I asked Gannet Girl for permission to use her translation of Psalm 88, with attribution. You can find it here.
Later I will post the service, but for now, the meditation.
“The Longest Night”
Psalm 88, Psalm 139
December 20, 2009
I recently heard a poem: “Christmas Landscape” by Laurie Lee. It starts like this:
Tonight the wind gnaws
with teeth of glass,
the jackdaw shivers
in caged branches of iron,
the stars have talons.
There is hunger in the mouth
of vole and badger,
silver agonies of breath
in the nostril of the fox,
ice on the rabbit’s paw.
Tonight has no moon,
no food for the pilgrim;
the fruit tree is bare.
the rose bush a thorn
and the ground is bitter with stones.
Those of us who are acquainted with upstate New York winters recognize this kind of night. Unrelenting cold. Oppressive darkness. Even the simple action of breathing becomes an agony.
Except in the most sensationalized way, it is rare for so honest a depiction of cold and darkness to make its way into the popular depictions of the holiday season. We are usually shown smiling people playing in the snow, making snowmen, throwing snowballs, falling in love by the fire while the storm swirls outside. “I really can’t stay…” “Oh, Baby, it’s cold outside!” The relentless, killing cold is not one of this season’s more marketable qualities.
But this poem taps into a truth that lies at the heart of the Christmas story—the real Christmas story. If we peel away the layers of commercialization, and the layers of tradition, and even the layers of faith, beneath it all, the story of Christmas is about the birth of a child to poor parents who were members of an oppressed religious minority in an occupied territory. The child is born into a world that is almost unimaginably harsh.
And that is the first point of entry for us, we who gather on this cold night, almost the longest night of the year. This story already resonates with our stories, if we come into this season with pain or grief. Why gather on this longest night? Why take note? We gather because of that very dissonance—the dissonance between what the culture believes to be at the heart of the celebration of Christmas (and, depending upon which commercials you listen to, that could be food, or drink, or shiny, pretty presents) and what truly lies at its heart—the audacity of hope even in the midst of pain or grief that is harsh and unbearable.
It seems appropriate this night to read from the book of psalms. Those of you who have gathered here on Sunday mornings have heard me say on more than one occasion: there is no emotion a human being can have that is not found somewhere in the book of psalms. That makes it a handy and ideal prayer book for us. In the heights of joy, in the heat of rage, in the warmth of gratitude, and in the depths of sorrow and despair, somewhere we can find our emotions mirrored in the book of Psalms.
I read tonight from Psalm 88. It is a good companion to that poem whose opening stanzas I’ve just read. Just as the poem describes unrelieved cold and darkness, the psalm describes unrelieved spiritual darkness and alienation. Of all 150 psalms, Psalm 88 is the only one that does not, at some point, find its way back to praise, thanksgiving, or hope. It is the only psalm that describes what it is to feel utterly alone and disconnected from God and community.
I don’t know how many of us find ourselves in that position tonight, feeling, with the psalmist,
“…my soul is sated with troubles,
And my life touches Sheol.
I am counted with those who go down to the Pit;
I become like those with no help.” (Psalm 88:4-5)
Grief and depression can make us feel as if we can’t reach anyone, not God, not our loved ones, not our friends or community. Though I love this season, certain painful memories associated with it nevertheless have the ability to pull me down, memories sweeping over me, like a flood. I am grateful for a prayer that doesn’t pretty it up, for Psalm 88, which says to God, “I confront you with my grief. I confront you with my prayers.”
But then, I find I need to turn to Psalm 139.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
In contrast with the one praying the first psalm, this writer seems to have a sense that God is there—no, God is here. While the first prayer seems uttered from a place where God is impossibly distant, in the second, there is a recognition that God is close by, hovering, never leaving the pray-er alone. This I think expresses a deep truth about God.
Here’s the rest of that poem I started with:
But the mole sleeps, and the hedgehog
lies curled in a womb of leaves,
the bean and the wheat-seed
hug their germs in the earth
and the stream moves under the ice.
Tonight there is no moon,
but a new star opens
like a silver trumpet over the dead.
Tonight in a nest of ruins
the blessed babe is laid.
And the fir tree warms to a bloom of candles,
the child lights his lantern,
stares at his tinseled toy;
our hearts and hearths
smoulder with live ashes.
In the blood of our grief
the cold earth is suckled,
in our agony the womb
convulses its seed,
in the cry of anguish
the child’s first breath is born.
The birth of the blessed babe does not heal our grief. The nearness of God does not send the cold or the darkness scurrying away—not tonight, at least. But the nearness of God is real, whether we feel it or not. The nearness of God can be depended upon, if not experienced. Even if we feel that the darkness will swallow us and all the available light—as if our sadness were some imploding star with infinite mass—even the infinite darkness is not dark to God. The night is as bright in God’s all-seeing eyes as the day.
Perhaps the audacity of hope is this: even in the deepest darkness, when our tired and searching eyes cannot see their way to the light, we can rest in the arms of the One whose eyes see clear through to eternity. We don’t have to see it ourselves. We can simply know that it is seen—light, at the end of the darkness, a thin and pinkish dawn after what feels like an endlessly long night. God blowing on the ashes in our hearts, to make them smolder again—not for a bonfire, just the faintest promise of warmth, glowing, even before we feel it.