The sun rose at 7:38 this morning, and will set at 4:37 this afternoon. That means we will have 8 hours and 59 minutes of daylight today, the shortest amount of daylight during the course of the year. Of course, in Rochester, New York, as in many locations in the frozen north and along the Great Lakes, many of our winter days will be cloudy and dark enough that it will feel like the shortest day many, many times!
I have been reflecting today on the correlation between the Winter Solstice and the
Advent Season, which is about to culminate in Christmas Eve and Day. Over the past few weeks, as we have been lighting the candles on the Advent Wreath, I have been remembering the words of Gracia Grindal, as shared by David Lose on his blog, “… in the Meantime.” She writes, “‘We light the Advent candles against the winter light,’… Not ‘because of,’ or ‘during,’ but ‘against,’ reminding us that the light of Advent, like the light of Christ, is a veritable protest to and resistance of the darkness that gathers all around us” (Lose).
It is no accident that the Solstice and Christmas are so close together on the calendar. Yes, it is because Empires, emboldened by a perverted sense of evangelism conquered “pagan” lands, coopted their traditions, and forced conversion at the point of a sword. That cannot, and should not, be ignored.
At the same time, the theological significance is hard to ignore: we celebrate “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) in the midst of the darkest time of year (In the Northern Hemisphere: There are too many issues we in the Church must confront relating to North/South dynamics to even begin to think about in this discussion. I would invite thoughts on this subject in comments or private messages for a future post!) There is tension in this dynamic: the darkness of winter threatens to cover the world, yet the light of Christ, sent by God, pierces through in the midst of it.
That’s the thing about light: no matter how small it may seem, it illuminates so much more than just itself.
Growing up, we would go camping every summer. Invariably, my younger brother and I would end up sharing my parent’s old tent from when they were first married, an old, green two-person that put us closer together than we ever desired, and which leaked like a sieve at the slightest rain (we really did have some good times in that tent!).
I will always remember how dark the world would seem when we would crawl into our sleeping bags at night, especially on moonless nights. It would be so dark that I could hold my hand directly in front of my face and not see it, something I would do countless times just to test how dark it actually was. It was on those nights when I could not see my hand in front of my face, that I would feel most vulnerable and, unless my brother and I had had a particularly contentious afternoon, would move a little closer to him for reassurance.
On those nights when the darkness seemed especially threatening, I would turn on my flashlight, and immediately the world would become known again: socks in the corner, water bottle next to me, brother to my side. A small light can do so much to comfort.
And it doesn’t matter how big the light is; you don’t need a power Maglight to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, [or] death’s dark shadows put to flight” (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”). The smallest of candles in the darkest of rooms will illuminate all corners.
That is the message of Christmas, and why it is so important to hold the story of Jesus’ birth in concert with the Solstice.
We live in a time of seemingly great darkness. The headlines over the past couple of weeks have included the humanitarian disaster (and probable war crimes) in Aleppo, an attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin, and a President-Elect who is appointing ultra-wealthy people (mostly white men) who will undo decades of social progress to his cabinet, in the midst of a hacking scandal that throws into question the entire democratic process.
In this country, people of color, immigrants, members of the LGTBQ community, and so many others are under threat (Even if you, dear reader, do not believe they are actually under threat, the fears and feelings of those communities and their allies must be acknowledged).
Around the globe, people are fleeing conflicts, coping with a changing climate, and struggling to survive on meager wages, often with a lack of access to food and clean water.
The Winter Solstice is a daily occurrence for many, many people.
But the true light, the entrance of the incarnate God into the world, cannot be snuffed out; it will not, despite our most fervent efforts.
We must remain vigilant, we must resist the darkness wherever we encounter it, and we must continue to light candles against the night. That is our call this Christmas season.
May these words of Howard Thurman inspire you to be the light as we walk through the darkness together:
“I will light candles this Christmas
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of graces to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.” (from Meditations of the Heart, pp.152-3)
Grace and peace to all of you. Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays! ~k