At 5:02 on the evening of January 26, 1967, it began to snow in Chicago, and it kept on snowing until 10:10 the next morning. In those seventeen hours, a record 23 inches of snow fell on the city and its suburbs. Among the many effects of the blizzard, one was the impression it left on a young writer who later said this about it, “There was so much snow that winter, you couldn’t see; all snow, all ice, and it was very cold. I remember walking through the trenches and the tunnels of ice, the wind blowing so hard you couldn’t even see. It’s an experience that never left me.”[i]
That experience would translate, years later, into a vision of a dark and cold world where kingdoms and peoples clash in ongoing and protracted conflict fueled by generations of jealousy, mistrust, and dislike, and where the struggle for honor and power eclipse any possibility of justice or goodness, or even much discussion of them, and where the chilling air is only one implication of the foreboding warning, reiterated again and again, that characterizes the bleak outlook for nearly anyone, no matter how great or how small, as one personage after another repeats the gloomy forecast that “winter is coming.”
This tag line from the Game of Thrones series bespeaks the inevitability of darkness and death. Winter is coming – have truer words ever been spoken? Winter is always coming. Life is always headed toward death. The seasons return, one way or another, and even if winter is warmer now than it was generations ago, this is not a positive development. Winter is coming. It hardly takes the high production values, the large cast, or the recognizable score of Game of Thrones to see how true it is that winter is coming. We don’t need a novel or a cable series to teach us about the threat of wars, the clash of ethnic groups, the suspicion between families, the tragedy borne of lust, the wickedness of despotic rulers, the madness of marauding thugs, the twisted reality wrought by political games, the cruelty of religion warped and abused, or the harsh conditions of an ever more extreme climate. Political, personal, ethnic, environmental discord is all around us even now. Game of Thrones tells these stories in the fantasy genre, but too much of the fantasy is, frankly, too close to home, if you ask me. Winter is coming - not just to Winterfell, but for us all.
Winter is coming, and perhaps the fictional winters that come again and again to Westeros provide a useful stand-in or shorthand for the winters that relentlessly revisit us too. Easier to talk about the complexities, dysfunctions, cruelties, and failings of the Stark family, or the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms, than to look again at the details of another shooting, another election cycle, another legislative standstill, another terrorist threat.
Yes, winter is coming. And lately it seems like a succession of hard winters, despite the unusually warm temperatures. Winter can come with brute force even if the globe is getting warmer, even if the climate is changing. Winter blows in like a blizzard of bullets, or an impending wave of refugees, or the chilly realization that yet another candidate is simply saying whatever must be said.
And if you don’t like my characterization of what it might mean that winter is coming (no matter what the weather is like), you can provide your own list. Whatever your position on gun control, or Donald Trump, or President Obama, or immigration, or Syrian refugees, or the nature of Islam, you can agree that winter is coming – and you will be able to describe that winter in your own terms (perhaps detestable to me, but unarguably, wintry, I am sure). Winter is coming.
And every year in the church, Advent, too, reminds us that winter is coming. As the days get shorter we add a few extra candles, tinting them with color of mourning, but also wrapping them with evergreen boughs, as if to be both painfully honest and mildly encouraging about the implications that winter is coming. Advent has its own predictions of doom and gloom that make their appearance every year (wars and rumors of wars, etc.). Advent has its own threat of impending darkness (foolish virgins who have no oil for their lamps). Advent has its own indictments of those who will be cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Every year Advent reminds us that winter is coming… as if we need a reminder!
And Advent has John the Baptist, who in many ways seems like he could be a character right out of Game of Thrones, clothed as he is in camel’s hair, a leather girdle about his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey, as he does. He would, admittedly, never make it through a cold snap in Winterfell with his limited wardrobe, but one imagines that he would adapt, and that a bearskin or some such thing, used in just the right way would suit him well.
