The Hope of Solstice
or, what to do if you are sitting in darkness this Christmas
We are entering the darkest days of the year, the Earth taking its shortest trips around the sun. These darkest days- they are grey and wet and steely. Most of all, they are short. I remind myself that there is still a sun, bright and transcendent, up above the cloud layer. But darkness has claimed most of the day. All my hard fought rhythms are wobbling like wheels on a rickety wagon. My body is confused about what to do at 4 pm when darkness prevails. Surely it must be time to sleep, but no, there is still dinner to be made, laundry to fold, a few last emails to check. There are hours yet to go. Hours until quiet descends upon the house.
But we are moving toward my favorite day of the year. It’s not Christmas that speaks to the deepest hunger of my soul – it’s this dark day – this fulcrum the year balances on. Because it speaks of resurrection and new life. It mirrors the need I feel and the longing my soul experiences, the weary world indeed. It is the day God tells his story through the cosmos, the day the heavens incarnate the deepest truths I need to learn – that fresh radiance comes after descending into deepest darkness.
The story of light emerging from the darkest day is embodied in this Solstice feast. We enter into darkness, the wild world dead and grey. Here in the northwest, we huddle inside, under blankets, fighting colds. The kids are home from school and our days are topsy-turvy and lazy. The days feel like they’re over almost as soon as they’ve begun. For three days after the solstice the sun stands still. The word itself means sun stopped. The lengthening days cannot yet be measured. Our Celtic ancestors saw this marked on their ancient stones. We are in the grave. Dark. Cold. And then…. God. Three days later, usually on Christmas day, a new hope and resurrection – a way is made through God himself coming to rescue, to enter into the darkness and break it, bringing his promise of light and life, to enflesh and enter our story.
For 300 years after Christ walked the earth, Christians didn’t celebrate the feast of Christmas. The holiday that marked the season was the feast of Solstice, the return of light. When the church did begin to practice the celebration of Christmas, December 25th was dedicated as the day to remember, which fell on the winter solstice on the Julian calendar. Eventually, as the western world transitioned to the Gregorian calendar, which is 3 days longer, the church had to adjust all of it’s Feast Days and the liturgical calendar. So, what to do about Christmas? In looking to nature and the cosmos, the church kept the feast of Christmas three days after the darkest day on the calendar to remind us of a greater spiritual truth – that only when we experience the darkness both spiritually and in the natural world, can we experience the greatest grace breaking through. The deepest dark comes before the return of light. The heavenly story of incarnation plays out in the celestial bodies, as the eternal, cosmic picture of the incarnation of Christ.
Solstice marks the turning point- the beginning of the upward trajectory toward warmth and light. Having grown up in California I really didn’t understand seasons and the change they brought. In elementary school we would make Autumn crafts, and they just never quite made sense to me. Colorful leaves everywhere? Cold weather? Hot cocoa and cider? Hay rides? And then winter sledding? This was the stuff of Christmas carols but had no place in my actual life. I remember when the weather dipped into the low 50s wearing long underwear to school, a far cry from my boys who dare to wear shorts in the PNW, even on the rare days it snows. But now, 24 years in my adopted home, I feel the rhythms of darkness and light in my body as the seasons pass. I groan and ache for light on these dark days, spiritually and physically.
I’m leaning into the calendar as liturgy, guiding us through the story of God, the story of our lives, bringing us around the circle again and again because we need to be reminded of our need. Of the way that God came to us, leading us through these miracles into ordinary time. The incarnation is not for those who think they are perfect, but those of us who recognize our need and brokenness, the need and brokenness of the world around us. We forget, and the calendar reminds of promises made and fulfilled, of ordinary days made sacred. Most of our lives are lived in Ordinary Time- the portion of the church calendar between Lent and Advent and then again between Epiphany and Easter. It is in these days that we are not preparing our hearts for Christmas, or looking forward to Easter. We are just living. Just grocery shopping and washing clothes and commuting and making beds and tucking kids in. We are nursing babies and running businesses, changing diapers and shuttling kids to baseball, trying to get dinner on the table. No Christmas decorations or special food. No Easter dresses or egg hunts. As the days march on, what are we waiting for? If we can’t find God’s presence in the midst of the ordinary, if we forget that he entered into and lived such ordinary, human days himself, life loses it’s meaning beyond the mundane.
And so Solstice points me toward this story again and again. God inserting himself into creation first through the cosmos, and then through a baby, telling us through a visceral and experiential story of what He is like: patient, gracious, humble, self-giving, friend of outcasts, social revolutionary, willing to ruin his own reputation for the sake of loving the “unlovable” in his culture. I remember how I must face the dark and lonely places in my own heart before beginning the climb upward to spiritual wholeness and healing. The way of human transformation is writ large in the night sky, in the seasonal rhythms. What better day could we have to celebrate the painful relief- here and not yet- of incarnation, illumination, the promise alone of a warm spring day almost enough to keep us warm in the heart of December? And if you find yourself in darkness this season, wondering where the warmth of Christmas is, perhaps you are in exactly the right spot to receive and experience the Light of Emmanuel, God with Us.