Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.

The Last December

December 2012—it is supposedly the last month in the world. Yesterday did dawn with the date being 1212012, but since the local tree farm opened its gates yesterday, my family set out to select a tree anyway. As we wandered amid the pines it was clear that for many the iconic sign of Christmas is the tree. We learned on our first year in New Jersey that you’d better not wait until reasonably close to Christmas to pick out a tree—we visited this very lot then only to discover that precut trees were all that were available (and they were from Pennsylvania) and we had established a tradition of picking our own. Getting to know the tree first. Walking around and looking from all angles, trying to learn if it was healthy or too dry. Were there any gaping gaps that would be an obvious problem? Hard to tell when the tree is wrapped up in fishnet plastic and tucked into a corner like an old umbrella. Here, so close to the Big Apple, you need to claim your tree early. If you don’t want to cut it down right away, you can tag it—claim it as your own and come back later to chop it down. We weren’t the only ones taking great care in selecting.

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Tree farming is a business with a long view. Trees don’t mature overnight. When it’s the last month of the world, one must take these weighty things into consideration. Even before this terminal date, you would need to make an awful lot of money in just one month of the year to keep the business going. Maybe they need a green Christmas. Of course, greenery in winter symbolizes life in the midst of death. The germanic originators of the tradition were keeping a very appropriate pagan idea alive when they dedicated their trees to Christmas. Last year when we couldn’t have a real tree, it felt like we’d lost a friend. Our tree farming friends know that feeling very well.

The “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs and bumper stickers have begun sprouting up in yards and on bumpers in their annual exuberance. Funny thing is, Christmas has its base in ancient pagan customs. To hear the Bible tell it, Jesus’ birth was an understated event. The only people who had an angelic concert were some shepherds (we don’t know how many) on the hills outside of a small town. And, as far was we can tell, it would have probably been in April. As the days grow wearily short, however, we need a little light to keep us going. That was the pagan wisdom behind the Yule Log and various festivals of light to encourage nature to bring some brightness back. These short days can be difficult enough even in the age of artificial light and constantly glowing electronic screens. And knowing this is the last month of the world, we want to festoon our trees with tiny pinpoints of expectation and hope that nature somehow gets the message that we’ve had enough of darkness and wish for a 2013 redolent with light. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

Solstice Now!

Who owns the solstice? Whoever it is, I wish we could just get it over with. The darkness falls before I step into my 5 p.m. class. It is dark when I drive home. The next morning, leaving for my 8:30 a.m. class, I drive to school in the dark. Back at Nashotah House a colleague once said his wife became “almost pagan” in her yearning to pass the winter solstice and head toward the time of year when light prevails over darkness. My wife pointed out a CNN story concerning a New Jersey billboard sponsored by American Atheists. The billboard, just on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York, shows the star of Bethlehem, the manger and the wise men. The inscription reads: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season celebrate REASON.” Naturally, motorists are up in arms. Who owns the solstice?

Before the Thanksgiving leftovers even hit the fridge, Christmas season has begun. Santa always ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it official. Since we are capitalists, we do what the red-suited captain of industry says: shop. As long ago as A Charlie Brown Christmas complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have reverberated through the media. Personal properties and billboards enjoin us to “keep Christ in Christmas” and remember “the reason for the season.” Economists tell us to spend more to assist the sluggish economy. Meanwhile the light continues to fade; the days grow darker. Why confuse the issue with religiosity? Why not just spend some money on others, feel the release of endorphins, and be thankful?

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The church selected December to celebrate the event because the shortest day of the year, for those north of the equator, had long been a time of fervent wishes for the return of light. The first-century Christian rivals, the Gnostics, believed in the continual, literal struggle between light and darkness. When sidelined by Orthodox Christianity, the torch was taken up by those who celebrated Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Hogmanay, Yule, Sol Invictus or any number of other winter festivals. Christmas was a relative late-comer to the celebrations that welcome the resurrection of the sun. So drivers from New Jersey should take it easy. The solstice is everybody’s holiday. I just wish that whoever’s in charge would give us all a little more light.