What I long for most these busy December days is the horizon of Dakota skies at sunset when the sun’s dying blaze meets the dark edge of the earth. As the sun travels through veils of thin clouds, a cool dim palette of blue peaks through. These days from Advent to Epiphany are my spiritual journey through the color blue and the horizon of Dakota. Twilight comes already at 4:50 p.m., the sun setting on the evening of a busy day. The hours of daylight recede each day by a minute or two until we close in on the winter solstice. After the celebration of the solstice, the sun will become stronger, adding a few precious minutes to each day. But that length of day and moments of light are barely enough to sustain Dakotans through the brutal winds and chill of January.
We burn candles and decorate our houses with strings of lights to ward off the darkness. Though the lights shine, the darkness does not go away. While the sky’s darkness seems overwhelming, the starlit constellations and planets ablaze in the night sky remind me that change will arrive soon enough in the spring.
The blues of winter night skies beckon me into their starry paths. I wonder where I’d end up if I followed them. These cosmic skies point out my human insignificance. Whether we have used massive telescopes or our naked eye, we have learned about our place in the cosmos from observing these skies. For at least 2000 years, Lakota elders studied the nighttime sky, following the patterns of the constellations. Lakota elders reminded tribal members that whatever is done in heaven is accomplished on earth. The Lakota believe they come from and return to the stars, following their final path along the Milky Way.
Mountain skies and frigid nights remind me of growing up in Montana. My father was an air traffic controller and he used the markings on the land to orient him to the skies. When my parents and I would drive from Bozeman to Belgrade, the beacon at the airport would sweep the skies like a blazing flame. I’d watch the beacon’s luminous arc wax and wane as it spun, in careful revolutions against the outline of the Bridger Mountains. On a rare arctic night, my dad would get permission and we’d drive down the runway late at night to look for jackrabbits. With our headlights on dim, we would creep down the runway and wait for the long ears and large hind legs to appear, only to dart away into the nightfall.
Advent blue, like the midwinter sky, brings promises of something new. Given our current, fractious political situation, hope seems dark, cold, and lost for so many people whose lives are shattered. Advent: where earth meets sky, and spirit becomes flesh.
Christmas and Slaughter of the Holy Innocents
On August 21, 2017, the contiguous United States was in the path of a total eclipse. This experience of celestial darkness and light brought our fractious country into a moment of unity as we all watched together. My husband and I were returning from two weeks in British Columbia and Montana to enjoy our last three days of vacation in the Black Hills. We considered driving to a site where the coverage of the eclipse was 100% but we didn’t want to deal with crowds. So, we decided to go to the most southern and western point in South Dakota where the eclipse would be at about 98% coverage. We headed to Oelrichs, South Dakota, a town so small that you have to really look to see if it exists as you drive by it on the highway. Originally, the town was the site of a meat packing business in the late 1800s, run by Henry Oelrichs, a local cattleman. But another site in Hot Springs became more prominent and Oelrichs faded to its current size of approximately 125. According to Wikipedia, its population is approximately 80% white and 20% Native American.
When we reach the intersections of Highways 18, 79, and 385, we knew we had arrived. As we turned onto the road leading into town, we drove past old storefronts and houses that were once painted white, were now worn down to a brittle gray. Spiny, crooked bur oaks cast their shadows in the mid afternoon sun. We kept our eyes open for the Office Bar and Grill where we had decided to settle in to watch the eclipse.
We joined the lineup of about 10 people gathered on the lone picnic table and benches in front of the Office. Not too far from Oelrichs, is the historical site of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I sat down next to a Lakota woman who was speaking about the origins of her people, that they came from the stars of the Milky Way, and how spiritual this event of the eclipse was to her. The woman’s husband, a big-boned, older white man sitting in a red lawn chair, kept laughing about those Indian “tales” and told her that he’d rather be watching the eclipse on the television at home.
Other people, at least as old as us and some a good twenty years older, stood outside, sharing eclipse glasses and smoking cigarettes. We all talked about the way the air turned cooler, how the skies turned an eerie yellow-gray, and how suddenly it was over. We got in our car and headed north.
