|Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ,|
The ancients often feared nature, and worried that if the days kept getting shorter, and the nights kept getting longer, they’d end up in total darkness and everything and everyone would die. In our age of electric light and central heating, such fears may sound strange, but they were real. And for such cultures, the Winter Solstice was a real turning point. After it, the nights got shorter and the days began getting longer again. The sun, which had been sinking lower and lower for several months, began rising again… The solstice was a sign that God had not abandoned humanity. Spring would soon come and life would continue for another year. As Robert Browning’s Pippa said: God’s in His heaven — All’s right with the world!
We are blessed in Ireland to have the 5,000 year old Newgrange, in County Meath – a Neolithic passage tomb – a huge mound, built over a sixty-foot passageway, leading into three central burial chambers. On December 21st, and only on December 21st, at dawn, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage into the chamber and illuminates the chamber floor… It’s a magnificent, magical moment. Tens of thousands of people apply for the meagre ten or twelve tickets available for space inside the passage tomb on this day each year. What a feat of engineering to have built such a structure so precisely 5,000 years ago!
Why did its builders design Newgrange to do this on the Winter Solstice? Well, they wanted, in a sense, to trap the sun in the depths of the burial chamber on the shortest day of the year, for fear that it would go away altogether. They didn’t want the light to leave them and abandon them to darkness and death.