Today is the shortest day of the year for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the winter solstice, which literally means when the sun stands still. Here in Goshen, our daylight will last 9 hours and 9 minutes. This is all that we get each day until December 26, when our daylight increases to 9 hours and ten minutes. At 4:48 p.m. today, the world turns, and the pendulum begins to swing back, gradually picking up velocity as the days become longer once again.
Christmas, for us northern-dwellers, is the co-incidence of an astronomical event and the incarnation of God as a baby. Two truths, of very different sorts. When darkness is at its longest, the world turns, but almost imperceptibly. In a world captivated by the powers of domination, God enters, but as a human baby.
What these truths share in common is light, changes that start in very small ways and human longing.
There is a place in Ireland called Newgrange where the sun today stays low on the horizon and daylight shrinks to only seven hours. Five thousand years ago, Stone Age farmers moved more than 200,000 tons of material to build an enormous tomb there, covering an area of about 1 acre. The tomb has a door to a 60-foot passage leading to its center. But most extraordinary is that above the door is a rectangular opening oriented so that during the days of the winter solstice, the rays of the sun shine through the box and penetrate to the center. You can learn more about Newgrange in this video.
What did these farmers more than 3,000 years before Christ long for so deeply that they were motivated to design and build this structure, which surely took generations? How did they understand light? What did they celebrate at this time of year? Was it anything like this?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I have always loved this opening in the Gospel of John (1:1-5) – a strikingly mystical contrast to the earthy narratives of Matthew and Luke. But mystical does not mean unreliable. Indeed, on this day when the sun is low and dim, this we can count on: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
All of this makes me think of this rendition of Mary’s song:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.
What do you long for in this moment of turning?