Thursday, December 06, 2007

Faith Works 12-08-07
Jeff Gill

Winter Magic, Majesty, and Mystery

Crystalline mist is a magical sight, all the more so as a horizontal sheet drifting in the air below a hilltop, hovering above a valley floor turned ghostly in filtered shadow.

With sub-freezing temperatures floating over still flowing water, as often happens in December around these parts, the rising sun evokes a strange reaction that raises these sorts of low-lying layers.

Then, as the watercourses freeze, but temperatures swing back above freezing (as also often happens in this neck o’ the woods), thick rippling fogs fill valleys and pour slowly up out of them, edging hesitantly into open fields.

Evenings come shockingly soon after noontime, and candles in windows trace out homes well before dinner. Fast dropping temps add a coat of frost to plants still not quite beaten down by winter weights of snow or ice, and roads start to adopt new outlines more suited to rutted lanes and bygone paths than modern paved, painted, reflectored highways.

Inside, we put trees in our living rooms, and to do that, move about furniture and indoor traffic patterns. Late, late at night, when we’re up against our will or better judgement, we move through a darkened house with strange shapes and new arrangements that our sleep clouded brains don’t quite recognize.

There are odd figures on the porch that we remember a beat and a half late is the large nutcracker we found at a craft fair, but for a moment, think is . . . what?

At the foot of the stairs is a huddle of . . . no, not that, but the stuffed reindeer someone gave us last year. Unnerved, we turn on a light, and see our stretched face reflected in an ornament that seems to show us the visage of a parent, or grandparent, who gave us the chrome, glittered oval so many years ago.

December is a haunted season. Forget Hallowe’en, which is a time for coming to grips with decay and death, but it’s not as filled with spirits as most Advents are. Think Ebenezer Scrooge, if you doubt me, he who saw three and myriad more spirits to bring him to a better appreciation of Christmastide.

There are smells and tastes which speak to the deepest recesses of our brains, just this once a year, and we are transported to grandmotherly kitchens and childhood stores where we held the hem of motherly coats.

Decorations that sleep soundly in boxes and bins for eleven months rise up, and ask us to reflect back on those who made, or gave, or handled these objects before they came into our keeping.

Pastorally speaking, people say that there is depression this time of year, and that may be, but I would mark Spring as the danger zone for that problem. What I’ve always heard the most in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is the dilemma of family, or decisions about relationships. Some of those are good, like proposals of marriage, so common on Christmas Eve. Others are rooted in frictions and hostility that seems bearable all year, but suddenly has to be resolved *right now*.

This is the time of year I most often hear people say “Hey, the other night I dreamed about my grandmother. What do you think that means?”

Which brings me, the long way ‘round, to “The Golden Compass.” First of a series of three books rooted in images from William Blake and John Milton, with scenes that echo C.S. Lewis not in Narnia, but “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength.” Philip Pullman uses dark echoes of Oxford spires, Victorian airships, and otherworldly bears that seem lifted directly out of Lewis’ lesser known trilogy.

Yes, Pullman has done a poor job of hiding his contempt for Lewis and his atheistic triumphalism. He’s also done a poor job of hiding his debt to faith and wonder and yes, Lewis himself. I’ve not seen the movie, but have read the books; I will wait for the home version but have no interest in mustering a boycott. Christianity is safe from feeble tantrums like Pullman’s, and the books get progressively more preachy (ironic, ain’t it?), so the films will necessarily get more distant from whatever the author had in mind.

Out of the shadows and the dimly seen figures of the past, in our homes and on the movie screens, Christmastime, or better, Advent, is an excellent time to take the provocations of our guilty consciences and quest for connectedness, and turn them to the cultivation of holy waiting, waiting with expectation for a child to be born who will reconcile the fractious family of humankind.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at

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