their anxiety reflected a lack of faith in God.

Of course, this simply worsened their anxiety. Suddenly they saw their pain as their fault, rather than seeing God as supporting them through the time of difficulty.

Needless to say, I much prefer your image.

Gannet Girl said...


My friend Cynthia at Crazy Quilt Life posted these Joni MIchtell lyrics a few days ago. Don't you think it's quite wonderful how women across the country are finding the same words to evoke the experiences of this season?

And what a GREAT idea ~ a Longest Night service for those for whom this is far from a time of joy.

Cynthia said...

Gannet Girl from Search The Sea pointed me here, and I'm so glad she did. Your entry is simply beautiful, not to mention personally relevant for me.