For us Northern Hemisphere folks who follow the Greco-Latinate calendar, this is a time of endings and new beginnings, of passage into darkness and out into light, from the dying of the year and its rebirth. In church circles we’re trying to wrest Advent out of shopping, Christmas out of the solar cycles. We’re hearing readings about apocalyptic hope and fear, the anticipation of a victorious Messiah, the trembling of anticipation of a world beyond the brutalities and tragedies of the ever-flowing news cycle. Yes, it’s a time of mothers and beloved babies, of tender mercies, and gracious new birth.
This Advent season finds me buried in preparations for our return visit to Cyprus, trying to draw together the pictures, documents, and whispers of the past that tie me to this island through my grandfather’s work there in the Skouriotissa mine in the 1920s. I say buried, for it was a work of shafts and tunnels, dark passageways, of ferocious heat, noxious gases, and, yes, fatal injury. Through internet and conversation I am linked to a growing circle of people whose lives have been touched by this mine, the oldest copper mine in the world, they say, still yielding copper, gold, and other minerals that support the technology we depend on for our way of life.
I am also aware through this work that the mine lies on the “buffer zone” that has separated the island’s Greek-speaking south from its Turkish speaking north for 40 years. Forty years of division and alienation reverberate in our Biblical memory. It is a time of wilderness and displacement, of two generations having the chance to leave bitter memory behind and embrace a new future. And I think of Germany, divided forty years before the Wall came down. I think of the sign in Nicosia at the crossing between South and North: “Nicosia: The last divided capital in Europe.” But forty years is not magic. Korea has been divided for over sixty years. It matters what we do with forty years. Something may still happen to change things. We need to wait and be watchful for opportunities—maybe the work of the least expected person in the land, maybe the work of God, of the earth itself.
The geologists say that Cyprus actually arose from two pieces of earth’s mantle, crushed together by Africa’s plate and Asia. If I am not mistaken, the fault line lies roughly where the buffer zone is now. It lies on the axis of earth’s pain. But earth has also healed itself at this suture of its past division. It is the unity of the island that finally presses us to struggle for its reunion and its healing.
The mine’s position on the buffer zone, only a mile or so wide, has meant that the reclamation of the land polluted by the earlier workings of the mine in my grandfather’s time cannot move forward. It is not merely a matter of economics but of political division. And the political division is caught in the vice of much larger tectonic forces of global politics. The healing of the earth, the healing of a people, and the healing of a polity are all bound up with one another.
And for me, it is also a healing of memory, of mining my own emergence as a human being. Because we generally bear the family name of our fathers, we often don’t realize that we are genetically and psychologically as much products of our mother’s family as our father’s. And so I didn’t internalize this memory of my other’s heritage, cut off not only by patriarchy but by my maternal grandfather’s death when I was four.
This patriarchal bias of memory leads me to yet another association around my Cyprus research, for our Latin word for father — pater — lies at the root of “patriot,” one who is devoted to his or her “fatherland.” This is a devotion tied to the work of the fathers in defending a land by force and self-sacrifice. It has its vicious side in military violence, but also its generous and caring side in devotion to the commonweal of a land and its people. But it is always limited by the bounds of our fathers’ world. In contrast, what if we spoke also of “matriots,” people who defend and nurture planet earth itself, its only boundary being its outer gravitational field? What if our memory was shaped by our ancestry as earthlings, our scope of feeling by the blue around us all, our hope by the life of earth itself?
And so the task of reconciliation, of healing, of finding a home on earth, would turn from the narrow defense of our patria to the expansive defense of earth, our mother. Maybe this is an Advent when we can take on the work of being matriots, drawing from the call of the earth to heal the divisions of our nations and ourselves. Maybe it is time to take the Madonna out of the stable and into the wider world whose rebirth we eagerly anticipate in these wintering days.