Traditionally, the Lakota, along with other Native Americans, studied the stars and celestial events to learn about the rhythms and patterns of their life and to find their place in the world. They did so with “naked eye” observations, without fancy astronomical tools. They knew the difference between Star Day and Sun Day, and saw the Milky Way as a path to their return to the skies when they died. The star world provided the big picture of their smaller world on earth.
I remember the line of the Lord’s Prayer where I learned to say: “On earth as in heaven.” The Lakota received spiritual and soulful wisdom from the stars, not unlike wise men who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. During this month of December, when I returned to read the story of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi and the massacre of the Holy Innocents, I hear and see parts of the story now in a completely different light now that I have been to Oelrichs for the eclipse. The Lakota elders would have understood those three wise men who came to find the star at Bethlehem as beacons of celestial grace and wisdom: “On earth as it is in heaven.”
My experience of the eclipse, a powerful celestial event, helps me to see in new and startling ways the power of the Christian Christmas stories. So many people cherish the myth we have made from the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke: angels sing, shepherds visit, Jesus is placed in a manger, and for those of us in northern climates we add some gently falling snow. But the story of Christmas in Matthew’s gospel is different: it’s harsher, more chilling, like those blue and white lights on Christmas trees. Angels come with strange messages to Joseph in the deep dark of his dreams. Wise men follow a single star, bringing extravagant and strange gifts for the baby Jesus. The menacing monarch, King Herod, upon hearing about the birth of Jesus, orders the slaughter of all the two year old and younger males in the region. Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape his edict by fleeing as refugees into Egypt. The Magi, who like Joseph warned in a dream, return to their home by another way. Nocturnal warnings, strangers with odd gifts, massacres of tiny children and hasty flights into another country–this is the story of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.
On December 28 in the Western Church and on December 29 in the East, the Church remembers the massacre of the holy innocents and the wailing of their mothers. Coincidentally, at this same time of remembrance, a massacre happened at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The US Government had sent troops to squelch the last Indian uprisings on the plains. A small band of Lakota were camped in the frigid snows and winds near Wounded Knee Creek. When the troops came to disarm them, a deaf Indian accidentally shot off his gun and the troops fired back killing at least 151 people, mostly women and children. Others put the count closer to 300 dead. It happened on December 29, 1890.
Soldiers pursued women and children at least two miles in the cold snow before shooting them at point blank range. The US military awarded medals to soldiers for their “bravery.” Four infants survived the massacre. One had been covered by the corpse of her frozen mother. She was eventually adopted as a “souvenir” by one of the officers and named Lost Bird. The infant’s legacy is marked by a small highway marker in Sioux Falls, SD.
The soldiers hired civilians to bury the hundreds of bodies in one mass grave. Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark. The desolation of the massacre is mirrored in the landscape of the site: a small sign, a cemetery on the hillside, a few barren buildings. On December 29, I’ll light a candle in memory of the slaughter of all innocents. May its small, brief flame cast some hope into the darkness of the wintry Dakota skies.
Epiphany: January 6
Amos 5: 8 “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name.”
By January 6, I will likely not notice the few extra minutes of daylight that will appear at sunrise and sunset. I will still be lighting candles and sitting by the fireside to ward off the chill of the midwinter. January can be an interminable month in Dakota, day after day of below zero temperatures and wind blown snow.
I stood outside a couple of frigid nights and would look for the bright three stars of Orion’s belt ablaze against the blackness of the Dakota skies. These three stars also known as the Three Kings or Three Sisters line up in a row as the belt of the hunter, Orion. They are brightest during the early part of January, around the time of Epiphany when the Three Magi visited the baby Jesus.
I forget that these Magi or Wise Men were outsiders, foreigners, and Gentiles. Yet, they are the first in the Gospel of Matthew to “pay homage” to Jesus, the Jewish infant. The star of Bethlehem draws together those who are most likely to be enemies into a moment of grace, peace, and light. If I have a prayer for Epiphany, it would be this: that the Creator of both light and dark will turn our enemies into friends, will shatter our fear with love, and turn our darkness into light.