In just a few days the northern hemisphere will reach the winter solstice. This weekend we will come to the tipping point, and the darkness that has been gathering, that has seemed inevitable, will lose its grip. Our planet will tip back toward the sun and light will return.
Human beings have ritualized their observation of this turning for millennia. One thousand years before Stonehenge was constructed, with its solstice alignments, people in the Boyne River Valley north of Dublin, Ireland built their own solstice-oriented structure. In the center chamber of this large, stone-covered mound, as the sun rises on the day of the winter solstice, a beam of light shines in for just a few brief moments before the chamber is again dark. The chamber can only hold about a dozen people, and every year there is a lottery to choose just a few from among the thousands who apply to be there to witness this moment of lighting.
All of that is to say that we are beings who notice and long for light. It is no accident that we Christians have placed our nativity celebration at this time of year. It took three hundred years, actually, for the church to assign the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25th. That date made sense not only because of the way it coincided with other celebrations of light in the Roman Empire (and throughout the Northern Hemisphere), but also because of the central proclamation of the meaning of Incarnation. At its very beginning, and in the midst of darkness, the early church affirmed its certainty: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.“
On the farm, I look forward to the solstice too, although I do not mark it in any dramatic way. In the months since the autumnal equinox, when the whole planet experiences a brief and exact balance between the day and night, I have noted the increasing darkness based on the light available for morning and evening chores. These days, I need a flashlight with me to find my way into the barn where I load hay for the sheep into a cart I will wheel out to their pasture. My sheep are content to wait later and later to leave the barn, and as darkness falls earlier and earlier, they are ready to come in from the pasture long before I get home from Seattle. I find them waiting at the gate in the dark, ready to run to the barn.
I will note the light’s return, not precisely, as astronomers do, but gradually, probably sometime in January, when it dawns on me and the sheep that the days are getting imperceptibly longer. Nevertheless, I understand the instincts of my ancestors. Their hope for light longed for reassurance. They wanted to know and mark the exact moment when the change has come.
it feels as if we are in a particularly dark and divided time in this country, and in the world, right now. It feels sometimes as if the darkness will continue to lengthen, and the light will continue to be diminished. But as I celebrate Christmas this year, I am finding myself remembering the assurance of my faith. The darkness will not overcome the light.
Unlike my ancient astronomical ancestors, though, I cannot predict, measure, and celebrate the light’s exact moment of return. We most likely will only know in retrospect, if at all, the precise moment of change. And I cannot simply wait for it. Even as I put my faith in the assurance that it will come, I am also called to bring light to the darkness. Because the light does continue to shine, even in the darkness. In the prophetic voice of a child like Greta Thunberg. In the collective work of those who continue to recognize the kinship within all creation. In the insistence that “together, for the common good” is the only path forward. In the awareness that the light sometimes returns in a flash of solstice sunrise, but also returns in the steady, small but inevitable increments of action to which every one of us is called.