In less than a week now, the northern hemisphere will arrive at the winter solstice. This is the point at which the planet tips us back toward the sun and the darkness which has been lengthening for months begins to retreat. In the middle of the fourth century, this also became the season when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Christmas is coming.
But even before there was a “Christmas,” human beings knew the rhythm of the planet. Folks noted the solstice and marked it with celebration. Even before we Christians proclaimed in our stories all the ways that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it, other traditions also affirmed that human vision. Before the Roman emperor Constantine celebrated a December 25th Christmas in 336, the Romans celebrated the solstice as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the “birthday of the unconquered sun.”
On the farm, we are waiting for the light. Nighttime temperatures are below freezing, and I get up in the dark to begin my chores. The ice in the water troughs has to be broken up every morning these days for the sheep to get their morning drink. The metal water font set out for the chickens was frozen shut this morning. I had to take it inside and run hot water on it to get it open so my hens could drink. It will freeze again tonight and I will repeat the ritual tomorrow.
In Seattle, my congregation looks forward to this solstice time in our particular “Christmas” way, with the proclamation of Good News to All, and Peace on Earth, with shepherds watching flocks and magi traveling from the East to honor a newborn king. We are preparing for three worship services on Christmas eve, including a pageant where everyone who wants to gets to play a role, just by showing up.
I know that the return of the sun and the lengthening of days will not change things immediately. January and February will still be cold. and in fact most likely even colder than December. In our human world, darkness seems to be everywhere. As I write today, there is horrific suffering in Aleppo, and throughout Syria, in places not far from where Jesus was born. Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Gaza all know pain. In our own country, we are witnessing a significant rise in hate crimes since the November election, and the prospect that much of what we have understood to be the “common good” will be ignored or even worked against by the incoming administration. As our work to limit human impact on climate change, on the warming of our planet, is threatened, even our sense of the “return of the sun” seems different.
But our solstice observations and our Christmas celebrations still serve to remind me that the return of light is inevitable. We humans are just one part of the rhythm of our world. We are called to be children of the Light. We will still rise, even in the dark, to do our winter chores. Water, as the Protectors at Standing Rock remind us, still needs to be attended to. Just like in our December 24th pageant, everyone who wants to gets to play a role, sometimes just by showing up. This year, with December 25th falling on a Sunday, the day actually named for the precious star that gives our planet life, may our work ahead be energized by our stories of unconquered light.