John the Baptist is a crier of sorts: not just a baptizer, but a proclaimer, too. He is a man with something to say, and something about his manner implies a certain dire probability in his message. He addresses his audience as a “brood of vipers,” and he warns them about “the wrath to come.” You’d think he’d be the perfect character to declare the universal and unarguable message that “winter is coming!” and leave it at that. He does, after all, quote the prophet of the exile, who spoke to the children of Israel as they were driven out of their homes and into a foreign land, seeking refuge. And John’s message is a call to repentance, too. He might have borrowed from any of the great prophet’s words of dire warning:
“The LORD is enraged against all the nations,
and furious against all their host,
he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
and the stench of their corpses shall rise;
the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree.”[ii]
Winter was coming, and John knew it, and he might have declared doom; a word of damnation might have been his only refrain, and it might have found a ready hearing, too. The Lord had called him, had given him his life and his voice for a reason. And winter was coming, as it always is. So what did the proclaimer have to say as he called God’s people to repentance in the face of another winter? What words did he appropriate from the prophet Isaiah?
“Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”[iii]
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Winter is coming, but a voice cries out tenderly to us.
Winter is coming, and with it there is cold, and there is bloodshed, and there is terror, and there is death. There is reason to huddle together for warmth, to be sure; there is reason to tremble with fear, as with cold. The winter is harsh, and it comes around like clockwork, again and again, and with it we are given new reasons, again and again, to be tempted to revile God, or to curse his name, and to turn from him and seek some other balm for all that wounds us and chills us to the bone.
But our prophetic baptizer does not insist on reminding us that winter is coming, as we feel the wind on the back of our necks. He has, in fact, few harsh words, though he certainly knows that he could have borrowed those words too. He knows that the way seems too steep for us, and that we can go neither up nor down. He knows how frightened we are of the Muslims, of the Syrians, of the Russians, and of each other; he knows it can hardly get worse than this; he has seen it before. We have not the vision to ascend the mountain, nor the strength to clamber down to the valley: we are stuck in the predicament of approaching winter here in this place where we fear we cannot withstand it.
But every valley shall be exalted, he assures us, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. Comfort, comfort. He speaks the future into the present: your warfare is ended, and your iniquity is pardoned. Comfort, comfort. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Comfort, comfort. All flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
The proclaimer speaks the future into the present, and it is not a word of winter, but a word of comfort and of hope. Every year winter comes. And every year our Lord sends us his messenger, not to remind us that winter is coming, but to remind us that his peace and his pardon are coming too.
Another way of putting this message is to say that Jesus is coming. I want to say that when you’ve said this, you’ve said it all. But, of course we live in a world that knows intimately the ice and cold of winters, but that hardly knows Jesus at all. To say that Jesus is the antidote to winter is to put things too minutely. Jesus is not the spring, Jesus is the Sun: he is the center, and the power, the light, and the warmth of all things!
And every Advent assures us that God knows that he sends his Sun to rise on a wintry world where it’s very cold, and sometimes the wind blows so hard that you cannot see, and you feel that you are living and moving in trenches and tunnels of ice streaked with blood. Yes, winter is always coming.
But Jesus is always coming too. He is on his way, and his messenger beckons us to be ready for him, and to join him.
Jesus is coming into the wintry world precisely because he knows that the constant struggle for honor and power eclipse any possibility of justice or goodness, or even much discussion of them. He knows how afraid we are, how vicious, and how well-armed we are. He knows how cold and how bloody the winter can be, and how we are trapped on the hillsides, unable to go up or down.
But God sent his Son to rise on his wintry world once already, and the promise is that that same Son will rise again to melt the awful ice of our hatreds, cruelties, meanness, and violence.
Jesus comes, and he not only speaks of justice and goodness, he holds these both in his hands, and he carries them to us as he comes.
Every valley shall be exalted, for Jesus is coming.
Every mountain and hill shall be made low, for Jesus is coming.
And the rough places shall be made plain, for Jesus is coming.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, for Jesus is coming.
Oh, winter may be coming, too, as it always is. But Jesus is coming with justice and goodness in his hands, and although we know neither the time nor the hour, he will not be stopped! Jesus is coming, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Second Sunday of Advent, 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] George R.R. Martin, speaking at Northwestern University, Nov 2015
[ii] Isaiah 34:2-4
[iii] Isaiah 40:1-5