It was called “The Blizzard of 1996.” It was the worst nor’easter snowstorm to hit the East Coast in decades. It hit Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC particularly hard and at the worst possible time, just as a government shutdown and weeks-long furlough was ending. From January 6 to January 8 it dumped snow and ice in amounts ranging from 47 inches in Big Meadows Virginia to around 6 inches in Raleigh. And as you all know, around here 6 inches of snow shuts down everything for a week.
For me, however, it was the best thing that could have happened at the time.
Just a week earlier, we had buried my brother, and that storm gave me refuge . . . the perfect reason to do about the only thing I was capable of doing at the time: nothing at all. I spent hours and hours standing in front of the sliding glass door, sipping tea, and watching the birds whose forms shone in bright relief against a snow-white world.
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while.” Those are the words I heard Jesus telling me as I stared out the window in grief and sorrow. “Come away and rest a while.”
Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as they return from a mission trip for preaching and healing and casting out demons. It was a trip for which they were ill-equipped and forced to do their best with what they had: a staff, sandals, no extra clothes, no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. And when they came home depleted and exhausted, Jesus spoke to them “Come away and rest a while.”
Some years ago when I was helping to care for my father as his health failed and his life waned, I felt a lot like that: ill-equipped to bathe him, to care for his skin, to help him with eating and toileting and dressing. And I’m sure that anyone who has become caregiver to a suffering loved one has also felt the burden of inadequacy, unpreparedness, and exhaustion. To all who carry that burden, Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while.”
Jesus speaks these words to himself also. While his disciples were on their mission trip, Jesus learned that his cousin, John had been beheaded by King Herod. To Jesus, John was not just some unusual preacher in strange clothes, but the man he had grown up with, the man who had baptized him, the man who first recognized Jesus as “one more powerful than I . . . [who] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” “Come away and rest a while” are the words he speaks to himself when he knows that he needs time and space to grieve and heal and refill his depleted spirit.
It is said that the author of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” wrote the carol after suffering a spell of depression. I hear his melancholy in the third verse:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
Tonight, we are approaching the longest night of the year, when our world is darkest. I hear that enveloping darkness as the voice of Jesus inviting us all to come away and rest a while, to go inward: into our houses, into rooms illuminated only by the window candles or the Christmas tree lights, into our own bodies and souls for rest and restoration. The world outside with its urgent call to jolliness from shopping malls, storefronts, and window displays will still be there waiting for us. But now is a time for rest and silence and mending. Now is a time to rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
If we let ourselves come away to rest a while, if we still our hearts and minds and bodies, we too can hear those angel voices with their promise of peace and goodness. Maybe we hear them in the loving touch of friend’s hand. Maybe we hear them in the offer of a cup of tea. Maybe we hear them in a friend’s promise of prayer or offer to bring a meal. Maybe we hear them in the slow, steady beat of our own heart taking comfort in Jesus’ invitation to rest.