“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …” These words of Robert Frost, sacred to New England schoolchildren, came to me one recent hard morning as I walked a woodland road in snow so tentative it might have been slow melting stars.
Two ways stretch before me this Advent, it seems, with a greater intensity than in previous years. The world grows smaller with the soul-wrenching death of a black man, Eric Garner, at the hands of our civil “authorities;” the darkness in the woods near my house is deeper with this fact; the light at the end far less certain.
Two roads. There is the way of fear and stress triggered by shock, and with it the tendency to want to retreat in a kind of incredulity that, as these acts seem to repeat with numbing and terrible consistency, tempts anger, depression, despair.
A question I ask myself apropos of Advent: If Mary, an unwed, pregnant subject of the Roman Empire, had remained in Nazareth, would she have been stoned to death? It happens, still. Is this why she fled to be with Elizabeth?
The legacy of our fear and ignorant darkness is a hall of horrors, the path with no end. It seems to take its players on a vanishing act into the labyrinth of chaos we call history. To suggest that “peace on earth, goodwill towards men” is a remotely realizable hope is risible to those thrust into the dark by the hand of darkness.
And yet. Mary did run — to Elizabeth — and she found comfort in the warmth of her love. More: she found a sister of her soul, a fellow traveler in an out-of-season and potentially tragic circumstance. Two powerless women who found in the sanctuary of one another peace and companionship, and even the safety to celebrate a hope that flew in the face of empire, a hope the older woman had thought dead.
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One of the lights by which I walk in Advent is the story of Natalie. For years, two maiden sisters on my street held a holiday open house in the grand old style — crystal bowls filled with punch, silver platters of cold cuts, candles, cookies. No one thought of missing the Connaughton’s affair. Neighbors who hadn’t seen one another the whole year pulled green velvet waistcoats and red silk blouses from the closet. We came with offerings — ham rolls or champagne, flowers and candy for the sisters, and above all, with our grateful good cheer. This was our chance to catch up on the news, and especially to hear about the children, how they were growing, getting on with their lives, entering careers and starting families of their own.
At some point early in the evening every year, Natalie would appear at the kitchen door. She always bore an extravagant platter of warm meatballs or lasagna. But she never stayed. She returned to her house down the street where her daughter awaited her, unable to swallow or to breathe without assistance, and slowly dying. That wasn’t all. Natalie had had three daughters. When, as a younger woman, her husband left her widowed, she learned that the degenerative disease that took his life had been transmitted to her three daughters. They would not see thirty Christmases. Never get to the Connaughton’s party. They would never marry. They would never have children. One by one, their mother would watch them, in their 20s, lose the ability to walk, or to eat, to speak. Slowly, painfully, each would die, while Natalie nursed them to the end. By the time I knew her, she had one last death of a child to endure. And then, for many years, she was alone.
I don’t know what Natalie did with the stress and grief and fear that came with the life she’d been given, but I think of it often. Would I have been able to bring a platter of food to a party I couldn’t attend? No one ever saw her complain. To the contrary, she arrived like a lost magi to the light-filled house where peace and goodwill were being born anew, bearing her gift and her cheer.
Nothing about the stories that tear open time and our lives lend themselves to tidy morals. Natalie died of ovarian cancer several years ago, and once during the final days, neighbors tell me, she broke down in uncontrollable grief. So, too, at the end, did Jesus.
Hope can only bear so much in the face of innocent, unjust suffering. In the flaws of empire or of nature.
But on this dark day, Natalie and Mary tell me that fear, suffering, uncertainty are not to be endured alone. Ironically, hope turns out to be the place we get to when we are willing to walk through the darkness to the door of a friend. When we reach out to love, rather than retreat into the disappearing act that is despair and its attendant violence. The Roman Empire, after all, collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. What was born on one of history’s “hopeless” side streets, endures.