O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.
(Repost from 2014)
Today’s date is special: December 21st – the Winter Solstice – the day when the sun is at its lowest in the sky… the shortest day of the year… mid-winter’s day.
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.
Duke University Chapel
It’s a powerful and beautiful prayer. Of course, we worship not the physical light, but Jesus as Light of the World. And in the bleakness of mid-winter, we address him as ‘Rising Sun’ and call out to him to save us. It’s a primal, visceral thing. Just as we light candles in our homes, and put up all kinds of fancy (and sometimes crazy!) lights outside, we don’t want to let the darkness beat us. Instinctively, we almost want, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote, to rage against the dying of the light. And of course, on Christmas morning, we will hear those powerful words from Saint John’s Gospel:
What came through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;
The darkness has not overcome it… Appropriate words for us to meditate on when we consider the many injustices and areas of conflict in our world today. Powerful words to give us hope when we think of all those who live in poverty, or hunger, or trafficked slavery…
The Winter Solstice is a turning point in our planet’s year. If we let it, it can be a turning point for each one of us too. How will you testify to the light this Christmas?