Joni Mitchell, River and Advent
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Advent 1 - Luke 21: 25 - 36
I have a confession…..There is in fact another Trinity in my life...it's the trinity of three singer songwriters …….Annie Lennox, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell…..their amazing writing and singing has inspired and shaped my life in so many ways since I was a child.
I’m sure you will have your own singers and composers who have shaped, supported and strengthened you in your life.
You may have listened to the really wonderful series on BBC Radio 4 called Soul Music…..if you haven't yet there is a real treat awaiting you on BBC Sounds.
Over many episodes now they have taken pieces of music, hymns, songs, compositions and people have been interviewed about how this music has played a part in their lives. The stories are both deeply moving and uplifting. I have cried more than once listening to these incredible accounts.
One of the songs selected is Joni Mitchell’s song ‘River’ ...where she sings about the approach of Christmas just wanting to get home...she is feeling lost, amongst strangers and she has finished a relationship with a partner…...for love and ...she sings…
It's coming on Christmas, They're cutting down trees, They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
It's a Christmas song but not like any other. It's a song of lamentation, loneliness and pain.
It’s a song that reminds me vividly to this day of the love and painful break up I had in my early twenties with the woman I wanted to marry…..decades back now.
I’m not alone ….in the Soul Music episode we hear of other heartbreaking stories during Advent and deeply connected to this song... …..starting with Joni Mitchell's own experience.
She was 10 and collapsed with polio on her way to school ….and she was sent to a polio colony. Her father never visited her…and her mother visited only once, almost unrecognisable in her mask….to deliver a small Christmas tree. Joni prayed to that tree to survive (the little boy with the same prognosis in her room had died) and prayed she would walk again. Which she eventually did.
The programme then moves to the experience of Chris Forbes the comedian, who recounts losing his beloved father on Christmas Day…...this changed what Christmas meant and means for him…merry Christmas is not a simple phrase anymore …the relentless build up of Christmas…months ahead of the event …two months of reminders each year are difficult……and the song ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ is not something he feels very much any more, as I’m sure you can imagine. Joni Mitchell’s song River during this period created a sanctuary for him in the relentless, apparent joy of the Christmas and Advent period. He says Joni gave him a river he could skate away on.
Rob Crossan a Journalist ….then talks about the song River and being 18 years old…....he talks about his experience of falling in love and eventually losing this young love over Christmas 1986 ….and he talks of a tsunami of pain he experienced that eventually built a mental Thames barrier within him…a barrier made of experience that enabled him to manage pain like this throughout his life……to stop it engulfing him again. Joni’s song for him captures the emotions of intense love and the sadness of losing his childhood.
We then hear from Laura Hunter a jewelry designer in Bristol…..she talks of a number of deeply tragic child birth experiences….. she talks of the grief of miscarriage….the sadness…the loss of a hope and dream….that there is nothing to hold onto despite having lost something so deep. She goes on to talk of becoming pregnant again leading up to Christmas and listening to Joni's River song and hoping that her son would survive. ….the singing matched her feelings of Christmas coming and wanting to escape the happiness all around her…..it helped her though that Christmas……her son was born and they called him River.
We then hear of Isobel …she moves to Australia with her boyfriend and it's not long before discovers a lump and she has cancer……and has a very difficult treatment over the months to follow. Between chemo and radiotherapy she went home to the UK to be with people who knew her and loved her. That December she was in London and she heard this song in her headphones and recalls the relief of being home….of being where she was meant to be…and she sobbed right then and there in the street. She eventually married her boyfriend who had been there throughout all of this.
We then finally hear from Lorna Crozier, the poet who was born and raised in the same part of Canada as Joni. She recounts her mother who talked as she was dying that as she passes over she will see her husband, who had died 16 years earlier,…and that they will go skating together….Moran now imagines her mother and father in the afterlife gliding on silver blades above the clouds…arm in arm…maybe bumping into the stars…and so on winter nights she looks up and hopes she will see them again.
Many of us will resonate with these stories and these feelings about Advent and the Christmas period. Where the world has changed….has sometimes ended…. We have, whether we like it or not, found ourselves at a boundary that we have to step through, a gateway into a new reality…often through pain.
Like me though, you sometimes just want to believe in the Hollywood movies we like to watch during this season…that Advent was just about excitedly opening an advent calendar door each day and getting an exciting treat of chocolate. We all know though that this simply isn’t the case.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects ‘The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come’.
I wonder if this is why we get this reading from Luke on Advent 1 …..Advent, this time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas……but also the reminder of Jesus’ planned return….where he will put all things right.
But this promise of the return of Jesus comes after signs of difficult times….Through our own experiences of this time we know this to be both true and somehow part of the Good News.
“There will be signs,” Jesus said.
Perhaps more than ever we need to see and recognise these signs …these signs of the groaning of all creation ….the desire for Jesus to return, to heal and to transform us all.
Jesus is saying to us…Advent is about signs….we can see and feel them in our lives….and we can see them all around us…on the news…...island and indigenous nations becoming the dispossessed.….wars…refugees….. forests burning…..storms …..
What I think is key is that we both recognise these signs and seek to better understand them …..and not to misread them.
Perhaps Jesus saying ‘there will be signs’ are not words of warning and threat….but instead they are actually words of hope and light…in this way if we think they are evil portents of the end of the world I think we risk missing the point.
If we read this passage carefully, notice how it moves from fear to confidence, from desolation to welcome. Jesus does not ask us to predict the future and neither does he say the end of the world will come…..he says that when we see the signs we are to stand up, raise our heads, and know that help is on its way to us …..that the healing love of our saviour is about to be fully realised.
Looking at it in this way……the signs can be seen as not a reason to hang our heads in despair and hopelessness. The signs are a sign of hope - that the God of love has not abandoned us…..that God is there in our times of trouble. The Good News is not in spite of the world's troubles - but comes about - in and through the realities of life.
In this way the groaning changes, pains and tribulations of our lives are in fact sprouting leaves as described in Jesus’ parable ….these sprouting leaves are signs of the promise of life and of a harvest to come - of new life in our Advent story…and the Advent story of the world and indeed the wider universe.
It's coming on Christmas, They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer , And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on...
Advent, that time of waiting and of expectation can be a time of pain and of difficulty ….when we might just want to skate away from….....but Jesus tells us these are in fact signs of life …signs of a new season….signs that point to the loving return of Jesus.