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Sermons

The Crystal of the Snow

January 18, 2004

Bible Reading

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold; but those who stand firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."

(Matthew 24:3-14)

Read also: Psalm 147

Reading from Swedenborg

The essence of light in heaven is wisdom. Love and wisdom are inseparable, like Reality and Emergence, with love actually emerging by means of wisdom and in keeping with it. This is like the situation in the world, where in springtime, warmth is one with light, and makes things sprout and bear fruit. Besides, everyone knows that spiritual warmth is love, and spiritual light is wisdom. People grow warm as they love, and are in light as they are wise. (Soul-Body Interaction #6)

Sermon

The angel of the Lord came down from heaven and rolled hack the stone from the door, and sat on it. His face was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (Matthew 28:2-3)

A physicist with strong Swedenborgian roots, John Hitchcock, has written a book entitled Atoms, Snowflakes, and God. It is a book that uses the mysteries of physics to argue for the reality of spirit and the love and wisdom of God; and snowflakes come into it because no one can explain their symmetry. Their patterns in some way must derive from the molecular structure of water, and they must develop in some kind of sequence, presumably from the center out, but beyond that lies total bewilderment. Imagine for a moment that first center forming. Then what happens? Do six identical little projections form simultaneously on its six sides, and does that process keep repeating itself? What is it that causes the same shape to form on each side? How does one side "know" what is happening on the other sides?

Hitchcock argues in effect that there must be a non-material pattern governing the crystallization process, and "non-material" is simply a negative way of saying "spiritual." In a way, this is a specific variation on the "argument from design": the argument that the intricate patterns that constitute our world give unmistakable evidence of intelligence. Brilliant scientists have found themselves convinced of this, and other equally brilliant scientists have found the argument unconvincing. As a place to start this morning, then, all I would like us to bear in mind is that we really do not understand the white mantle that is covering the ground outside. Every single one of its millions of flakes asks us a question we cannot answer.

There is a principle here that is worth a few moments' attention. The Greek philosopher Democritus proposed that everything is composed of minute, indivisible particles (our word "atom" comes from his Greek word meaning "indivisible") that differed only in shape. What we have discovered is that the more closely we examine matter, the stranger it seems. Far from finding little cubes and spheres and the like, we find "probabilities"; energies that move from one orbit to another without passing through the intervening space; photons that seem to be both waves and particles at the same time. Swedenborg remarked on a number of occasions that the "simple" things out of which compounds are formed are more perfect than the compounds themselves--and there is a growing body of evidence that he was right.

Much the same thing happens, incidentally, if we look toward the other end of the scale: toward the vastness of the universe. We find ourselves dealing with distances beyond any real comprehension, with forces of inconceivable magnitude. We find ourselves, as Pascal observed, caught between two infinities. We find ourselves in what seems to be one slight intelligible stratum in the midst of immense mystery.

In that slight stratum, though, we are on familiar ground. We are at home in the world our senses tell us about; and that world is our primary source of all the images we use to communicate with each other. We do not need degrees in physics to understand what it is to feel stress or tension or friction. We do not need to know how snowflakes form to appreciate the beauty of a winter landscape, or to gather by the fireplace.

It is in that slight stratum of our own experience that we find the images we use to understand ourselves and to communicate that understanding to each other. And the most universal images come from those features of our experience that are most constant: from light and darkness, height and depth, warmth and cold. We need no course in poetry to interpret the phrase, "a brilliant mind," or "a cold heart." The brilliance of a winter day and the cold of a winter night speak to us directly. The Psalmist said it well: the heavens do declare the Lord's glory, and they do so without speech or language (Psalm 19:1, 3).

Our ideal is the warm heart and the brilliant mind. Ultimately, they are inseparable, for the simple reason that only the loving heart really wants to understand. However, it can take us a lifetime to get the head and the heart together as they are designed to be. We know not only the warmth of love but the heat of anger and pride and possessiveness. We know, that is, those desires that spring from our preoccupation with ourselves.

These desires distort our vision. When we are in their grip, we tend to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize their virtues, to maximize our own importance and trivialize the significance of others. Our own ideas are right because they are ours, and our own agenda is right because we are right.

There is rarely any direct passage from such states to states of genuine love and understanding. Occasionally, there may be a sudden breakthrough--someone who matters to us may be put at risk, for example, and we are overcome with the discovery that something within us really does care. Far more often, some event seems to conspire to shake our self-confidence, to stir up a sense of doubt. We find ourselves faced with some "hard facts"--unwelcome facts that simply will not go away.

There are images of this "hard truth" outside our windows at this moment. There are the leafless trees, the stiff structures that will in time be hidden by the rich foliage of summer. It is as though the masks have been stripped off, and we see the underlying structures of the world around us. It can be startling how much farther we can see in winter. Even in evergreen woods, there is usually a deciduous undergrowth; and in the winter we see relationships in new ways. The house next door is closer. Our own privacy is diminished. It seems to go with the clearer air of winter. All the shapes we see are crisper, sharper. When new snow lies on the branches of a tree, it is as though someone has decided to outline it to be sure we really see its form.

Our souls need these times of clarity, when we step back from our involvement in life and look at things dispassionately, with some detachment. There are the hard facts that we would rather not face--the facts that we ignore by keeping busy and preoccupied. "I don't have time to think about that" . . . until the time comes when we can't help thinking about it.

Something else happens during these spiritual winters, too. An avid gardener from southern California once told me about having to put her bulbs in the refrigerator to give them their winter rest. The spiritual equivalent of this was expressed by a therapist who argued that we tend to exhaust ourselves by living in a perpetual summer, always on the go, never gathering around the hearth on a quiet winter's evening. I wonder whether there is any silence as magical as the silence of a snowy night.

Still, the winter is not an end in itself. The goal is renewal, fresh life. Years ago, a student came to the theological school from Egypt. He had never seen snow, and arrived in midwinter after a significant storm. It was not until the spring that he discovered that the trees were actually alive. There is no way we can share his amazement because we know what is going to happen; but there is wonder in it every time, year after year. The leaves that we take for granted in August are little miracles in the spring. There is really nothing very spectacular about snowdrops, but they are wonderfully courageous little things when they first bloom.

We are warm-blooded creatures. Cold may have its virtues, but it threatens our lives as well. "Pray that your flight not be in the winter" (Matthew 24:20). By themselves, the "hard facts" can be destructive. There is no more compelling image of this than the combination of beauty and destructiveness of the ice storm.

As we emerge from our times of facing cold, hard facts, we notice little signs of caring that we normally overlook. Perhaps the dishes have been done or the laundry folded; the walk has been shoveled or the frayed lamp cord replaced. Something quite ordinary can tell us that somebody cared. We may notice that someone near us is aging, or that a child has grown; we find that it matters to us that life is happening with all its gains and its losses.

When our theology describes heaven as a realm of perpetual springtime, it must be telling us that we are meant to live in wonder. We might bear in mind that Swedish winters are long and severe, and that spring would be all the more treasured. To have come through another winter, to have survived (and every winter, there would be some who did not), would have a touch of the miraculous.

We need to note, if only in passing, that this "perpetual springtime" has its fluctuations. A chapter of Heaven and Hell is devoted to a description of how the states of angels change. They (or we, eventually) have their ups and downs. Otherwise, "the delight of life . . . would gradually pass" (Heaven and Hell #158). Angels may not need anything as severe as winter, but they do need their evenings, their times when things cool down. We are not made to operate at full intensity without relief.

When we stop to think about it, wonder must be an essential feature of heavenly life. Life itself is miraculous; and to be aware of even a fraction of its depth and beauty has to bring us to amazement. The person sitting next to you or in front of you or behind you is amazing, incomprehensible. And the Lord who is sustaining all this life is the most amazing of all. Seen simply in the cold light of analytic thought, this is a "winter wonderland." And in the gentle warmth of spring, heart and mind alike are stirred to worship. Amen.

Prayer

Creator God, we thank you for the seasons, whether mild or severe, that keep us from getting stuck in one place; that keep us moving, changing, growing. We thank you for our fallow periods of rest and reflection, as well as for the budding springtimes of new life within and around us. We thank you for creating a reflection of ourselves in nature, and of nature in ourselves. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole